THE transport minister has questioned the future of struggling Durham Tees Valley Airport after a disastrous slump in passenger numbers.

Robert Goodwill – responding to calls for better transport links – said much more than extra trains was required if the airport was to survive and prosper.

Speaking in the Commons, the Scarborough and Whitby MP told MPs: “My assessment is that public transport links to Durham Tees Valley airport are very poor.”

But he added: “Given that the passenger numbers were 900,000 in 2006 and 161,092 in 2013, action on more than just public transport links will be required to ensure the airport’s future.”

The gloomy assessment comes amid rising local concern about the threat to Durham Tees Valley Airport, following the launch of a masterplan by owners, Peel Holdings.

Based on the belief that few airports can survive on revenues from passenger traffic alone, Peel wants to develop its land assets, including building up to 400 new homes on the site.

The plan refocuses the airport on business customers, although leisure destinations accessible via Amsterdam Schiphol Airport will be promoted.

The terminal building will be remodelled, with a mix of offices and hangars built around it. St George's Hotel will also be extended.

The airport says it plans to boost annual passenger numbers to 200,000 by 2020 and to double that figure to 400,000 by 2050.

But several thousand people have signed a petition, launched by Middlesbrough councillor Chris Hobson, which calls for more flights to be diverted to Teesside.

Local MPs played down Mr Goodwill’s comments, expressing their confidence in Peel’s abilities to turn the airport’s fortunes around.

Phil Wilson, Labour MP for Sedgefield, said: “The minister is right, but the masterplan shows Peel is there for the long term. It has to diversify to grow.”

And James Wharton, Conservative MP for Stockton South, said: “I think the minister has a point. I will continue to encourage Peel to find more routes. It’s not easy, but it can be done.”

Peter Nears, strategic planning director for Durham Tees Valley Airport, said: "We are grateful that local members of Parliament have highlighted the need for improved public transport links. 

"The fact is that it has long been recognised that, whilst the rail line does run close to the airport, the current rail halt is totally unsuitable.

"In his response, the Minister referred to the Government’s aviation policy framework which sets out the need to involve transport operators, local authorities and local enterprise partnerships in delivering better transport links and, of course, we have seen central and local government, supporting improvements at a number of airports across the country.

"As was pointed out to the Minister, the Tees Valley Metro project, which is led by the Tees Valley Unlimited local enterprise partnership, does include proposals for a new station serving the airport.

"The proposals for the station are included in the overall Master Plan for the airport now being finalised and we will be looking at ways in which it can prioritised as the Metro project moves forward.

"The Master Plan recognises that airports play a vital role in developing local economies, especially in terms of providing the business community, who are increasingly competing in international markets, with access to the international transport network.

"That is just as important to areas such as the Tees Valley as it is to the South of England."

Mr Goodwill was speaking in reply to Ian Swales, the Liberal Democrat MP for Redcar, who pointed to the extraordinary low use of the airport station as a “symbol of the long-term neglect”.

Mr Swales said just eight passengers had caught trains in 12 months, because – “cynically avoiding the costs of a real closure” – just one service ran each week.

He added “The airport is a key part of our local economy and I will continue to do all I can to ensure it provides the sort of service my constituents deserve.”

Northern Rail said it was only required to run one service a week, arguing it was up to the department for transport to “specify a higher level of service”.

Mr Goodwill said his department was ready to work with the airport and local political and business leaders to improve transport to all airports.