Birmingham Airport to help West Midlands take flight again

The future for Birmingham Airport is bright as it recovers from the two-year setback of the coronavirus pandemic.

Passengers arriving at Birmingham Airport
Passengers arriving at Birmingham Airport

And now it has the Commonwealth Games to look forward to, an event that will bring passengers through while it is held but also heighten the long-term profile of the region on a global scale.

Chief executive Nick Barton says that it can once again drive the prosperity of the region for which an international transport link is fundamental.

And he is bullish of the future as Birmingham, like other airports, faces the challenge of getting back to full capacity after the devastating impact of Covid.

"We are the gateway to the region and the gateway from it," explained Mr Barton.

Nick Barton

He says the Commonwealth Games, which starts on July 28, presents a great opportunity for the region.

"It is all about the legacy of the Games. It offers a tremendous window of opportunity to show what is great about the region.

"The world's focus will be on us for two weeks."

Mr Barton said that a lot of hard work had already gone into planning for the Games.

"We hope to make sure it is a lovely experience for all the people who will be coming through the airport," he stresses.

The airport has also had to plan to handle all the specialist equipment for the international sports teams coming through it.

"Dealing with the pole vault poles which are up to 17ft 5in is going to be a particular problem," he joked.

Birmingham Airport will continue to use its single runway

Mr Barton said: "Our aim is to once again become the reliable friend that gets people started on their journey"

He joined the airport in December 2018 and was previously chief executive of Luton Airport between 2014 and 2018, and managing director at Stansted.

"I had 15 months of relative normality and then we were faced with the most incredible challenge the airport has ever faced with the pandemic," said Mr Barton, who says he is proud of the contribution the airport made

Instead of being mothballed, the airport continued to handle cargo flight and supported several Covid and Brexit-related initiatives.

The Birmingham Airport terminal

Last year the airport also handled two-thirds of the total number of evacuees coming to the UK from Kabul after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan

The airport, which saw its first flight in 1939, is poised to resume investment as part of its master plan to grow annual passenger numbers to 18 million by 2033.

The £500m programme was put on hold by pandemic which he describes as a "catastrophically bad experience for the industry".

With passenger number recovering rapidly, Mr Barton believes the airport will soon be back to where it was before coronavirus hit.

Photo taken by a passenger flying from Birmingham Airport to Edinburgh, Matthew Broome, show huge queues on the morning of Monday, May 9. Credit: Matthew Broome/BPM.

It has suffered from staffing issues, and there have been images of passengers queueing outside the terminal as they await check in. But Birmingham's issues haven't been as bad as those at Manchester and Heathrow, where hundreds of people have missed flights because they could not get through the security quick enough.

Mr Barton said short-term problems post-Covid will ease once new staff have been trained up and he is now looking to the future of the airport and how it can grow for the good of the region.

"In the past where there have been global shocks that affect aviation in every case it has always recovered and and continued the growth curve," he said.

"In general, aviation grows at four per cent a year. I don't see any reason why that should not carry on.

"Events suggest the recovery will be quicker that we first expected even though the pandemic has had the deepest impact on civil aviation since the Second World War," he explains.

Mr Barton said that as well as leisure travel, business travel is coming back strong for the airport.

"Business travel is very important for Birmingham Airport – it has the second highest proportion of it after Heathrow in the UK.

"There are a lot of family owned small and medium-sized businesses in the region without a global network that need to travel," he says.

Mr Barton, who is deputy chairman of the Airport Operators' Association, said Birmingham had not lost any airlines during the pandemic and earlier this year became the new headquarters for the revived Flybe airline.

"Green shoots are now spring up everywhere. Airlines are starting to add new routes from Birmingham and we are getting back to where we used to be before the pandemic

"HS2 is barrelling down the track. It involves a game changing level of investment.

CGI of the proposed HS2 Interchange station to be built near Birmingham Airport

"It will enable people to get from the airport to Euston in central London in 37 minutes. If you go by Tube from Wimbledon it takes 38 minutes to get to central London.

"The benefit for the region and airport is tremendous," explained Mr Barton, who said HS2 would help the city to attract even more 'top class blue chip businesses'.

The airport is in the midst of fresh recruitment as it builds up its workforce again after being forced to shed 43 per cent of it because of the pandemic.

Security staff have been a priority and the numbers needed have now been found, but there has been a lag between training them and getting them security clearance to work air side that led to recent problems with long queues for outgoing passengers at peak periods.

Mr Barton believes that the airport does not need to look at adding more runway capacity and the key to growth will be in driving operational efficiency from the assets it has got.

A key challenge in the next decade is going to be achieving the target of becoming net zero for carbon by 2033. Mr Barton says he intends to meet that challenge positively, like every other he has had to face. The future, he says, is looking up.

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