Derek Provan and his team at Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Southampton airports are helping entrepreneurs to spread their wings, as Peter Ranscombe finds out.
Whenever my flight comes into land at an airport, there’s always one sight that catches my eye – the massive gleaming fire engines sitting by the side of the runway, with their brave crews poised to deal with any unfolding emergency.
Those impressive pieces of apparatus also captured the attention of Derek Provan while he was working as a local authority firefighter and was visiting Glasgow airport on a familiarisation day.
“The firefighters at the airport had all the latest tools and equipment and it really struck me that this would be a really interesting place to work,” Provan remembers.
“When I got home that night, I wrote to the airport fire service applying for a job – it was two years later before I heard back and was invited for an interview, but I was hooked straight away.”
Joining Glasgow airport’s fire service in 1998 following 10 years as a local authority firefighter marked the start of a journey that has taken Provan to work at some of the UK’s biggest and busiest aviation hubs.
After serving in the fire station, he went on to hold various roles at the airport, including airfield operations manager, head of security and terminal operations, and customer services director, with his first spell at the site including the terrorist attack in 2007.
He switched to Aberdeen international airport in 2010 to serve as managing director before joining Heathrow airport in London in 2013 as the director in charge of the world’s busiest runways, later being promoted to interim chief operating officer.
Provan was appointed in January to the dual role of chief executive of AGS Airports – the company that operates the sites in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Southampton – and managing director of his old stomping ground at Glasgow airport, succeeding Amanda McMillan.
Though he may have left Heathrow, Provan was still pleased to see parliament voting in favour of building a third runway.
“It was great to see the third runway reach that major milestone because I was part of that team and I know how hard people have worked on the project for such a long time,” he says.
“I think people forget that building a third runway isn’t just an issue for the south-east of England – it will bring benefits for passengers and businesses throughout the country.
“While we always try to bring direct point-to-point flights to our three airports, there are times when that simply won’t be economical due to the size of local populations and so having the capacity at hub airports like Heathrow for connecting flights is essential.”
Helping entrepreneurs to export
Those connections are crucial for entrepreneurs who want to grow their businesses through international trade and Provan and his team are on hand to help.
“We can act as the connection between local businesses and airlines,” he explains.
“We want entrepreneurs to talk to us about the routes they want to access and where they want to fly to do business.”
AGS works with the local chambers of commerce surrounding its sites to develop routes, but Provan says that entrepreneurs can also speak to the managing directors of their local airports directly.
Part of his plans for the company is to inject a greater degree of autonomy into each of the three sites, giving the managing directors the ability to lead the development of their airports while still avoiding duplication and tapping into expertise at group level.
It marks an evolution of the strategy that led to the creation of AGS and has its roots in the privatisation of the old British Airports Authority in 1986 under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservation government.
BAA was bought by a consortium led by Spanish infrastructure group Ferrovial in 2006, before being forced to sell Gatwick, Stansted and Edinburgh airports and eventually its other sites outside Heathrow.
The renamed Heathrow Airport Holdings sold its Aberdeen, Glasgow and Southampton sites in 2014 to AGS Airports, a company formed by major shareholder Ferrovial and Australian infrastructure investor Macquarie.
Much of the previous management work had involved de-centralising the functions of the three sites to make them independent units, but Provan is now keen to strike a balance between retaining the benefits of shared expertise within the group structure while giving the managing directors enough free rein to become focal points for their hubs.
Serving the local business communities is a key part of the strategy – while many people will only pass through an airport when they’re going on holiday, AGS’s three sites are also important conduits for companies.
Around 40% of the passengers who use Aberdeen airport are business travellers, while at Southampton it’s 35% and in Glasgow it’s 20%, although it fluctuates between summer – when families are flying on holiday – and winter.
It may sound glib to cite “Brexit” as the major challenge facing Provan and AGS, but the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU) has very specific implications for the aviation industry.
“If the UK leaves the EU without a deal in place then it will revert back to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules in many sectors – but those rules don’t apply to air travel,” he explains.
“So, if measures aren’t put in place, we could be faced with chaos on day one after Brexit.
“We have been lobbying the UK Government on this issue, but we still don’t have answers to our questions.”
Even with a deal in place, airports will be at the sharp end when it comes to many of the questions surrounding Brexit.
“Will we be aligned with the EU or with the United States – and what implication will that have for passport control?” Provan points out.
“With the best will in the world, it’s already a challenge due to staffing levels at the UK Border Force.”
Provan is also chomping at the bit for the Scottish Government and the UK Government to resolve issues surrounding the changeover from Westminster’s air passenger duty to Holyrood’s air departure tax, which has become embroiled in legal issues over EU state aid rules and the knock-on effect for subsidised routes in the Highlands and islands.
“Westminster and Holyrood need to come together to sort out this issue,” he adds.
Whatever the outcome of negotiations over Brexit and airport taxes, with more than 20 years’ worth of experience in the aviation industry, Provan is a safe pair of hands at the controls to chart a smooth course for entrepreneurs.
Our BQ Bulletin emails will land in your inbox at 7.30am, Monday to Friday, with a mix of the latest local business news, national news, and features to inspire you. Sign up here!
Click here to read our privacy statement