Manchester Airport - The Road to Recovery

by Karen Smart, Managing Director, Manchester Airport

The last 18 months have been the toughest the aviation industry has faced in its entire history, with traffic levels dropping to as low as 5% of usual volumes at the height of the pandemic.

It has been heart-breaking to see our once thriving terminals at a fraction of their capacity, and in some cases mothballed completely.

It has been equally as heart-breaking to see travel return to something much closer to “normal” across the continent, while we have felt stuck in first gear, despite the success of our vaccination programme and low infection rates in the most popular destinations for our customers.

Prolonged restrictions on travel have undoubtedly held back our recovery to date, as customers found themselves grappling with confusing guidance or requirements, and the associated cost of testing.

However, after changes to the Government’s travel restrictions were announced last week, we are feeling a sense of excitement about our airports starting to return to how we knew them before the pandemic.

Bookings have surged on the back of the simplification of the traffic light system, and again after it was confirmed more destinations would move off the red list and that PCR tests will no longer be required for those returning to the country by the end of the month.

And our excitement is two-fold, because we have been able to welcome back so many of our colleagues, who have spent time on furlough over the past 18 months or so. Being able to bring them back just at the time we will start to see travel resume in earnest feels extra special.

For so many families, it must have been hard to decide whether to holiday at home, or just to give up on the idea of a trip away for another year. But, with all the positive developments I have referenced taking place, we are all hopeful we will see a meaningful increase in passenger numbers during the October half-term next week – and that it will be a springboard for bookings to continue to grow during winter and into 2022.

That is reflected by the confidence we are seeing from our airline partners, as they either return to the airport, start new services from Manchester or increase frequency on existing routes.

A great example - and a sign of its confidence in the North - is Aer Lingus choosing Manchester as its first transatlantic base in the UK, with flights starting on 20th October to Barbados. I look forward to December when the Irish flag carrier starts further services to Orlando and New York, with the latter being a key trade route for many businesses across the North.

Other examples include the return of longstanding carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific, both of which connect the North with the Far East and beyond. Our Middle Eastern carriers have grown back at a great pace as we recover, offering a range of options to the UAE, Doha and beyond, plus it’s great to have Ethiopian Airlines back ensuring we are connected to Africa.

By the end of the year we will have a number of direct connections back to the USA. The States is one of our most important markets, with more than 1.6m passengers from our catchment travelling there each year pre-Covid from Manchester Airport. Not only are these links great from a leisure and tourism point of view, but they are also vital as we connect the North to key global powerhouses for trade and investment opportunities.

I have to say one of the strangest experiences of the past 18 months was the opening of our new Terminal Two extension. It was more than five years in the making, but due to the pandemic the launch was put on hold for more than a year, and it finally opened on July 14th.

Those of you who followed the story of our transformation programme will be aware we were gearing up to open the new terminal – the product of the largest investment we have made in our history – to much fanfare and, naturally, wanted as many customers as possible to experience it.

The reality, in this strangest of all years, was far removed from that, with only three flights and a few hundred passengers on the opening day. That, though, did not detract from our sense of pride, or from how momentous an occasion it was for Manchester Airport.

And, in actual fact, it is really nice to know that when people start to fly through Manchester again after such a tough period, the vast majority will get to sample this great new facility. It has the latest travel technology, offering passengers a great experience the moment they arrive, and feedback so far has been great.

One thing that has of course been critical as we launched the new terminal – and across our site in general – is Covid-safety. We want customers to be excited to be travelling again, but feeling safe at all times. That is why we were one of the first airports to implement a range of safety measures including enhanced cleaning, mandatory face coverings, Perspex screens and only travelling passengers allowed in the terminal.

As we emerge from the pandemic and recovery ramps up, sustainability will be a key theme for the entire industry. We’ve led the way in recent years at Manchester and at our other MAG airports, so it will be no different post-Covid. Our Corporate Social Responsibility report is due to be released in the coming weeks and will not only highlight our successes in this arena, but it will detail our commitment to the green agenda for the future.

Looking ahead as we continue to recover, we can still go further, and so in the New Year we’ll be calling on the government to further simplify the travel system, so that international travel can start to feel as it was before the pandemic.

It will be at least until 2024 that we see a return to pre-Covid passenger numbers, but we are hoping for many more new routes in the weeks and months ahead, ensuring we continue to connect the North to key global destinations. The next stages of our transformation programme will continue too, with new baggage systems being the next phase.

Finally, I’d like to thank all our customers and partners for their commitment and understanding during the pandemic and would like to assure them that we have stringent safety measures in place, meaning they can travel with peace of mind wherever they are jetting off to from Manchester Airport.