All in a year’s work for new airport chief

Running an airport might seem like a simple task. Until you throw in harsh winters, natural disasters, popular uprisings and airlines you have no control over.

It's all in a day's work for Andrew Bell, Norwich International Airport's chief executive.

He has had to deal with all of the above and more in the past year – his first year in charge of the airport.

Would he change a thing? Well, probably, but he's still enjoying his job.

'It has flown by,' he says. 'The first thing that happened was the ash cloud. We had a phone call to say airspace was closed and what are you going to do.'

Next there was a major flood disaster in Funchal, Madeira, a new destination for the airport.

At the end of 2010 there was a shark attack in Egypt's Sharm al-Sheikh resort – another new destination.

Most Read

This was then followed by the toppling of Egyptian premier Muhammad Mubarak in a popular uprising.

This was seen to have been sparked by the uprisings in Tunisia – also a new destination for the airport.

All of this was on top of a bad winter in 2009/10 followed by one of the worst winters in recent decades just gone.

And that is just one side of the business. Planning permission for a new engine testing facility is subject to a judicial review and a move by Scotia from Great Yarmouth to Norwich, which would boost the airport as a major heliport, was halted.

'It's been busy,' says Mr Bell, who, despite being seemingly landed in the deep end is revelling in his role.

'It has been a pretty steep learning curve from commercial finance.'

Having studied French and Italian at university, he went on to train as a chartered accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers before joining book wholesaler the Bertram Group in accounts. He then joined Norwich Airport owner Omniport as finance controller, becoming group finance director. Now he gets involved in everything from talking to carriers about new routes and property development on the site to customer interaction and mediation and looking after people.

'It's what I enjoy,' he says. 'There's an awful lot to do.'

Despite not acquiring Scotia, the airport did gain Bond in July last year and the firm recently became part of the global World Helicopters, part of Spanish group Inaer and signs of investment are postitive.

A Belgian offshore helicopter firm moved to the airport. Although Sterling Aviation is struggling, Saxonair, part of Klyne Aviation, is on the verge of opening its new �6m Business Aviation Centre.

Mr Bell has also launched new initiatives – an airport passenger consultation group through which issues facing passengers can be independently looked at.

He believes it is the first airport to do so. It was also one of the first regional airports to launch a smartphone app to let people check up-to-date arrivals and departure times.

So how has the airport fared in the past year?

Passenger numbers in the year to the end of April have grown 8pc year on year overall with holiday charter flights growing an impressive 73pc, from 61,000 to 106,000, despite the issues with Egypt, Tunisia and Funchal and the air ash. Destinations have included Madiera, Bulgaria, Antalya, Alicante, Sharm al-Sheikh, Tenerife and Monastir in Tunisia.

Private general aviation grew significantly increasing from 1,500 to 3,800. However, scheduled flights were flat and offshore numbers dipped.

Turnover at the airport, was also broadly flat, increasing from �10.3m to �10.5m.

Mr Bell was pleased with the passenger growth, especially after the tumultuous year: 'Eight per cent growth is one of the highest growth rates in the UK outside London. A lot of other regional airports are still declining.'

Last year total passenger movements were 439,000, compared to 408,000 the year before. It's still a long way behind the 776,000 in 2006/7, but it's about the same number as in 2004/5.

The 2006/7 peak was explained by Flybe's introduction of cheaper flights, which proved unsustainable economically.

'That peak proved there is a market,' he said. 'There is a demand from the catchment area. It shows we are in good shape and confident we can grow and that we've been there before.'

However, his aim is to stabilise the airport by making its economic integrity not reliant on passenger numbers, which can fluctuate.

This means developing the site.

While airports like Stansted and Heathrow can rely on revenue from retail operations and others can make money from parking, due to Norwich's position neither are easy cash makers for the airport.

'The key for Norwich is the opportunity we have here to take the volatility out of the revenue line,' said Mr Bell.

'From one year to the next we are at the whim of airlines and I can't influence their decisions. We have already got a very good property portfolio, with the Aviation Centre.

'All of the north-east corner of the airfield is available for aviation development.'

His hope is to expand the maintenance boulevard of excellence in that area of the airfield. Offshore work is also an area that could grow with increased helicopter movements.

He also wants to improve customer service. 'It isn't bad,' he says. He wants it to be better.

However, he has already made other changes. Pain was felt about six months ago when redundancies were made in senior management – changes that should have been made years ago, the moves were described at the time.

The senior management team has now also been moved into the main airport terminal, with Mr Bell's office overlooking the entire airfield. The location means the senior management team is it at the heart of the operation, instead of on the periphery in their previous office in Hurricane Way, out of view of the core of activity.

The changes are paying off, he says. 'People are settling really well. It is hard taking people out of roles, but it seems to be working.'

Profitability and efficiency have risen as a result, he says, but the work is not over.

And because of the slew of disasters and turmoil in destinations carriers fly to, the airport is also making its budgetary predictions more gloomy each year to take into account possible issues that might affect business.

In previous years it had been SARS or 9/11 – 'there is always going to be something', says Mr Bell.

And the elephant in the room? As always, the airport development fee cannot be ignored.

He accepts it's not popular but it is keeping routes open, he says, and has paid for improvements.

It is also something other airports do – Newquay, Durham, Blackpool and two in Ireland all charge the same or more than Norwich.

What he does want to do is tell people more about what the money is spent on, to help people understand how it is helping them (for example meaning they do not have to pay for plastic flight bags for cosmetics or for fast-track service and keeping routes open).

But he also wants to make it easier for people to pay – potentially launching an Oyster card-style system for frequent travellers.

'It is still hard work,' he says. 'But the work is paying off. It has been a but year but we have made good progress.'