It’s a sky high celebration

It’s a sky high celebration

Back in 1935 no-one could have forseen a grass runway, with oil drums and rags for runway lights, becoming the huge business success that Newcastle Airport is today.

Celebration is a word that fits perfectly with Newcastle International Airport’s 75th anniversary this year, particularly as the airport has just overcome a series of challenges that are unprecedented.

It was already recovering from the effects of the global recession - the first of its recent sequence of big challanges - when the worst winter for 40 years piled up heavy snow, and then clouds of volcanic ash carpeted the skies.

Remarkably, staff kept the airport open through 97% of the atrocious weather. And when European aviation was grounded for seven days by Iceland’s sky-haunting ash – the worst closure of airspace since World War II – Newcastle was one of the first airports to reopen, and the only one to stay open, taking in diversions from the paralysed remainder of the country.

It was first to take in the UK’s initial transatlantic flight after the ash threat receded.

Dave Laws, the airport’s chief executive since 2007, says: “Fortunately, the ash didn’t affect us as badly as others. We could take lots of diversions.

Operationally, this went very smoothly, ensuring our reputation with airlines remained strong.” Inevitably the recession has been adverse, with passenger numbers down to 4.6m in 2009 against 2007’s peak of 5.6m, and turnover down £3.6m to £351.5m in the year to last December. But it has still scaled 81 places to 100th in the new North East Top 200 Companies list just published by The Journal.

With London the busiest internal destination, and Palma and Amsterdam most popular abroad, revival is expected – especially since new services are to include Ryanair to Oslo, Flybe to Hanover (year round) and Guernsey (peak summer), besides greater frequency for Brussels, and additional holiday flights.

Jet2.com, for example, has announced a summer schedule with five new direct routes: to Prague, Krakow, Alicante, Faro and Toulouse.

Around 3,000 people work at the airport, with another 2,000 occupied indirectly.

It puts £400m into the region’s economy and serves not only 2.5m people of the region but many others from elsewhere.

Despite global economic instability, the airport’s prized Emirates link with Dubai showed passenger traffic up 23% during the first quarter of this year, helping Emirates Group to a record profits rise in 2009-10 of 248%.

In return, annual trade between the North East and Australasia is up by £100m to £300m since Emirates arrived in 2007, UK Trade & Investment reports.

Emirates now plans to recruit 700 more flight crew in a year, and has been recruiting cabin staff in the North East.

Of course, it’s not just today but all the days before too that have helped this airport become third largest in the North of England, after Manchester and Liverpool - serving around 28 airlines.

A BQ colleague, Alastair Gilmour, has shaped the airport’s 75 years into 27,000 words, writing an official commemorative book - “a voyage of discovery,” he says.

He found human interest stories – a theme throughout – absorbing, as too the business side, not only more recent events such as the low-cost travel driven by easyJet, along with the confidence-building patronage of global brand Emirates, but also the development of a much-loved Dan-Air service.

Old accounts and ledgers, newspaper cuttings from 1935 on, and thousands of photographs were painstakingly sieved during eight weeks’ research.

“I loved reading up on the UFO sightings and talking to some real characters who had worked there in the 1950s,” Gilmour says. Laurie Berryman, manager UK North for Emirates, tells BQ he never doubted the North East’s capability to support a daily scheduled service to Dubai (and on to scores of other destinations) when he made a case for it.

Peter Elbers, a senior vice-president of KLM, tells BQ also that his airline hopes to furtherstep-up the Newcastle link it has enjoyed for 25 of its 90-year existence.

What would Laws most like to see now? “After the amazing success of the Emirates Dubai service, a New York service would be a headline goal.

And in general, our aim’s to ensure Newcastle grows to its full potential and continues its crucial role in regenerating the regional economy.” Later this year two package trips to New York are planned from Newcastle. Might these prove a launch platform for scheduled service? “Let’s hope so,” says Laws.

“We’re continuing to work extremely hard to secure a scheduled New York service at some time.” Meanwhile, a less exciting but still crucial goal is to halt rising taxes.

Like many in the industry, everyone behind Newcastle Airport hopes to dissuade the Government from imposing a tax per aircraft handled as a sequel to passenger duty introduced last November – all unique to Britain and purportedly a “green” tax to minimise aviation’s contribution to the carbon count.

Airports also want compensation for their enforced closures during the ash crisis.

“We’re working to achieve this and feel compensation would be right. But, given the economic climate, we’re no more than hopeful,” Laws adds.

He’s cheered, though, about progress of the airport’s current 10-year master plan running until 2016. A £60m investment is envisaged, though that was before the bankers screwed things up for everyone. However, says Laws: “We’ve achieved a lot already - the terminal extension, tower relocation, new fuel farm, Southside apron, a hotel and a petrol station development. Aviation will undoubtedly be hit by policy decisions, especially taxation. But we expect to grow once the economy recovers properly.”

Laws, like Burt Lancaster in the 1970 classic film Chicago, knows his airport like the back of his hand. He’s worked there since 1978, as a fire officer first, then rising via many departments, including health and safety, personnel, passenger services, aeronautical relations and commercial affairs. If he sees a bright future, we all must.

Gilmour, meanwhile, has compiled the story of Newcastle Airport as everyone there felt it should be written, not too technically or “anoraky”. Gilmour says: “I’d always thought it a particularly fine regional asset. But delving into its history has also given me insight into how the North East economy, its infrastructure and its people are inextricably linked to it.”