Brexit, new tech, noise complaints and expansion: Stansted boss Ken O’Toole on a pivotal few weeks for the airport

Ken O'Toole, chief executive of Stansted Airport. Picture: TONY PICK PHOTOGRAPHY

Ken O'Toole, chief executive of Stansted Airport. Picture: TONY PICK PHOTOGRAPHY - Credit: Tony Pick

Although most of the 93,000 passengers passing through Stansted’s doors tomorrow for the start of their half term holidays will be blissfully unaware of it, the next few weeks will be a crucially defining moment in the history of Stansted Airport.

London Stansted CEO, Ken O’Toole at the recent launch of Emirates service to Dubai Picture: STEVE BA

London Stansted CEO, Ken OToole at the recent launch of Emirates service to Dubai Picture: STEVE BATES - Credit: Archant

Enabling airports to increase their passenger numbers always sparks huge controversy in the UK, and Stansted’s own plans to raise the cap from 35m to 43m a year have met with some local opposition.

The campaign group Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE) tried to get the decision about raising the cap taken out of Uttlesford District Council’s hands by serving legal papers for central Government to take control, but their attempt was unsuccessful and the decision will be taken at a crunch meeting on November 14.

Mr O’Toole believes that local government is “perfectly capable” of making this decision. But he also admits that he is “taking nothing for granted” when it comes to getting his way.

Decision time

Mr O’Toole claims there has been “a lot of noise” about what the planning application amendment they are seeking is really about.

“I’m very keen to be crystal clear what we are asking for, rather than the perception of what it might be,” he explains.

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“We have to build a tiny sliver of taxiway off either end of the runway and three stands for aircraft, so the physical work is absolutely minimal. We are not seeking any change in the number of flights, and there will be no change in the boundary of the airport.”

Mr O’Toole claims that allowing Stansted to increase its passenger numbers by 8m will unlock 5,000 more direct jobs, and add about £1bn of economic value to the UK.

“That nearly doubles the contribution we make at the moment. In my mind, its a no-brainer.”

Unlike Heathrow’s plans for a third runway and Gatwick Airport’s proposals to utilise a standby runway, Mr O’Toole claims that there is an urgency to Stansted’s case.

“Gatwick’s plans are quite some way out in timeline, if deliverable at all, while ours is right here in front of us.

“We are growing by 10% per anum, we need to unlock the capacity of our runway now to accommodate the demand and growth that’s here now.”

How Brexit is changing priorities

Stansted was part of an industry lobby to remain in the EU, but Mr O’Toole says he is “confident” that a Brexit outcome will be achieved that ensures the continuation of the freedom people have today to fly.

“Its in nobody’s interests for that right to be negatively impacted from the end of March 2019,” he said. “There is obviously a lot of politicking going on at the moment.

“There is potential slowdown of trade with the EU.

“But as the UK’s best connected European airport, we’re not concerned that we’re going to see a fundamental shift in travel patterns between the UK and the EU, and its important to be aware of that.

“What Brexit does give us is the imperative to broaden the trading relationships of the UK with other countries around the world.

“We’re doing a huge amount of activity at the moment with airlines in India, China and the US, and we believe that there is both intent and likelihood that our trading relationships with those markets will grow after Brexit.”

Changes at Stansted post-Brexit

While there is a desire from government to manage immigration more effectively, Mr O’Toole believes that the government doesn’t want to change border control processes “just for the sake of it.”

“Will we see things like ‘Trust a Traveller’ schemes coming in, in which passengers from countries deemed to be safer go through faster? I would expect so,” he says.

“Will we see additional or new visa requirements for people who want to live for extended periods in the UK? That is a likelihood.

“But I don’t expect these things to change the physical nature of the airport experience.”

Stansted currently has the highest number of e gates of any UK airport, and while currently these self-service portals are only available to EEA and Swiss passport holders, Mr O’Toole would like to see that expanded.

“We are working quite closely with government and border force on whether we can get more countries permitted to use the gates, namely residents of Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the US and Canada,” he explains.

Technological advances

There will also be changes to the physical landscape at Stansted that have nothing to do with Brexit, namely a £130m arrivals terminal which is due to open in 2020.

“We’re looking to introduce lots more self service and lots more technology,” says Mr O’Toole.

But won’t this mean shedding jobs?

“I can see a situation where a lot of the check in process type work – printing bag tags, for example – can be taken out of the airport and that will be of benefit to the consumer. But we are in a growing facility, so don’t anticipate job losses.”

Exploring new frontiers

Mr O’Toole revealed that there is plenty of interest from new airlines to operate new routes from Stansted.

“The likes of Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Indian carriers, Chinese carriers, they’re all looking at that combination of really strong load factors and really strong fare with the demand that we can evidence around our catchment,” he said. “That gives us a lot of confidence that over the next few years, we are going to tick off more and more of these direct long haul routes.

“I reckon there are another 25 to 30 long haul routes that are viable from Stansted.”

However, Mr O’Toole also warns that the planning permission amendment is needed to give the international airlines that Stansted is courting the confidence to commit to Stansted.

“We want to be able to give all stakeholders – airlines being one of them – clarity in what Stansted’s ambitions are.

“It will also see us unlock some of the spare runway capacity that we have at the moment.

“It allows us to go to airlines and say ‘look the demand is there, we know that, the facilities are here, and actually, the regulatory and planning environment supports that growth’.”

A sweetener to boost trade

The message that Mr O’Toole believes that the government wants to impart is that “Britain’s open for business”.

But he also claims there are tangible things that government can do to bring that to the airlines’ eyes – namely to reform the Air Passenger Duty (APD) – the tax that every passenger leaving the UK pays, which for a short haul passenger is £13, rising to £73 for a long haul economy seat.

Mr O’Toole claims our APD is the highest of any country in the world, apart from Chad.

“Some airlines continue to push for it to be scrapped, but it’s £4bn of tax for the treasury so I think that’s really unlikely.

“But an APD holiday for new long haul routes could be introduced to support our exit from the EU and the fostering of new trade links. It would essentially be a government incentive for airlines, for a year or two, to say ‘we’re going to bring in new long haul routes’.”

When Mr O’Toole was chief executive of Manchester Airport before taking over at Stansted last August, he managed to secure the first route to operate from the North of England to China. This had a significant impact on driving trade in the North, bringing in around £100m a year to the tourism sector alone. But he reveals that the Beijing route was initially delayed by two to three years because of the Chinese airline’s concerns about APD.

“They kept saying ‘we would be here except for APD’,” he says.

‘Challenging’ Border Force issues

Mr O’Toole would also like to see changes made to Border Force to enable non-EU passengers to be processed more quickly. “EU passengers process within 25 minutes, but with non-EU, its 45 minutes,” he explains. “This means that trying to position the country as an open, supportive environment for new business and foreign direct investment, it’s very challenging.

“We hear that all the time, and we need to reform that.”

Mr O’Toole is in talks with the government about linking these two issues together to create a self-funding incentive package. “APD supports future growth, the direct taxation revenue from that might be used to further invest in border force to reduce times,” he suggests.

Keeping the noise down

While a common complaint by local residents about Stansted is the noise of the planes, Mr O’Toole claims that the noise envelope has come down in recent years. This is not only because modern planes are quieter, but because of the impact of bringing planes in and put at a steeper (and thereby quieter) angle.

“We have also introduced performance-based navigation to our departure routes, which essentially means planes fly by GPS,” he explains. “18 months ago, planes flew within a corridor 3km wide. With GPS technology, they now fly within a corridor that’s 400m wide. That essentially means that a 2.5 km width of people no longer have flights fly over them.”

Global warming

Air travel accounts for up to 9% of the total climate change impact of human activity, and there have been dire warnings lately from the IPCC about the impact of climate change.

But Mr O’Toole argues that his industry isn’t just “sitting on its hands” in terms of its awareness.

“The technology will continue to move on aircraft and air engine tech. We have just had the first partial biofuel flights operated into the UK (a Virgin flight from Florida to Gatwick Airport), and there’s a lot of work being done on electric engines.

“We have never breached any of our air quality limits, and as an airport, we are carbon neutral.

“But that’s not to underplay the significance and the intent of the industry to drive improvements in that area.”

Dubai on a high

Airlines flying from Stansted haven’t all fared well lately, with the collapse of Primera Air earlier this month meaning the plug has been pulled on flights from Stansted to Boston, New York and Washington DC.

However, Mr O’Toole is hailing the service Emirates launched in June to Dubai as a resounding success.

“At the launch, the Emirates guys joked that they would be coming to speak to me soon about increasing to double daily flights, but we really are now talking to them about that, its gone that well,” he said. “We’d be hopeful – better than hopeful – that they would look to add a second daily flight as quickly as next summer, which would reflect well on the success they’ve had so far.”

Building bridges with the community

Mr O’Toole claims that being the only airport group in the UK that remains majority publicly owned “impacts our DNA”.

“That DNA has radically improved our relationships with councils and stakeholders since we bought the airport five years ago. It gives them the confidence that what we say we intend to do is what we intend to do.”

He claims that 25% of Stansted’s staff regularly volunteer in local community activities, whether its through their school mentoring programmes or at Stansted’s education facility, Harlow College. “We now have father and sons, mother and daughters working at the airport together – there’s a real community spirit, which is really important,” he says.

Kids on a plane

Since its half term coming up, Stansted will soon be filling up with energetic young children.

Like most parents, Mr O’Toole, who is a father of five, isn’t a fan of flying with small children. “My youngest is two,” he said. “How do I control him on a plane? We typically don’t fly from anywhere where the flight time is more than an hour and a half or two, that’s a rule of thumb! And the other is to bring plenty of help with me.”