Paul Kehoe, chief executive of Birmingham Airport, pictured with British Airways’ Captain Richard Humphreys, first officer Claudia Zonneyville and cabin crew Rina Ottsman and Michael Fish
With more than £100m invested in improved passenger services and plans for new hotels, British Airways has decided to return to Birmingham Airport. Steve Dyson reports.
Passengers using Birmingham Airport will soon see the results of a £100m investment aimed at making their journeys quicker, safer and more enjoyable. That’s the promise from the airport’s chief operating officer David Winstanley, who explains the investments are aimed at ensuring Birmingham retains all the extra passengers it’s attracted in recent years.
The improvements range from a new choice of car parking to the latest self-service check-in points, and from improved bus facilities to faster security technology. Meanwhile, plans for a new four-star hotel have been revealed – along with long-term aspirations for a five-star hotel.
Winstanley says: “We’ve experienced unprecedented growth and it’s come at a higher rate than we and our airline partners predicted. The challenge now is how quickly we can focus on key areas to keep those passengers, because aviation is a highly competitive environment and people have choice. If we don’t attract and maintain them, they will vote with their feet.”
The first development at the airport focuses on passengers’ initial arrival when they are driving to – or being dropped off at – the airport. Winstanley explains that a new, free drop-off point has been created just five minutes’ walk away from the airport terminal, with a covered walkway to protect passengers in poor weather. Operating from September, the free walkway will be in addition to valet-parking facilities and the premium drop-off zone, which costs £2 for the first ten minutes.
He says: “Since introducing paid-for drop-off zones, we had complaints about the charges. We have listened to passengers, and have now reacted to them with this new, free facility. Some people are comfortable with paying to be closer to the terminals. But we have now given passengers a genuine choice on whether or not they want to pay.”
Another development at Birmingham Airport is a brand new self-service check-in and “big bag” drop-off point, currently used by Air Lingus, Ryan Air and Thomas Cook, with the airport also talking to five other airlines about using it.
Winstanley says: “We’ve had loads of good, positive feedback about the new self-service points. Around 95% of passengers are now taking less than one minute to use it, which is real progress on the old system of face-to-face check-ins, which used to take several minutes.
“But we realise that we serve a wide demographic of passengers, from the IT-savvy to people less computer literate, so we’ll always host these machines with a smiling face, asking: ‘Do you need help?’
“Again, our aim is to give people choice – check-in yourself or we can help you if needed. But our strategic plan is to move to the vast majority of passengers being self-service over the next five years, as this means we can be more efficient in time and space, servicing three times as many people in the same area.”
Winstanley says the airport is also providing better information to people queueing to get through security, and acknowledges that refined communications are needed to suit both regular travellers and those who are perhaps only occasional users.
He says around £40m of the new investment is in areas that passengers won’t see. This includes the latest X-ray equipment to increase the accuracy, speed and standards of baggage checks, and laying over seven miles of new baggage conveyors capable of carrying up to 4,500 bags per hour – more than double the rate of old conveyors.
He says: “We’re also investing in better facilities for baggage handlers, and together with the new equipment this means we’re reducing incidents of lost baggage to the smallest possible level.”
Other improvements include a £2.5m investment in a new bussing lounge on the airport’s international pier, and the insourcing of airport buses. “We know customers can get frustrated with poor bus services,” says Winstanley. “So we said if we care, we should do it ourselves.”
The new Birmingham Air Service bus operation joins other insourced operations at the airport, such as the fire service and air traffic control. Winstanley says that the airport is also working with an organisation called “One Combined System” to better assist passengers with disabilities like autism and Alzheimer’s.
And he adds that the airport is working closer with the UK Border Force on a new system of providing actual passenger queue data to help refine staffing levels. It’s also introduced 10 e-gates to speed up the passport entry process for incoming passengers.
For business flyers, Winstanley says the airport is working on improving frequencies on what are already popular routes from Birmingham, as well as refining fast-track lanes for easier check-in and security. He says business flyers can also benefit from a range of three business lounges at the airport – Emirates, No 1 and Aspire – with improved wifi and better broadband for executives needing to download files.
New quality hotels are also in Birmingham Airport’s plans, with a four-star Hilton Garden Inn able to house 178 guests opening on the site of the airport’s current Diamond House offices by July 2018, creating some 70 jobs.
Winstanley says: “The Hilton Garden Inn will add to what is already a fantastic range of current hotels, and we’re also in longer-term discussions about a new five-star hotel.
“All these improvements mean we’re offering real choice to our customers in all sorts of ways, and this competitive approach means overall quality is getting better.”
British Airways take off from Birmingham again
When flight BA7025 took off from Birmingham Airport for Florence on 20 May, it marked a significant return to regional flying for British Airways. It was the first of four new regional routes and the first time British Airways’ colours have been seen at the airport for a decade.
The airline last flew from Birmingham in 2007 when the regional airline business was sold to Flybe, although Vueling and Iberia Express, subsidiaries of British Airways’ parent company, International Airlines Group (IAG), started up services and Aer Lingus has continued to operate to Dublin from Birmingham since 1984.
The inaugural British Airways service to Florence was the first of the new routes to take off followed by flights to the popular Spanish sunspots of Malaga, Ibiza and Palma, providing more than 17,000 seats to the sun from Birmingham this summer.
Flights are operated at weekends by modern Embraer 190 jet aircraft, with Eurotraveller and Club cabins and two-abreast seating so everyone can have an aisle or window seat, with each way fares starting from £29.
Luke Hayhoe, British Airways’ general manager, says: “We’re really excited to be back at Birmingham, which is such a good location for the whole of the Midlands.
“It’s got great train and road links, improved infrastructure and really strong year-on-year passenger growth, which all gives us confidence that British Airways can drive similar numbers.
“Our new destinations will hopefully do well, and as long as they do we’ll look at future opportunities from Birmingham. With the forthcoming HS2 high-speed train, growing exporters and the whole region generally up, it all feels positive when we’re looking at future expansion outside of London.
“British Airways is constantly looking at future opportuntities, and Birmingham is very much in the frame for growth. The airport already has a great relationship with our owner IAG and has worked really well with us on launching these new routes.”
Paul Kehoe, chief executive of Birmingham Airport, adds: “To see the British Airways’ tailfin back on the ground after ten years is great news for the region.”