Paul Kehoe

Birmingham Airport chief executive Paul Kehoe

High speed growth

With record passenger levels, a £450m investment and now high-speed rail confirmed, things are looking up for Birmingham Airport. Chief executive Paul Kehoe explains more to Steve Dyson.

Birmingham Airport is the Midlands’ largest airport and the seventh busiest in the UK. It handles 12 million passengers annually and serves 150 direct global destinations, plus a further 340 one-stop long-haul routes, with 50 airlines. It’s not a bad profile for an organisation that was hit – like the rest of the world – by the global recession in 2008. That chilling moment is still clear in the mind of Paul Kehoe, chief executive of Birmingham Airport, as the banking crisis came just after he began his role nine years ago.

“It’s been a long journey,” he says, sitting in his office overlooking the runway. “If I look back at my first few weeks in the job in 2008 it was all rosy, and then came the crash. Since then we’ve been rebuilding to where we are today. There’s lots more to come, but I’m really pleased with progress, and feel our investment has been well spent.”

Kehoe’s referring to a £450m programme of infrastructure developments, culminating in the completion of a new hold-baggage screening system by the end of this year. This will mean a doubling of self-service check-in and bag drop desks, additional car parking with free drop-off and air traffic control upgrades.

Other projects in recent years have included an extended runway to accommodate more and new long-haul airlines, a redeveloped terminal to handle wide-bodied aircraft including the A380 aircraft, plus enhancements to passenger experience through surface access, car parking and shopping opportunities.

These investments, as well as the growth of the region’s economy and trends towards long-haul travel, have helped Birmingham Airport experience unprecedented growth. It’s now home to many of the world’s leading airlines including Aer Lingus, Air France, Air India, Brussels Airlines, Emirates, Iberia, Icelandair, KLM, Lufthansa, Qatar, SAS, Swiss, Turkish Airlines and United Airlines. These carriers serve frequent and important business and leisure hubs such as New York, Delhi, Istanbul, Doha, Madrid, Dubai, Paris, Amsterdam, Dublin, Brussels and Frankfurt.

In 2016 alone, it saw a 14.2% increase in passengers, and has celebrated two years of consecutive monthly record growth. Long-haul traffic has seen the most significant growth, with a 21.3% year-on-year passenger rise due to the introduction of new global routes.

Despite this boom, the airport managed to get more flights in and out on time than any other airport, becoming the world’s most punctual airport in 2016. And now with the confirmation of the HS2 high-speed rail project, there’s more expansion to come.

Kehoe says: “The government has now recognised the need to exploit opportunities with the expanding rail network. Even Heathrow is now wanting its own railway station, whereas ours is definitely in the HS2 plan. Birmingham will be the prototype to really integrate road, rail and air, and it’s so exciting to be ahead. The economy currently is responding. There might well be future economic dips, but overall, with the West Midlands Combined Authority, the Midlands Engine and all that comes with it, greater Birmingham now faces a decade of growth.

“No matter what the future brings, one thing’s for certain: while the government has made its decision on Runway Three at Heathrow, this will not happen until 2027 at the earliest. So what do business travellers do in the meantime? The opportunity is here for Birmingham.”

Kehoe points to how Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, speaking at a West Midlands Combined Authority reception in Parliament in November, said that the Midlands and its airport will be among the best high-speed rail connected destinations on the map.

To maximise this opportunity, the region is planning tram extensions, new Sprint buses, road upgrades and work is starting to develop the Midlands Rail hub proposal to deliver 10 extra train services an hour. With the UK leaving Europe, Kehoe believes the focus needs to also be on global connections – and he sees Birmingham Airport at the centre of this push.

“British Airways’ decision to come back to Birmingham ten years after going could be big,” Kehoe says. “BA’s recognising it can’t fulfil the needs of customers via Heathrow alone. BA’s the most favoured brand in the world. And it’s a great vote of confidence that BA’s back on our runway.

Birmingham Airport“It’s a small start. But if business travellers respond to that, I’m convinced BA will recognise and make more investment, and the opportunities will start aligning. Businesses in the region need to work together to recreate the magic that this area had when Birmingham was the powerhouse of the UK, where things were made. If business makes it happen for us, we’ll make it happen for business.

“And the key thing is HS2. We now need to bask in the aftermath of that decision. The halo of HS2. Because we’re part of it, people will start to coalesce. We’re going to be a key HS2 hub, and as airlines, businesses and people see that reality they will say: ‘We need to invest here.’ HS2 is only nine years away, and by that time the airport could be a key part of the UK’s connectivity.”

Over the past 16 months, Kehoe refers to how the airport has attracted a record number of new airlines, including Qatar, Iberia Express, CSA, Wizz, Alba Star, Blue Air, Vueling, Cobalt, FlyOne and bmi regional. And before the summer season, the airport will welcome Jet2, as well as British Airways.

“High Speed Rail has been at the core of our sales pitch to airlines,” Kehoe says. “It will bring Birmingham Airport ‘closer’ to London than Luton and Stansted. Journey times to and from London will be the same as Gatwick and only 15 minutes longer than Heathrow T5. The Midlands’ strong economy and our close proximity to London – now and even more so in the future – mean Birmingham is their next best option.”

Kehoe’s eyes are firmly on the long-term future, with the airport’s ‘Master Plan’ due out later this year. This, he says, will develop options to not only maximise the existing site but also to introduce new facilities.

“When passengers arrive here,” Kehoe says, “we don’t want them to have to think about having to go anywhere else. We want a seamless process, and HS2 and all the other transport infrastructure work gives us a huge chance to do this, and to do it right. The ‘Master Plan’ needs to think about these longer term prospects, after 2030. Once Heathrow’s expanded, who’s next? Birmingham has to be a candidate, with even more growth and exciting possibilities. We need to make sure our plan opens us up to that future.”

The word ‘connectivity’ keeps coming up in Kehoe’s vision. He refers to a recent book called Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization by Parag Khanna, and gives this quote from it: ‘The more connections you make, the greater your business will do.’

“I buy into that,” says Kehoe. “Our place in the future world and its scale is changing. City regions and city states are going to trade with each other more than ever before. Connections bring people, and people do business. Despite the anti-global tendencies with Trump and so on, people are still doing business across the world.

“The airport brings that connectivity. Post-Brexit, that’s the opportunity. The key is promoting Birmingham, the Midlands, the Midlands Engine and the economy beyond that. This region not only has the car industry. We have the creativity sector, the chemical industry, all the medical trials and more. We’re well-placed, and if we get our act together we should be able to move mountains. In the decade ahead, I sniff real success. Not just for the airport but for the region. This is our time.”