Why Leeds Bradford Airport is on the rise

The airport's chief executive John Parkin
The airport's chief executive John Parkin
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Last year Leeds Bradford Airport welcomed a record number of passengers. But what are the challenges ahead? Chris Bond spoke to chief executive John Parkin.

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.

Last year 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, and 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. The global financial crash had a dramatic impact on the aviation industry and passenger numbers at Leeds Bradford fell 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.

“The market was seismically hit,” admits Parkin, “but 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 at the front of the airport 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, so you will be able to download movies and check your emails.”

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. Parkin also points to the success of the British Airways flights to Heathrow. “The fact we fly to terminal 5 has been a big plus because it means people can then head off to LA or Sydney, or wherever else.”

Increasing the number of destinations people can fly to isn’t the only reason for the rise 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 nearby roads, and the long-standing question of whether the airport will get a rail link. Manchester Airport has its own train station while at Newcastle they’ve had a metro link for more than 20 years now. There has been a lot of talk about building a train connection to Leeds Bradford and while it remains part of the long-term plan, this hasn’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. “The Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership (LEP) supports this and there is support from the government for it, too. There is a big political push towards the North of England right now, and high time too, so we need to keep at it and that’s what we’re doing.”

He is keenly aware of the impact the airport can, and does, have on 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. “If we win a new airline contract the moment that aircraft touches this tarmac jobs are created.”

This idea of a powerful regional infrastructure ties in with his support for HS2. “We have supported that from the very beginning and some people have been surprised by that. Of course we want people on planes but we want a thriving regional economy and we want people to have a choice, so that if they want to fly, or travel by road or rail they can.”

The airport itself has a massive catchment area of around 5.3 million people, yet only five per cent of overseas visitors to York fly into Leeds Bradford – a figure that airport bosses want to see rise to more than 10 per cent by 2017.

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. “If you look at some of the recent government reports, Leeds Bradford is picked out as the airport that will be the largest east of the Pennines in ten 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. “Our average statistic for getting bags from the aircraft to people’s hand was eight minutes – that’s pretty good,” he says. “You can only go on what people tell you, we had a lot of people saying to us ‘when are you going to improve the terminal?’, ‘when are you going to have a service to Heathrow’ and when are we going to have more choice of places to fly to? – well, we’re doing all of this.

“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.”