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Aviation: Liverpool John Lennon Airport closes in on new airlines

The Chief Executive Officer of Liverpool John Lennon Airport (JLA), John Irving, revealed he is “pretty sure” a major airline could be set to launch flights from Merseyside soon, saying the airport has come very close to securing an agreement with German airline Lufthansa. Talks with a second major airline could be in the works, with the airport looking to ‘reinvigorate’ its relationship with KLM - the Dutch airline having ended its Amsterdam route in 2012. Mr Irving said negotiations are ongoing with a number of airlines - and that without Brexit, a long-haul provider may have been announced in March 2020.

It comes as the airport hopes to increase footfall by one million extra passengers over the next year and speaking at an event hosted by Marketing Liverpool, Mr Irving is buoyant about the future. Mr Irving said the airport would “never” compete directly with Manchester, which he described as the “international gateway to the north”. But he said: “We want to do more at JLA and for the city region, and getting that business traffic back into JLA is the number one target for us. We can link the people of this region and businesses of this region to the rest of the world.

“We will never in the next 10 years get to having double daily Emirates, double daily Qatar’s. But we will have a service that suits us as a region and as an airport - but that competition to get that route is phenomenally difficult.”

Mr Irving added: “If I'm being honest, if the political uncertainty of Brexit wasn’t there, I think we would be sitting here talking about [an airline that flies to UAE or Qatar] coming in March this year, which would have fundamentally changed us as a business, and I think, fundamentally change [businesses] and the investment that we could generate as a city region.”

John Irving, CEO Liverpool John Lennon Airport

He said the airport, which is jointly owned by the Peel Group, investment management company Ancala Partners and Liverpool Council, has come “very close” to securing an agreement with German airline Lufthansa. Almost six years ago, in January 2014, the Frankfurt-based airline said it was in “constant” dialogue with JLA over introducing routes. Despite the firm saying the time the service was not viable, an airline spokesman at the time said “We would never say never”. Mr Irving has now reignited those hopes, claiming an agreement is the closest the airport has been in a decade.

He said: “They have been and seen the city. They came and looked at the airport and thought ‘great airport, brilliant’. But they really wanted to come and see this place, they wanted to see what's going on - to talk to people and businesses. I think we have sold them a story and we are very close to getting that, and again there are many factors involved in routes selection but we are as close as we have been for 10 years. We haven’t got it, but we will be continuing that conversation.”

He said he was “pretty sure” the airport “will get that in the next two years”, but warned: “We can get it, but we can't keep it. It can only be kept when people use it.

“Use it when you can, and that will lead to more, because airlines follow airlines. You get one, you probably get two - but we have to get the first one over the line.”

He also said the airport was looking to “reinvigorate” the relationship with KLM - the Dutch airline that ended its Amsterdam route back in 2012, adding: “We are speaking to them in the next couple of weeks. Hopefully we can get that back.”

Liverpool John Lennon Airport's departure lounge

Hosted by Marketing Liverpool, the Captain's Table event saw Mr Irving alongside Frank Rogers (CEO of Merseytravel) and the LCR Combined Authority, lead a discussion on the major transport issues facing the region’s business leaders. The day was part of the MIPIM partners’ 12-month programme run by Marketing Liverpool, just months before a city delegation travels to Cannes in the South of France for the annual four-day property market event.

Despite ongoing economic and political uncertainty, Mr Irving said the airport in Speke has seen over five million passengers for the second year in a row. "We are the 12th biggest airport in the UK. We are really working hard to keep growing, because one can probably see it’s quite a tough moment for the aviation industry, not just in Liverpool, but across the whole of the UK and Europe. That can be political, but it can also be down to failures of airlines.”

Continuing, Mr Irving said in the past 18 months, 14 airlines across Europe had gone to the wall, adding: “That’s pretty damaging for all airports. Whether or not you've got them in your route network, it makes it much more difficult for us. We have got eight airlines operating out of Liverpool now - the highest we've had for ten years. We connect people to the world and to other people and business, and we are doing a good job of that. What we do as a business is invest in growth. It’s not just about a new terminal and departure lounge. It isn’t about new customer offers we have. The fundamental thing that we invest in is route development. New airlines and new routes don't just come along because we are JLA, or because we sit in a very powerful region. It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of investment, and a lot of time.”

According to Mr Irving, his aviation team is already planning for summer 2021, in what is an increasingly competitive market, with fewer airlines to choose from. “We are already past next summer - it’s finished. Airlines plan a year in advance. They may have us knocking on the door, but they also have 100 other airports across the EU knocking on their door, looking for the capacity that their airport needs or their city region needs, so it is very competitive.

“What we try and do is outline what the airport is and where we stand, and what we try and do for passengers. But the most important thing to talk about is what the region is about, and what we are doing in the region. New developments in the city centre are vital when selling to an airline. So everything that happens around the city region is vital as we get new routes.”

Most notable of the airlines that have closed down is undoubtedly the recent collapse of holiday firm Thomas Cook, which came in September when the 178-year-old firm entered compulsory liquidation. Despite JLA not having any services with the firm, Mr Irving said it still had an impact on the airport.

“People think we probably survived a little bit. But what affected us was the knock on-effect of other airlines choosing where to put their scarce capacity, which means we have to fight even harder, because naturally the behaviour of airlines is to follow where the market was. So that means airlines replacing Thomas Cook putting their aircraft into gaps in Manchester and London - no matter whether they’re flying to Turkey or to Frankfurt - will go and look at those markets above us. We have to work incredibly hard to try and promote ourselves.”

People view JLA as a low cost, leisure airport,' continued Mr Irving. “That is what we’ve been very good at. Our two major partners are Easyjet and Ryanair - they do about 90% of our capacity. But we can do more. Our top three routes are Belfast, Dublin and the Isle of Man. And that isn’t just leisure traffic; that is business traffic, historical traffic. That’s been in and out of Liverpool for a long time. But for us to move forward, the short term plan is to get up to 6m passengers [a year] in the next five years.

(James Maloney)

“We have grown by one million passengers in the last five years, but to get to 6 million we have to do things differently as an airport. We can't just keep doing what we've done. We will keep adding leisure destinations, but we have to do something different.”

He said despite being a low-cost, leisure airport, JLA is "phenomenally set up for business traffic", adding: "What we provide to customers and passengers is perfect for business travel. We are 10 minutes through security guaranteed - most people go through in under five minutes. You can't get that at the bigger airports as infrastructure makes a big difference. We continue to invest in that offer. We want to make sure we are accessible and we are easy to get around. The building helps, the car park helps.

“As soon as you get to JLA, whether you drive or get the bus, within 12 minutes, you can be from your car into the departure lounge, which I think is getting as good as it can be. It's a phenomenal stat to talk about, as it means you get away to your business meeting or on your holiday on time. To an airline, it's vital. That is where they lose money. They don’t make money when the aircraft is sat on the ground. We work hard to make sure we do that, so I think we are well set up.”

Information courtesy of the Liverpool Echo/EIN News.

All images Liverpool John Lennon Airport unless stated otherwise.

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