Flying high in the Solent

Flying high in the Solent

Dave Lees is excited for the future… and who can blame him? His airport has just been named Airport of the Year by the European Regions Airline Association and is set for its most successful year to date. Bryce Wilcock caught up with him to find out what the future holds for Southampton Airport.

Dave’s 20-year career has been spent solely in aviation. Starting off as a graduate trainee at Heathrow he went on to work in a number of roles at the airport before going on to work in the planning and development department, which saw him work on the infamous Terminal 5 enquiry.

After years spent learning the ropes at Heathrow, he went on to work at Stansted as well as Gatwick before taking up the planning and development director role at Southampton Airport, which was based around completing the airport’s masterplan. Nine years on, he has never looked back.

“Over the past nine years we have transformed the infrastructure of the vicinity,” said Dave. “We’ve fully developed the retail and commercial offering available, most noticeably in the food and beverage facilities which have been completely transformed over the course of the period.

“Likewise our car parking facilities have also been further extended and developed, we’ve also embraced new technologies such as our self-service technology which is in play across the terminal. We’ve also built and leveraged capital investment from both a road and rail perspective. The main entrance into the airport form the M27 has been substantially enhanced and likewise the access to the rail station.

Southampton Airport From The Rail Terminal

“We also co-founded a project to improve the connectivity from the two platforms here at Southampton Airport Parkway, which is immediately adjacent to the airport and has 200 trains a day. There’s no tumble weed, it’s a high frequency service. We have three trains an hour to London which is absolutely fantastic and we also have services to the East and West. It really helps promote the airport to people from different audiences, such as Europe and the Channel Islands.

“During this time we’ve striven to deliver a fantastic product for our passengers which really differentiates us from the larger London airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick. We use what we call our brand experience which is around ‘bringing us through,’ so that’s around us being fast, easy and also importantly bearing in mind our scale, friendly as well. That’s been a key differentiator.”

Dave’s commitment to establishing a strong ‘brand experience’ has certainly paid off. The airport was named the top UK airport from a service perspective by Airport Service Quality (ASQ). Their recent survey, taking in the views of thousands of frequent fliers, voted Southampton Airport as the best in the UK.

“The survey looks at the responses and aggregates them together to give us feedback across all of the different activities which take place at the airport,” Dave added. “This ranges from value for money through to speed of operation whether it be check-in, baggage reclaim, through to more softer aspects such as the ambience and the overall experience you would have at the airport. We’ve progressively moved forward to become number one in the UK.”

As well as the ASQ award, Dave was also presented with the Airport of the Year award by the European Regions Airline Association at a glistening dinner in Madrid back in October. The award was presented by Simon McNamara, ERA director general, who hailed the airport’s ‘extraordinary involvement with the local community’, ‘reduction of its carbon footprint’ and its growth ‘in such a highly competitive market.’

Southampton Auirport ERA Award

“It is a fantastic accomplishment for everyone at the airport, everybody has played a part,” Dave said. “The reason why we were awarded the award was for a number of reasons. Foremost in terms of the improvements we've made around service for all passengers from PRM passengers, those with restricted ability but secondly in terms of how we interact with the local community hand charities.

“The last couple of years we've held a ‘runway run’ which sees 500 runners sponsored by local charities take part. We also work closely with local schools and have school governorships in place. Finally, in terms of our performance from an environmental perspective and the work we've done to reduce our carbon footprint, most notably through reducing our electricity costs and consumption through the early adoption of LED lighting, which is now absolutely universal across the site anywhere from the terminal to stand lighting and car parks, we’re fully LED lit which is a fantastic accomplishment.”

These awards reflect what has been an exceptional year for the airport, which saw four new airlines commence services including KLM with worldwide flights via its hub in Amsterdam, bmi regional which launched a new service to Munich and Aer Lingus which launched direct flights to Cork. It also became the first airport in the UK to offer scheduled flights with European based airline, Volotea. Flybe also announced five new routes from the airport this year including Biarritz, Lyon, Toulon, Paris Charles De Gaulle and Munich bringing the total number of routes served by Flybe from Southampton to 34.

“The KLM route in particular is a major coup for us,” said Dave. “Not only does it provide connectivity to the Netherlands but it provides us with worldwide connectivity. That’s really important, especially to places such as the Far East. There also more locations served in mainland China out of Amsterdam than there are out of the London airport system.

Klm Southampton

“That’s important when you look at the industries in this region, in particular the higher education sector with the likes of Southampton University which has satellite universities in the Far East. It does a huge amount of R&D out there.

“Sectors such as our high tech aerospace and marine industries are also benefiting from more worldwide connectivity which in turn brings with it more direct foreign investment. It’s a huge coup for the entire region.”

The airport has continued to deliver even through times of such economic turbulence. A major concern of most businesses over the past year, not only those in the aviation sector, has of course been the outcome of the EU referendum. So far, the airport has fared well in bringing in new airlines since the decision was announced on 23 June, but how will it affect the airport going forward?     

When asked, Dave said: “We haven't seen any noticeable changes in the short term. A lot of people had already booked their summer and autumn holidays ahead of the referendum. As for the future, it is a cause for concern however, I’m a firm believer that there will still be an opportunity for airlines to fly to and from what are basically still our nearest trading partners in the future.

“People will still want to fly on holiday - you can’t take away from the geography that to the south of us - it’s warmer.  We live in a pretty temperate climate and people still want to go to the sun. Irrespective I still think there’ll be high demand. Whilst the costs may rise slightly, it’s still only one factor. The other factor is the price of oil, which is a key factor that will determine the affordability of travel which is looking relatively tempered going forward.”

Another of the key talking points from the aviation sector over the past few years has undoubtedly been the airport capacity issue, which has recently seen the government give the green light to Lees’ former employer Heathrow to construct a third runway. The decision will have a major impact on regional airports across the country, but with only 60 miles seperating Southampton and Heathrow, how will it affect the Solent hub?

Dave said: “There has been an announcement but it is still subject to various different caveats. Without putting a downer on it, I’m still awaiting the final decision along with all the other airports. The UK absolutely needs a new runway in the South East of England so I’m not trying to take away from that however I still think it’s going to be quite a torturous path for the implementation of any new runway in the South East of England and I would predict that it wouldn't be delivered until at the earliest the late 2020’s rather than the mid 2020’s. That provides a huge challenge, particularly to the South West of London where there is no capacity at Gatwick or Heathrow, so that is the opportunity for ourselves and is one we’re striving to deliver.”

And delivering they certainly are. With four new airlines serving the airport over the course of the last 18 months alone and two major awards under their belt, Lees and his team are excited for the future and what it has in store for the airport. Although other airports in the South of England may have had their growth stinted, this certainly doesn’t seem to be the case in the Solent.

“We’re looking to break through the two million passenger barrier for the first time next year which will be a fantastic accomplishment,” Dave said. “Not only that, we are looking to continue to deliver a quality level of service inspiring us to move forward with further developments to push well beyond the two million mark.

“We’re aware that a number of our passengers still use alternative airports, especially those in the London airport system. Why would they do that when they live within 30 minutes of this airport? Why choose an alternative airport? That’s why we know we must continue to improve our offering, in terms of our infrastructure and attracting new airlines.

“We believe with further enhancements we could become at least a 3 million passenger airport in the future. I believe we can add another 50% to our traffic here at Southampton and indeed go beyond that point in the future.”

Dave's drive and enthusiasm certainly hasn't gone unnoticed as he was recently named among Grant Thornton UK LLP's inaugural list of people who are helping to shape a vibrant economy in the UK.

On the South Coast, Dave was joined by Don Spalinger, Dr James McKenzie, Paul Boissier, Bertie Mills and Samantha Kingston who have all been named as 'Faces of a Vibrant Economy.'

The report hailed Dave as 'making the airport the UK’s number one for service underpinned by its ‘Breeze Through’ brand positioning itself as ‘fast, easy and friendly’ compare to its London counterparts.' It also praised his work 'driving efforts to reduce the airport’s environmental impact on the local area.'


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