Newcastle International Airport consistently tops customer and independent surveys as the best in the UK. Paul Robertson joined business development director John Irving for lunch to reflect on his very busy first year on board.
Life has changed beyond recognition for John Irving, having made the switch from one business where customers invest so much emotion in the brand for another. Having helped Newcastle United steer its way through turbulent economic times to stability off the pitch, his career path has taken him out of finance into the equally fiercely competitive world of air travel. Add the fact he and wife Jerri are now parents to Zach – who is aged 11 weeks as we chat – then it has been quite a challenge, but the 38-year-old is loving it.
“The last few weeks have been a bit of a blur but it is fantastic,” says Irving, who joined Newcastle International Airport as business development director in June last year – a year that has been full of mostly positive announcements and a business in great shape.
We are sitting in the Cabin Bar, one of the new additions in the departure lounge which has been redeveloped to the tune of £14.1m. “I can’t take any credit for it as the lounge opened just after I arrived but the team has done a phenomenal job,” says Irving, who is responsible for all before us, as well as car parking, retail, bringing new airlines and routes to the airport, managing relations with the airlines and all things revenue raising.
“We have had to work hard. World Duty Trade has enjoyed a good year despite the challenges of destinations such as Egypt and Tunisia being hit by tragic events.
“With our partners we have delivered something for everyone. The Cabin Bar is a great spot for couples and people who want some quiet time. There are nice family restaurants, lively bars and quality retail areas. Bar 11 is very northern, shaped like a Metro train. People feel more comfortable in a place they know and the changes here are incredible – best in class in terms of regional airports.
“Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive – of course it is not possible to get everything right when we have nearly five million passengers coming through the doors – but the team is doing a great job.”
Newcastle Airport is on target to hit 4.8m passengers this year, up from 4.6m in 2015 and hopes to break through the 5m target next year with a number of new routes coming on stream.
Consistently voted in a number of surveys as being the best airport in the UK, giving customers the best experience, Newcastle International has the seven local authorities as majority shareholder (51%) in partnership with AMP and a board which has backed continuous investment.
“Everyone works really well together to ensure the airport delivers as a regional asset,” said Irving. “We have a very small management team but the site supports 3,000 jobs and they all have pride in what they do.
“Customer service and safety are our key focus. The operational teams do an amazing job. The average time through security is six minutes even at the busiest time when thousands are coming through. It has to be safe and secure but we want to get people through in the right mood by delivering an experience which helps them relax and enjoy what is the start of their holiday or business trip.
“There is great loyalty in our core catchment area – people want to fly from here and it is our challenge to not only have the flights and routes that they want but also to deliver a good service. You tend to be loyal to something on your home patch and want to support it. We get that feeling every day.”
One blow to the airport was the decision by United Airlines to withdraw the direct route to the States after two years, on the grounds it was unprofitable and the weaker outlook for the pound against the dollar after Brexit, but Irving is upbeat about how the business has responded.
“The team worked very hard to get that route and we are all convinced it would work over time so of course it was a disappointment,” he said. “But airlines are businesses themselves and need to make the big pieces of metal they fly work for them so we understand and respect the decision.
“We must not lose sight of the fact that since Brexit we have introduced a number of new routes giving us our biggest winter schedule for a long time and delivering an 8% growth in traffic next year.
“We carry over 500,000 passengers on flights to Heathrow, 20% of whom fly on to the US, we have Emirates flying 250,000 people a year – the plane is 80% full six days a week – with connections on to Australia, China and Thailand. We remain incredibly well-connected.”
Irving says Emirates has been transformational for both the airport and many businesses in the region, which have been able to grow exponentially due to the access to the Far and Middle East. Emirates has just celebrated its ninth anniversary with a record month for the route in August - 22,745 passengers. The airline is now carrying £300m worth of exports pushing Newcastle towards the top 10 in terms of international trade and it is an area Irving is keen to grow.
The airport as a whole has a turnover of £64m, contributing £580m GVA (Gross Added Value) to the regional economy and a growing list of destinations.
Easyjet has added Berlin and Las Palmas, Vueling is operating flights to Barcelona while Ryanair has added Gdansk, Lanzarote, Tenerife South, Warsaw, Modlin and Wroclaw to its schedule and also Madrid Faro, Giron and Palma from next summer.
“We have an excellent relationship with all the airlines. They like operating from here as they get great performance statistics and see good turnaround times for aircraft. We are constantly discussing additional services to new places,” said Irving. “I am off to China talking to all our airline partners about 2018 because we have to look ahead.
“It has been a great year for adding new destinations to the map and we hope to build on that in the future. We have fantastic connections through Heathrow, Dubai, Amsterdam and Paris to allow business people and holidaymakers to go almost anywhere in the world.”
Irving talks with great passion about the airport and the region where he was born. He attended Dame Allan’s School in Newcastle, graduating from Loughborough University before holding down a number of roles at Procter and Gamble and then living the dream by working for the football club he supports.
“I was approached by Chris Mort who had become chairman when Mike Ashley bought the club,” recalls Irving. “He said they wanted someone local with a finance background to support them.
“I had been in the family enclosure as a child and chosen my own seat when the Sir John Hall stand was built – MM114 – so I used to be at St James’ Park every weekend. Here I was being given the opportunity to work there and I couldn’t turn it down.
“I loved it – the first couple of years were a challenge trying to reshape the business and I am pretty proud of what we did – there was always the challenge of getting the football bit right but, for the area which was part of my responsibility, I think we did a phenomenal job taking it to a profit-making business that could stand on its own feet.
“It was a terrible time when we got relegated and we lost some really good people. We had some tough times but left a legacy in terms of the business and I don’t regret any of it.”
Irving spent much of the time in the background and had a strong relationship with Ashley, who he says was good to work for but after eight years he wanted a new challenge. “Being with an iconic brand, it was hard to think of a move which would float my boat,” he said. “I didn’t want to move somewhere I didn’t feel was as rewarding or exciting.
“I had moved away from finance into more commercial and operational areas in the last few years at Newcastle United. It stood me in great stead when the airport opportunity came up. It was a new role in an exciting industry and another iconic brand.”
Having overseen the opening of the departure lounge and the introduction of new routes, Irving is determined to drive the business forward apace and win the battle for passengers from across the region, as well as support the team lobbying for what he says is one of the most critical decisions to impact the airport – the expansion of Heathrow.
“If we are to keep up with international competition then the best solution is to support further development of the Heathrow hub,” he says. “We have six well-supported flights a day and we need to keep up that frequency. Now that the Government has said it is the preferred option, we hope by the time the vote comes round Heathrow expansion is confirmed. It is the right decision for this region and the country’s economy.
“We also want more people living in the south of the region and across to Cumbria to recognise Newcastle as their airport. Teesside is very important to us. It is a similar distance to Leeds as it is to Newcastle. We want them to discover the world from their North East airport and enjoy our improved facilities and we’ll be putting in a lot of effort in to hopefully attract them.”
Irving is keen to stress the importance of things like the new radar, not necessarily seen but a vital piece of infrastructure and the masterplan which is being revisited to regenerate land around the airport. He urges passengers and businesses to come forward with suggestions for developments and destinations.
“We are in great shape delivering what people want and are constantly looking to improve things,” he says. “We are open for business. It’s your airport - we really mean that - people should think of it as theirs and have a say in what we do. It is a place for them and the region to be proud of.”
The Cabin Bar
Once through security, your first destination is the impressive redeveloped departure lounge –a £14m development which John Irving says has enjoyed a very successful first year. Our outward journey took us to the Cabin Bar, a smart restaurant with a relaxed feel and relatively detached from the hustle and bustle of excited holidaymakers.
We are met by Tracey with a beaming smile and shown to a table overlooking the runway. It’s a great view but as the Emirates flight has just landed I can’t help cast an envious glance knowing I will not be boarding today. Still it is a great place to watch the airside crews in action.
The Cabin Bar describes itself as “perfect for those travellers with a passion for fine wine, champagne and locally-sourced food”, though neither of us partake in the first two due to work and I just about manage to resist trying one of the craft beers on display.
It has a breakfast menu with everything you would expect, served until 11am, and an all-day menu from which we choose. There are bar snacks: prawn crackers (£2.50); marinated olives and smoked almonds (both at £3.95); appetisers include chicken liver pate (£8.75); fish croquettes (£6.95); pork sausage roll (£7.50) and three sharing platters mezze (£13.95); charcuterie (14.50) and seafood (£14.95). Unfortunately, time is against us so we are straight into the mains and both choose the seafood salad of king prawns, crayfish and smoked salmon served with seasonal leaves, avocado and Marie Rose sauce (£13.95). Both dishes are presented in a restaurant-style and taste as good as they look. Other choices include tiger prawn curry, cottage pie (both at £13.95) and steak and red wine pie (£12.50). No desserts but a wide selection of teas and coffees.
There are a number of places to eat – something to suit all tastes – but if this visit is anything to go by and you are looking for a first class experience to set you on your journey, then you won’t be disappointed with the Cabin Bar.