"We are not messing around" - Leeds Bradford Airport boss on his £150m expansion plan

When you walk into the chief executive’s office at Leeds Bradford Airport the first thing your eye is drawn to is an upside-down map of the world.

Rather than Canada and Russia being at the top, they are replaced by Antarctica, South America and Australia, demonstrating just how much of the Earth’s land mass is located above the equator.

For airport boss Hywel Rees, the map serves an important function.

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“It encourages people to think differently,” he tells me. “That’s a very important thing to do. It’s what we are all about.”

Hywel Rees

Thinking differently is something that Mr Rees has shown himself particularly open to in his short tenure as the airport’s CEO.

Appointed in spring last year, he inherited an airport that, while getting busier, is having to cope with some pretty tired infrastructure.

Based in the country’s fourth-largest city region and with a catchment area of millions of passengers, it is still only Britain’s 15th busiest airport.

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Where the terminal is proposed to be built - graphic by Graeme Bandeira

But for Mr Rees they were coming up short of what he wanted to do with the airport. As he got his feet under the table at he airport he became increasingly aware that revamping the existing 1960s building was not going to match the ambition he and the owners had for Leeds Bradford.

Big plans

At the start of the year he unveiled his ambitious plan for a £150m brand new terminal building. Covering 34,000 square metres, it will span three floors and completely replace the existing building, which will be knocked down once the new facility is constructed.

Mr Rees wants the new terminal up and running by 2023. The plan is the most ambitious one to be applied to the airport in half a century but Mr Rees is adamant that it is needed to realise its target of growing passenger numbers from four million to seven million a year and to serve more long-haul and business-related destinations.

The proposed terminal building

“There is a lot to do between now and then,” he admits. “I am under no illusions about that.

“But I didn’t come here to fail. If I go away from here with the airport still operating from this building then I will have failed.

“There have been so many false starts with this airport.”

The frustrations expressed by the boss are ones that will be familiar to many users of the airport.

Plane landing at LBA

The airport’s location is frequently cited by critics of the airport, not least because it stands on top of a hill, in the midst of vast swathes of housing.

But for Mr Rees the difficulties it faces owe nothing to its location and can be attributed squarely to its infrastructure.

“The location of this airport is not why it underperforms,” he said. “It is no different, say, to Bristol Airport which is remote from the city, is based on a hill only a few feet higher than Leeds Bradford and has a similar wind and low-cloud problem.

“The problem is that my current terminal building just is not good enough. This airport was built by guys who used to build bomb stations. That was fine for the mid-1960s, when it only handled maybe a million passengers. But now it is handling four million passengers and it has reached the limit of what it can achieve.

“If you look at my mailbox, in terms of the complaints we get, the great majority are related to the airport infrastructure.”

Reaction

Hywel Rees

Since the plan was announced in early January the response from the region’s business community has been very positive.

Aviation Minister Paul Maynard praised the plans, as did the CBI. The airport’s chairman, Andy Clarke, even went so far as to say that Mr Hywel had been “a breath of fresh air” since he came on board.

Perhaps the beneficiary of having a fresh set of eyes for the airport, Mr Rees has gone further than any previous airport chief.

A former board member for airports in Melbourne, Newcastle and Luton, he has convinced AMP Capital to fund in full the construction work and has said that the multi-national owner is fully behind his plan.

He has gone so far as to stake his personal reputation on the terminal building project, which he is convinced will unlock the airport’s growth plans.

“I am extremely excited about it,” he said. “The funding has been approved. This is serious stuff. If you look at the kind of airports that AMP operate you will see that they are some of the best.

“AMP did not buy this airport to sit on it. We are not messing about.”

A matter of location

Mr Rees holds the view that it is not only the dated nature of the airport terminal building that poses problems for the transport hub. The location in which it is situated is, according to Mr Rees, equally problematic.

Relating the feedback he has received from passengers, he said: “It is something that really upsets people.

“The messages and comments I get are along the lines of ‘I arrived on time, but then had to wait for a bus’.

“That is because the terminal is in the wrong place. This is all about operational efficiency. If customers do not want to use it because they get delayed on arrival because they have to get the bus, or if airlines do not want to use it because they can only arrive at a certain time of day, then that’s a problem.

“The beauty of building the terminal in a different location is that it won’t affect the current operation.

“Places that do not have good airports tend not to succeed economically. Every airport is a local business.”

If Mr Rees gets his wish, the public at large could soon be viewing its place on the map differently, much like the artwork on his wall.

Next steps

The application for the new airport terminal will be submitted to planners at Leeds City Council in the next few weeks.

If approved, Leeds Bradford Airport wants to commence construction soon thereafter, with a view to completion in 2022 and becoming fully operational by spring of 2023.

Mr Rees refers to the proposed construction project as taking place on a “clean site”, meaning that it will happen within its own boundaries and mean little impact other than construction traffic entering and exiting the site.

Another plus, he says, is that the new terminal would be located closer to the proposed railway link on Scotland Lane.

This would mean passengers could be connected to the airport from Leeds railway station on the line that takes passengers out towards Harrogate.

If approved, it would be the first new airport terminal building since Heathrow’s Terminal 2 to be given a BREEAM excellent rating for sustainability.

While the proposal is bold, Mr Rees insists it is not about expanding the airport beyond its current passenger growth targets, saying it is more about “being better than bigger”.

Currently, Leeds Bradford Airport is responsible for an estimated 7,200 jobs.

“If we get to seven million passengers by 2030 that will be 12,000 jobs. The impact would be enormous,” Mr Rees said.

Planes at LBA