Ready for take-off

March 7, 2022

Newcastle International Airport is coming back to life. For too long, with the effects of the pandemic, it’s been a shadow of itself. Now, though, with measures on travel lifted by countries across the world, the region’s largest airport is emerging from the darkness of COVID-19 to get the North East flying again. And as Colin Young discovers, one man has been putting his time over the last two years to good use to ensure Newcastle has the routes to make that possible.

Words by Colin Young

Photography by Christoper Owens

 

When Leon McQuaid sees the first post-pandemic marriage proposal at Newcastle International Airport’s arrivals gate, he’ll know life is getting back to normal.

“The number of times I’ve walked out of my office and seen something happening,” says the site’s new director of aviation development.

“That is what I love about this job – everyone has a different reason for travelling.

“I’ve walked out of the offices and seen someone on one knee with flowers; banners ready and a group cheering someone coming home, as we had after the Olympics; stag and hen parties going out – and coming in.

“When we launched a new route with Lufthansa a couple of years ago, a guy was juggling balls as he came off. I just thought, ‘we’re all unique!’.

“When that first wave of holidays is checking in at three in the morning, there is excitement and a buzz.

“And then you get people coming back who’ve forgotten the North East is the temperature it is, especially at night, and they land in shorts and a vest, and you can see them freezing.

“Some days are busier than others, but that’s the contrast of stepping out and seeing activity, compared to hearing your own footsteps echoing round the place.”

His final line is a reference to the silence that engulfed the airport building, and runway, over the last two years, as the pandemic restricted movement from our homes, never mind entire nations.

Leon, who was promoted to his new role at the turn of the year after seven- and-a-half years in the department, admitted there have been times when the airport has been unrecognisable from the travel hub that has been his place of work for more than 15 years.

“I came in to get a new screen one day in late 2021,” he recalls.

“It was just before things started coming back; there had been a few flights in that morning, but that was it.

“When we had the ash cloud in 2010, the airport was still open, but nothing was flying for two days.

“I got out of my car, and I couldn’t hear a thing.

“The pandemic felt like that.

“It was weird; when you’re here and it’s empty, it doesn’t feel right.

“An airport’s not an airport without people – passengers are its lifeblood.

“It was surreal, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘this isn’t right, we need to do something about this; I better crack on and get the airlines back in’.”

And after two years of uncertainty and worldwide travel restrictions, the airport is filling up with passengers ready to start making memories again.

With increasing numbers of countries lifting the restrictions, North East travellers flocked to the airport during

the February half-term break; and as those limitations decrease further, indications are that Easter will continue the momentum.

And, thanks to Leon, his department – including senior aviation sales executive Laura Hartshorne and aviation development manager Chris Ion – and the wider airport team, Newcastle is ready to reach the skies.

Many of us will be familiar with the McQuaids’ working from home story.

“For five months I hardly saw my wife as we passed each other on the steps juggling home-schooling and work,” says Leon.

“It was tough, and the last couple of years have been a test.

“You’re responsible for having airlines at the airport, and as time went on, we didn’t have any as they’d stopped operations.

“It ebbed and flowed.

“I was working 4am to midday, then eight to midnight, not sleeping much. “The laptop was always there, and I sometimes plonked myself on the stairs to cram some work in.

“Eventually, I had to have something to keep my mind off work, so I went full-on and ended up re-doing the whole back garden – landscaping, fencing, the lot – it took four-and-a-half months around work and spending time with my family.

“But it was an opportunity to look ahead, to think about, once everyone was back, where we needed to be and what we had to navigate to get there.

“The only way was up.

“We’ve done a lot of the right things, but things have worked our way as well, and I’m really thankful to have my team.”

The fruits of their labours will become evident over the coming months, and years, as further flights and holidays from the airport start to materialise.

The hope is to rebuild to the full service levels of 2019, when more than 5.3 million people took off from the airport, with 775,000 connecting to the world via the scheduled hub airline services.

And progress to that target was fuelled in 2021 when a number of announcements and good news stories flew out of the airport, with airlines and routes both returning.

As they did so, recruitment became necessary across the entire operation, with hundreds turning up to a drive at St James’ Park.

Ryanair has created nearly 500 direct and indirect jobs, leading the way with a new base this summer with two based aircraft, 63 departing flights per week and 19 routes in total, including 12 new connections across Europe to places such as Milan, Riga and Zadar, in Croatia.

The Canaries are back on the schedule with the low-cost airline too.

EasyJet will be competing with Irish market rival Ryanair, and is again offering a route to Palma de Mallorca five times a week.

Emirates has begun to restore its flagship service to Dubai, with the aim of returning to daily flights.

Lufthansa is back, flying into Frankfurt.

KLM’s route to Amsterdam is operating up to four times a day.

Then there’s British Airways, TUI, Air France, Eurowings, Aer Lingus, Jet2, Loganair… the list of the 16 signed up airlines goes on – and naturally, the plan is to add to it.

“Ryanair’s investment is significant as it brings additional capacity, seats and footfall,” explains Leon.

“Jet2 had seven based aircraft pre-crisis and it’ll be nine in the summer peak; TUI has increased from three to four.

“Those three airlines came in with significant investment at a really challenging time.

“They’ve invested in belief, demand, appetite and the airport, which is brilliant because we want to recover, and we have choices.

“Emirates has always been seen as the flagship.

“When they moved their return forward by a fortnight in October, that was a massive boost for us.

“The long-haul service is a fantastic product; when we were running daily it was really successful and a fundamental element for North East businesses, as the bottom half of the aircraft takes cargo.

“The export value went from £20 million to £350 million post-Emirates service, and North East businesses have grown around it.”

When your home village’s claim to fame is the location for The Railway Children film, perhaps it is inevitable travel will become an integral part of life.

Leon’s father is a builder, who encouraged his son to leave Oakworth, near Keighley, West Yorkshire.

“He had a bad back and he said to me, ‘please do something academic’,” says Leon, who went on to study mathematics at Newcastle University.

He worked at Procter and Gamble and IBM before landing a role in the airport’s finance department in 2006.

He says: “There’s always been a culture here of real support and encouragement to move through the company, and I tried to navigate through where there were gaps.

“I grafted hard and was really well supported.

“I did an accountancy degree because I didn’t have an in-depth knowledge of how business works in the background, and becoming a qualified accountant helped that.

“I didn’t know aviation development existed until I came here.

 

“I don’t know if anyone ever thinks of an airport having someone whose role it is to go out and liaise with airlines to get the destinations, but that appealed.

“We’re delivering on things the passenger might not see, but if your aircraft is not on time, it has a knock-on effect.

“I work closely with operational.

“There are technical elements on how the aircraft lands and takes off, which is almost like a GPS, and you can reduce the amount of fuel being burnt, which is great economics for an airline and also great from a sustainability point of view as we become more aware of looking at net- zero and how we get to those goals.

“It is exciting; no two days are ever the same.”

Our airports and aircraft will, for the time being at least, still adhere to strict coronavirus rules, such as mask wearing, but much will depend on the guidance from above.

Any rules will naturally remain under review, but every airport will attempt to be the safest environment for its staff and customers.

Leon says: “Every part of the airport has been assessed and we brought out a ten- point plan to show customers.

“As your senses prick up, you realise this is huge infrastructure and it needs to work seamlessly.

“We’ve been hell-bent on managing this to come out stronger and build ourselves back up.

“It’s a big beast, which needs aircraft, passengers and people.

“People want to check in, get through and once they are past security, feel their holiday has started; they want food, a drink, to do some shopping.

“That’s a process we all go through and behind the scenes everyone’s primed and ready to get into the old ways of working when we get into the really chunky numbers of people coming through.

“I’m biased, but I love that journey from here.”

Pre-pandemic, much of the team’s work involved travelling around the world to further Newcastle’s cause and put this region on the world map.

As we’ve all discovered, thanks to COVID-19, you can sign up for conferences online and cope – although nothing beats face-to-face interaction.

Leon says: “When I speak to people, they always tell me the places we don’t go to.

“Hopefully, we’ll increasingly be able to say, ‘well, we do fly there’, and get that message across.

“Any feedback is constructive.

“We can’t fly to every city in the world because you can’t just send out a plane with two people on it.

“I want to do well for the airport and the North East, and you do feel proud when you see people flying out to places we’ve worked hard to get.

“And if we fly to Milan, for example, and it starts doing really well, we can look at other options – we might be able to add the Budapests and the Lisbons, which are on the list.”

He continues: “You can be talking to airlines for years.

“You have to build a picture of where the demand is and find an airline with the right aircraft to make it, that flies once or twice a week, or once or twice a day.

“You try to unlock those opportunities and make them work as a business and convince them of the growth potential.

“My team knows what’s on sale, the size of aircraft and the potential and historic trends but, with the pandemic, we’ve needed more of a crystal ball.

“It might not reach full potential over the year, and ultimately it comes down to how full the aircraft are, but I think we’ll have a very strong recovery.

Leon adds: “As a team, we knew we were well equipped to see this through, and sure enough, here we are.

“And I am genuinely very optimistic for our future.”

 

 

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