Mike Hughes meets Leeds Bradford Airport boss John Parkin to talk about rail, road and air and how to bring them all together.
An immediate concern of many people post-Brexit will have been currencies, and if you were heading off on holiday the scene at home may have been a little frantic, with recalculations as the pound headed south. But John Parkin looked out over the packed car park at Leeds Bradford Airport where he is CEO and still felt confident the planes would be full.
“When the result came in I had expected it to be exactly the same but the other way round,” he admitted over lunch at Malmaison in Leeds. “But I wasn’t shocked, even though the effect on sterling was almost instantaneous, because I knew it was important to keep perspective on these things, even when they are big and historic events.
“If this was a business issue you would say it was a strategic disaster to allow the world’s fifth-largest economy to leave your club, and the shareholders would be sitting there in the boardroom saying ‘you’ve allowed WHAT to happen...?’
“Essentially, the UK economy is in a fairly good place and we have been a trading nation since the year ‘dot’ and are very good at it, and while the canvas is very different I still see just as many opportunities as risks - it is certainly interesting and encouraging that the Prime Minister moved quickly to appoint a new Minister for the Northern Powerhouse.”
With that new canvas laid out in front of him, John is as energised as ever about the future plans for his airport, with a rail link to the Leeds-Harrogate line near the top of the list in his ‘Route to 2030’ masterplan, having been on the drawing board for “an awfully long time”, but promising a nine-minute route from city to airport.
Route to 2030 also includes expansion of the terminal building to deliver a two storey extension; additional investment in terminal infrastructure; expansion of aircraft stands, boarding gates and new taxiways; an upgraded airport entrance and the development of a commercial hub and hotel near to the terminal.
The plan is as ambitious as it needs to be. “Both locally and in Westminster there is a good deal of support for the rail link,” he says. “If you look at the rail infrastructure for the region as it moves around from York to Leeds to Bradford to Harrogate, the circle isn’t actually closed, so getting the rail line in provides for a two-stage development. Stage one takes you as far as the airport, and the stage two continues over to Bradford and we would become a station on that line.
“Then there is a matter of the relief road and what we are working on there is how to bring those two things together so that you get the economies of scale in construction integration so that you get the road and the rail and some sort of parkway solution where we could run shuttle buses right up to the terminal, taking about three or four minutes.”
There is a clarity to the idea of completing the circle of transport around the region, and it is difficult to launch a counter-argument other than one that starts with ‘if only we had the money...’ but the biggest asset that John Parkin can bring to the debate is success.
The bigger, better and more respected and essential he makes LBA for businesses and families the louder it can demand road and rail links that can cope with numbers and attract even more routes.
“Politically, I think there will be a real desire to demonstrate transport infrastructure in the Northern Powerhouse concept and particularly as it links up with HS2 – where Leeds will be a massive beneficiary – and then HS3.
“It is high on my agenda to improve access to the airport, but in terms of things where I have absolute control my focus is still on improving the infrastructure at the airport and bringing to Leeds the routes, flights and airlines that the public wants.
“That is about having a density of services and frequencies that allow that choice to be given to our customers – and we have made massive strides with that, particularly in the last few months when we have had Jet2 putting another 200,00 seats into Leeds and Ryanair with a similar number – and the acquisition of Monarch has brought another 300,000 passengers for us. In eight years we will have put 1,500,000 passengers on top of where we were in 2008.”
That means more than four million people – about five times the population of the city itself – choosing to start their trips at LBA. Some will have come because it is their local airport, and some because it is the only place offering their particular itinerary, but John wants as many as possible to come by choice rather than go to Doncaster, Manchester or Liverpool.
“Putting it very simply, airlines need passengers paying the right amount of fares in the right numbers to make their routes sustainable,” explained John. “So they only put aircrafts on routes and into airports where that works – that’s just common sense. If you take a two or three decade view looking back, LBA has not had sufficient density of services and routes to persuade the airlines to come to us first. It is rather like turning around a superliner in that there is a lag in delivering the answer to that.
“We know that the reason why airlines are coming here is that the market for air travel in this region is very strong, but people had been flying from other airports because they didn’t find what they wanted on their own doorstep.
“So, deliver them what they need, with all those advantages of a quick and comfortable experience, and guess what happens? They stop having to drive past your airport to get to another one.
“And when you are going on holiday, it is acceptable to drive for 70 miles or more to get to your airport – but when you come back, all you want to do is get home and not spend two and a half hours on the M62 from Manchester. So now when our customers go on holiday their first decision is to go from Leeds Bradford, and the second is where to travel to. That is the power of convenience.
“All those components are in place and we now work hard on the more micro aspects of it, like the speed we get passengers’ bags off the aircraft and into the baggage hall – our average delivery time recently has been 15 minutes. If you have parked your car in the long-stay car park, the bus is right outside the front door – and the premium short stay is 50 paces from that door.”
This convenience has been rising up the list of key factors for some years, and helps to emphasise the double role that airport CEOs like John have to master. One minute they will be looking after traffic needs and dealing with airlines across the world to persuade them the ROI is worthwhile if they come to LBA, and then they will have to make sure that the highest level of courtesy is shown to a regular customer who needs to move his seat while making sure his pet dog has its medication travelling in the hold. That’s a varied job description, but if the customer doesn’t like the seat response or the airline decides to opt for Manchester, John takes the hit.
He agrees the debate over a third runway at Heathrow is also important to LBA’s future: “We support their efforts, and irrespective of the merits of that argument, I do find that if you take a high-level view of the UK then our biggest ‘port’ by a distance is Heathrow.
“Does it feel right to have the biggest port in the UK full? Probably not. So what are we going to do about it as the world trades from Heathrow? The argument for expansion is compelling – not easy and not cheap, the pricetag is truly sensational – but sometimes
the best solutions will have those attributes and what you don’t want to do is the easier, cheaper thing that doesn’t do the job.
“That’s like building an extension to your house and using the wrong bricks or put it in the wrong place. You still have an extension, but no one uses the room and they just shut
the door on it.
“Coming closer to home, one of the benefits of the Heathrow plan is that if it doesn’t happen, a Heathrow link like ours could be elbowed out because there is a lucrative offer to fly somewhere else and our stand could be used because there isn’t any capacity. We are jealously looking after our slot at Terminal 5 because there is a constant juggling going on.
“If you sort out Heathrow and put the expansion in, then the pressure on small regional flights like ours goes away, and may in fact be protected in perpetuity because you take away that problem of pressure.”
It may seem a pointless question to check whether the boss of a busy regional airport is a frequent flier himself, but the amount of work to be done at the site itself means the focus for John is on getting planes into the air, not being on board them. But the need to travel globally often enough gives him a chance to assess Leeds Bradford’s reputation among its potential clients.
“We are constantly talking to airlines on a global basis because it can sometimes take three or four years to get one to come here. Airports have to go and make the case to airlines, it’s not the airlines that come knocking on our door, so we have to be outward looking and run a great asset as best as we can.
“If you come to my airport at 5.30 in the morning it will be busy and if you come in at 8.30 it is less busy and if you then return, before those aircraft have got back it doesn’t seem busy at all because everything has gone. So we get those peaks and troughs through the day.”
The working relationship with local authorities is a careful balancing act and few regional airports would say they have fault-free partners in district and county councils, but Leeds and Bradford seem to be positive and aware of the benefits such a big operation can bring.
“We produce £120m GVA and jobs for 2,430 people, so it is a fairly important operation and one that never closes and those jobs for people in the region are either lower-skilled or very skilled. So when you are talking about someone doing the cleaning, or security or helping at one of our stores right through to someone who is controlling aircraft, there is a skill-set and training to get there.
“We like to create paths for people so they can come in at trainee level and see where their skills take them. There are entry-level roles in traffic control where you are not actually controlling aircraft but where you can come in and we will sponsor you through exams. But at the same time we have jobs in finance, HR, catering – just a massive array of requirements.
“I always think that two things you need to get on in life are the right attitude and a capacity for work. It doesn’t matter how intellectually strong you are, if you have those and you get with the right employer, you can go anywhere and if you don’t... you won’t. If you take a really mundane thing like litter – I have staff at the airport whose job it is to go round and keep the place clean inside the terminal and outside. If I am at the airport myself and I see litter, I will pick it up. Now if a cleaner sees that, the example is powerful, and if a cleaner sees you walking past it, the example is also powerful. So it is a matter of showing people the way as well as telling them. That way we have about 450 pair of eyes and ears everywhere all the time and if you get that sort of attitude in place then things will only improve.”
The 28 senior managers among those 450 airport staff earn a particular focus from their boss, with all of them getting a one-to-one coaching session for 45 minutes for all his managers once every six months. There is no prep and no notes – just a coffee and a chat and a display of genuine interest in the people and any observations or guidance on either side.
It’s that balance again – multi-million pound investments and ten-year plans for the airport and 45 minutes for your staff twice a year. Both essential elements of how John Parkin runs Leeds Bradford Airport.
Away from the job, the phone is almost always on, but there are ways of relaxing – with travel (of course) following Sheffield Wednesday (he was born in the city 61 years ago) collecting and enjoying good wine and planning a major renovation project at his home.
“I enjoy seeing places and travelling and have done since I was a boy,” he says. “A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were in Barcelona for two or three nights and I find it quite relaxing to walk out of our hotel and be on the old streets of Barcelona.
“And I went to Wembley for the play-off final and even though we lost, the memory that stayed with me was that there were 42,000 Wednesday fans and when the team and the manager came out after the match, no more than 2,000 had left. So, in excess of 40,000 people applauding and clapping, making a connection between players and fans and giving a vision of the heart of the club.
“Our manager Carlos Carvalhal has completely transformed the place and for the first time in 20 years I can see something happening.”
There are obvious parallels here of teamwork, inspiration, aspiration, self belief and loyalty. Any manager of any organisation who can bring them all together can make a significant and far-reaching impact.
Surf and turf in cool surroundings
The day of this latest BQ Yorkshire business lunch turned out to be the hottest of the year so far, but thankfully our good friends at Malmaison on Swinegate in Leeds were the hosts and their private dining room was air conditioned to perfection, with low lighting adding to a cool afternoon. With both of us facing a busy day, it was a one-course event, but what a course it was. John opted for the Classic Steak Frites, a 250g marinated rump steak, with pommes frites, watercress and confit tomato. He asked for it to be medium rare (spot on) and to have a peppercorn sauce in the side.
To balance our menu, I went for a fish course and chose the smoked haddock fish cake, with spinach, poached egg and a grain mustard sauce. Both meals were served very efficiently and with a discretion and respect that was noticed and appreciated by us both.
As an aside, I always think it is important that high-profile hotels catering for business clients should make sure their menus have a choice of meals that can be eaten alongside lengthy conversation – so not too much complexity and not a crowded plate.
It’s a small matter, but it can make a big difference and the Malmaison staff obviously had long experience of this and for that I particularly thank them.
Situated in the beautifully converted Leeds City Tramways Office, the Leeds hotel has 100 modern rooms and suites and seven meeting room options.
Malmaison, 1 Swinegate, Leeds LS1 4AG. Tel: 0113 4260047