In 1927 a group of local businessmen raised £6,000 through public subscription to start the Bristol and Wessex Aeroplane Club, a flying club initially based at Filton Aerodrome. In 1929, Bristol Corporation took up the club's proposal to develop farmland located at Whitchurch, to the south of Bristol, into a municipal airport. On its opening by Prince George, Duke of Kent in 1930, Bristol (Whitchurch) Airport was the third civil airport in the United Kingdom. Passenger numbers grew to 4,000 by 1939.
During World War II, Whitchurch was the main civil airport remaining operational. The newly formed British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) was transferred to Whitchurch from Croydon Airport and Heston Airport. BOAC operated routes around the British Empire and to neutral nations, including the Bristol–Lisbon route which was operated by the Dutch airline KLM, under charter to BOAC.
RAF Lulsgate Bottom
In September 1940, No 10 Elementary Flying Training School at RAF Weston-super-Mare established a Relief Landing Ground on 14 acres (5.7 ha) at Broadfield Down by the hamlet of
Lulsgate Bottom, near Redhill. Being high, at 600 ft (180 m), the site had a poor weather record during warm front conditions, when it was often covered in low cloud. However, when this occurred the alternative airfields at Filton and Cardiff were usually clear and operational; and as Lulsgate was clear when the low-lying airfields were obscured by radiation fog in calm weather, the landing ground provided a useful alternative. Few facilities were constructed although pillboxes, defensive anti-aircraft guns and later two Blister hangars were added. In late 1940, a Starfish site was set up south of the village of Downside and just west of the airfield. Its decoy fires attracted a large quantity of Luftwaffe high explosives and incendiaries on the nights of 16 March, 3 April and 4 April 1941 during the Bristol Blitz.
In 1941, RAF Fighter Command planned to use the airfield for an experimental unit, and after requisitioning land from several adjacent farms, contracted George Wimpey and Company to begin work on 11 June 1941. However, its intended use soon changed into being a satellite airfield for the fighter squadrons based at RAF Colerne. Originally, the new airfield's name was to be RAF Broadfield Down. The runways used the standard triangular pattern. The main, east-west runway was 3,891 ft (1,186 m) long, with a designated alignment of 28/10, and the others were 3,300 ft (1,000 m) aligned 21/03 and 3,294 ft (1,004 m) aligned 34/16. The first aircraft to land was a Luftwaffe Ju 88 at 06.20 on 24 July 1941. Returning from a raid, it was confused by the RAF electronic countermeasures radio beacon at Lympsham, which was re-radiating the signal from a Luftwaffe homing beacon at Brest, France.
By 1942, there was no longer a need for an additional fighter airfield. With its name changed to RAF Lulsgate Bottom, the airfield was declared operational on 15 January 1942. The Miles Masters, Airspeed Oxfords and Hawker Hurricanes of No. 286 (AA Cooperation) Squadron became resident, with the duty of providing realistic exercises for ground anti-aircraft defences. However, as the site lacked some basic facilities, No. 286 moved to RAF Zeals in May. From 1 June 1942, the airfield was under No. 23 Group of Flying Training Command, and initially became a satellite airfield for No. 3 (Pilot) Advanced Flying Unit (3 (P)AFU), based at RAF South Cerney, flying Oxfords. In March 1943, No. 1540 Beam Approach Training Flight (1540 BATF) was formed at Lulsgate, again flying Oxfords. On 27 September 1943, 3 (P)AFU left Lulsgate for RAF Southrop, and was replaced on 1 October 1943 by No. 3 Flying Instructors School (3 FIS), which was previously headquartered at RAF Hullavington. 3 FIS flew mostly Oxfords and some Masters.
In 1944, BOAC started to use the airfield for Dakota and Liberator crew training, and BOAC flights made use of it occasionally as an alternate airfield for Whitchurch, and for topping-up fuel on the Bristol–Lisbon route.
On 6 February 1945, 1540 BATF left for RAF Weston Zoyland. On 18 July 1945, 3 FIS was absorbed into 7 FIS. With the war over, the RAF ceased training at Lulsgate on 15 April 1946, and the next month 7 FIS left the airfield and joined the Central Flying School at RAF Little Rissington. The RAF finally abandoned Lulsgate on 25 October 1946.
Lulsgate Bottom Airfield
From 1948, the site was the home of the Bristol Gliding Club. In 1949 and 1950, the Bristol Motor Cycle and Light Car Club hosted motor races on a 2 mi (3.2 km) circuit known as Lulsgate Aerodrome, but due to planning and noise issues moved in 1950 to a site that became known as Castle Combe Circuit.
Bristol (Lulsgate) Airport
Whitchurch airport continued to be used after World War II, but the introduction of heavier post-war airliners made a runway extension highly desirable. However, this was difficult at Whitchurch, because of the nearby housing estates. In June 1955, the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation agreed to sell the Lulsgate airfield to Bristol Corporation, for the development of a new airport there. Bristol Gliding Club moved out to Nympsfield in Gloucestershire.
In addition to the purchase price of £55,000, the city spent a further £200,000 by 1958 on building the terminal and other development. In mid-April 1957 all air traffic was transferred from Whitchurch to the new airport. With the name of Bristol (Lulsgate) Airport, it was officially opened on 1 May 1957 by Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent. In the airport's first year it was used by 33,000 people. Bristol and Wessex Aeroplane Club also moved to Lulsgate.
In 1962 a new control tower was built, and in 1965 the runway was lengthened and extensions were made to the terminal. In 1968 a new 5,000 sq ft (460 m2) cargo transit shed was constructed. In 1974 the airline Court Line collapsed, causing a fall in passenger numbers.
By 1980, although 17 charter airlines were operating from the airport, it was making a loss. Les Wilson took over as managing director in that year, a position which he held until his death in a car crash in November 1995; much of the airport's subsequent strong recovery over that period has been attributed to him. The airport moved back into profit in financial year 1981/82, and by 1983/84 the profit was £0.5 million. In 1984, an international departure lounge was added, with duty-free shops and a 24-hour air-side bar.
The Airports Act 1986 required every municipal airport with a turnover greater than £1 million to be turned into a public limited company. On 1 April 1987, Bristol City Council transferred the operation and net assets of the airport to Bristol Airport plc. The council retained full ownership of the company. However, under the terms of the Act, as long as the local authority retained a majority shareholding there were restrictions on the ability of the company to raise finance for capital projects.
In 1988 the airport opened a new concourse area. In 1994, a planning application for a new terminal was approved. With other projects also planned, the council decided to sell a majority shareholding in the airport, so that the restrictions imposed by the Airports Act on raising the necessary finance could be removed.
Bristol International Airport
Terminal building check-in area in 2008
Terminal at Bristol Airport
In mid-1997 the airport's name was changed to Bristol International Airport. In November 1997, the successful bidder for the purchase of a 51% stake in the airport company was revealed to be FirstBus. The remaining 49% was retained by the council. Work on the new terminal building had already started; it opened in March 2000, at a cost of £27 million. In 2000, passenger numbers exceeded two million for the first time. A new control tower was built and the A38 road was diverted to cater for the installation of a Category 3 instrument landing system; these projects were completed in 2001.
In January 2001 the airport was purchased for £198m, by a joint venture of Macquarie Bank and Cintra, part of the Ferrovial group. Ferrovial sold its 50% share to Macquarie in 2006. The Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan made two substantial share purchases, in 2002 and 2009.
In May 2001, the low-cost carrier Go Fly made Bristol Airport its second base after Stansted. Passenger numbers passed through three million in 2002, largely due to Go's arrival. EasyJet purchased Go in 2002, took over the base in 2003 and continued its rapid growth in destinations. In May 2005, Continental Airlines introduced a direct flight from Bristol to Newark with Boeing 757 aircraft, though this ceased in November 2010.
A new asphalt runway surface was laid between November 2006 and March 2007, at a cost of £17 million. Within this period, on 29 December and 3 January there were four incidents of reduced braking action in wet conditions on the temporary surface, including two in which aircraft left the runway. From 5 January ten airlines, led by EasyJet, cancelled or diverted their Bristol flights. The airport closed the runway on 7 January to cut grooves into the surface to improve water runoff, and flights resumed the next day.
Ryanair established a base at the airport in 2007. In 2008, passenger numbers reached six million.
In March 2010, the airport was rebranded as Bristol Airport. The airport gained a new logo, said by the airport's owners to represent 'people', 'place' and 'region'; and a new slogan, "Amazing journeys start here".
Bristol Airport does not operate any jetways, so aircraft have to park on the apron and passengers either walk out to their flights or are carried by bus. May 2010 saw the opening of a 450 m (1,480 ft) walkway to the west of the terminal building, connecting it to eight new pre-boarding zones, at a cost of £8 million, to reduce the need for buses.
In 2012, BMI Regional established a base at the airport. In 2013, the airline added routes to German and Italian hub airports, aimed at business travellers.
In September 2014, Toronto-based Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan agreed to buy Macquarie's remaining 50% stake in the airport, thereby gaining 100% ownership.