The runway to recovery

This is the time of year when airports, airlines and the businesses which support them are typically at their busiest, preparing for vast swathes of holidaymakers going on summer breaks. The coronavirus pandemic means that images of sun-seeking travellers lining up at check-in desks are some way off. After closing at the end of April to passengers, Newcastle Airport re-opened last week (June 1) in a sigh of relief for the region’s business community and its people. Richard Dawson speaks to chief executive, Nick Jones, for an update on how the airport is adapting and what the future might look like

How important was it to get the airport reopened this week and how difficult was it getting to this point?

Over the years the airport has faced all sorts of different challenges, however none quite like this. Despite passenger flights ceasing at the end of April, the airfield has remained open to support cargo, medical and military flights arriving into the region. Newcastle International Airport is vital to the North East economy and connects the region with destinations across the globe. It was extremely important to us to be in a position to reopen the terminal as soon as our airlines required. However, the safety of our passengers and staff remains our number one priority so we needed to ensure we could do this in a safe manner. The whole team pulled together and worked extremely hard throughout May to get the airport ready.

You have opted for a phased return to operations with more routes coming onstream in the weeks ahead? What was the thought process behind this?

It wasn’t our decision to phase the return of flights, it is driven by the airlines. In any case, we are expecting it to be many months until passenger levels return to the numbers we saw in 2019. On June 1 passenger flights resumed, and we currently have 2 airlines operating to 2 destinations – KLM to Amsterdam and Loganair to Aberdeen. Throughout June this will increase to 6 airlines to 6 destinations, including Air France to Paris, easyJet to Belfast, Loganair and Eastern Airways to Southampton and Ryanair to Alicante. Throughout July and August, we expect more airlines to return, but it will be a very gradual process.

What challenges have you faced in making the airport COVID-secure with social distancing measures in place?

We launched our Ten Point Plan prior to flights resuming to give passengers reassurance about the additional measures we have put in place since lockdown began. The primary message is if you feel unwell, you should not travel. However, for those who need to travel, we have ensured the terminal is a safe environment for all. Face masks are mandatory within the terminal. This is not only to provide protection and reassurance for passengers but our staff also. This is in-line with the guidelines from our airline partners which also require passengers to wear masks on the aircraft. Social distancing should be adhered to wherever possible, with passengers advised to remain 2 metres from others not in their family group. We have tried to reduce touch points as much as possible, all of our car parks are self-park only and we have temporarily closed all of the retail and catering outlets. Hand sanitiser is provided throughout the terminal and passengers are encouraged to use it at various points during their journey through the airport. An enhanced cleaning regime is also underway, which includes the regular sanitising of frequently used touch points such as handrails and buttons. We are expecting official guidance for airports from the Government shortly, and we will be ensuring that our Ten Point Plan aligns to this.

Do you support the Government’s 14-day quarantine for international arrivals?

We accept the Government’s decision to introduce the 14 day quarantine, however we hope to see an exit strategy agreed, which will detail how these measures can be reduced safely over the coming weeks. We support the proposal of air bridges between the UK and countries where the transmission rate is low. This would allow more passengers to travel freely, without the need to quarantine.

Would you like to see more Government support for airports to help them get through this period?

We understand it is a very difficult for businesses up and down the country at the moment. As mentioned, we would like to see the introduction of air bridges to allow passengers to travel more freely. Also, the hospitality, leisure and retail sectors have benefitted from 3 months business rates relief – as have airports in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We believe it is only fair that airports in England receive this relief too and are in regular discussions with the Government on this.

How long do you think it might be before normal passenger volumes recover to their pre-crisis levels?

We are certain it is going to be a long road to recovery, however last week was a very important step as we welcomed passengers back for the first time. Although we went into lockdown very quickly, we believe the recovery will be a much more gradual process. We are expecting it will be many months before the airport sees passenger levels similar to 2019 but we are hopeful they will recover in time.

Do you think the future of Newcastle Airport is secure?

Newcastle Airport is a strong regional airport with a wide portfolio of airlines and support both business and leisure traffic. There is no doubt that this crisis has severely affected our business, however, I am confident that the airport will weather this storm and continue to serve the North East travelling public.

Newcastle Airport