Airport taking off in a big way

Chief executive John Parkin outside a snowy Leeds Bradford Airport.
Chief executive John Parkin outside a snowy Leeds Bradford Airport.
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2014 was a record year for Leeds Bradford Airport, but what challenges lie ahead? Chris Bond reports.

LOOKING OUT of his office window John Parkin has good reason to be happy.

The snowy panorama might be a headache for anyone running a major airport but it’s going to take more than Arctic winds and a flurry of snowflakes to blow Leeds Bradford Airport’s plans off course. 2014 was a record-breaking year for the airport with 3.3 million passengers passing through the terminal - the biggest figure in its 84-year history.

Not only that but it has been the fastest growing regional airport over the last five years, while last month British Airways celebrated its 250,000th passenger flying on the London Heathrow route since it was launched two years ago.

British Airways is one of three airlines that have started operating flights here in the last two years, along with Aer Lingus and Monarch. They, along with the likes of Jet2 – which now flies to 48 destinations from Leeds Bradford – have helped boost passenger numbers.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Parkin took over as the airport’s chief executive in 2007, just as the world was about to slip into economic meltdown, with passenger numbers at Leeds Bradford falling to 2.4 million. This might still sound like a lot, but airports are all about footfall and when passenger numbers drop that spells bad news. “What we’ve done in the teeth of the worst economic gale I’ve ever seen in my career is we’ve grown the number of passengers when many airports have gone backwards.”

In 2012, £11m was spent improving the terminal and there are plans for further upgrades with work about to start on a new “premium” car park which will include a covered walkway to the terminal.

The website has recently been revamped and from the middle of next month passengers will be able to access free, “super-fast” broadband. “As we stand at the moment our broadband is really frustrating because it’s so slow, but this will be the fastest broadband service of any airport in the world.”

Waiting at an airport can be a tedious experience and all of this is aimed at making it a little more comfortable. But Parkin’s main job is to convince people that they can get to where they want to go by using his airport. “We want to get the message across that you can get anywhere in the world from here and you can do it pretty easily,” he says.

In the past one of the criticisms has been the lack of destinations once you go beyond Europe’s boundaries, which is why the airport has recently introduced flights to Dubai, via Amsterdam, with KLM. The airport is slowly broadening the number of destinations people can fly to although this isn’t the only reason for the growth in passenger numbers. “One of the reasons why we are continuing to grow is that people want the right price but they also want convenience. When you’ve been on holiday you just want to get home and that’s where regional airports score highly.”

Despite its success there are still challenges facing Leeds Bradford, not least the vexed issue of traffic congestion on its nearby road links, and the long-standing question of when the airport will get a rail link. Manchester Airport has its own train station while Newcastle Airport has had a metro link for more than 20 years now. There has been a lot of talk about building a train link to Leeds Bradford and while it is part of the long-term plan, these plans haven’t yet translated to work on the ground.

As is often the case with projects of this size, the cost is the main sticking point. But Parkin wants to see it happen and says a rail link connecting the airport to the existing Harrogate line is “achievable.” He says the network between Harrogate, York, Leeds and Bradford is incomplete and that an airport link could close the gap.

He is well aware just how important the airport is to the regional economy. “It’s like a mini town only one that never closes. Airports are job creation machines and we have added a thousand jobs here since 2007. We are now one of the biggest employers in the city region with more than 3,000 jobs.” These range from pilots and air traffic controllers, through to baggage handlers and caterers.

Parkin says that Manchester Airport remains their chief rival. “Our biggest challenge, and at the same time opportunity, is we know there are more people flying from Manchester who live in this region than we have passengers.”

Manchester is bigger, of course, and has a wider choice of destinations but Leeds Bradford is expected to more than double its passenger numbers over the next decade.

“Leeds Bradford is picked out as the airport that will be the largest east of the Pennines in 10 years time because it sits in a massive catchment area that is under served, something we are trying to fix.”

But Parkin believes the airport is on the right path and that the facts speak for themselves. “Our average statistic for getting bags from the aircraft to people’s hand was eight minutes – that’s pretty good,” he says. “There are things we need to improve on, but I think if we can get it right then our combination of convenience, price, the right airlines and the right destinations is unbeatable.”