Covid reflections and reasons for optimism
Clare James was appointed East Midlands Airport's Managing Director in the middle of the pandemic. Fifteen months on, she reflects on the challenges she and her team have faced and explains why she's optimistic about the future.
I was appointed Managing Director of East Midlands Airport (EMA) back in July 2020. I confess to being both excited and a little apprehensive given the importance of the role. Taking over as a new MD is challenging at the best of times, but doing so in the throes of a global pandemic which more or less grounded our industry overnight, took it to a whole new level!
Fifteen months into the job and I still haven’t seen a really busy day for passenger travel. However, as we approach October half-term, at last things are beginning to look a little brighter.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that the pandemic has been the most difficult period in the history of aviation. The sector was one of the first to be shut down, and the last to re-open. During significant periods of the last year-and-a-half, the doors to our passenger terminal were locked as bans on non-essential international travel took effect. It’s only when air travel is not possible that it becomes apparent how much we have taken it for granted.
Since day one in the job, my focus has been on protecting the business, to ensure that this region continues to be served by an airport from which so many people benefit. In doing so, painful decisions have had to be made and it’s been sad to lose some fantastic colleagues - either through redundancy or people leaving of their own accord because, for them, the future of aviation looked so uncertain.
Throughout this period, my heart would sink when I’d take a stroll around the empty terminal, seeing the shutters over shop windows, restaurants closed that should have been buzzing with excited families starting their holiday adventures, and aircraft standing idly on the tarmac with no crew or passengers on board. In the depths of winter earlier this year when we were back in lockdown, as I did my nightly run around the airport and its empty car parks, I did wonder myself whether life would ever return to normal.
However, I had to remain optimistic. I was always confident that, when the worst of the pandemic was over, and it was safe to do so, people would start travelling again. And it’s clear that there is the demand for it. Sadly, the recovery has been slower than we had hoped. A lack of consumer confidence, uncertainty about the traffic light system, and the costs and hassle of tests have meant many people were put off an overseas holiday this year. Our passenger numbers this summer have been a third of what they were pre-pandemic. It’s been a similar story across of the whole of UK aviation – a situation made more frustrating by the fact that, throughout much of Europe, the recovery has been twice as fast compared with here.
Now that the Government has reformed its traffic light system, and announced a date for removing the day two PCR test for those returning to the UK, it is time to look to the future.
As schools in this region break up for half-term, and restrictions are eased, increasing numbers of people are taking to the skies in what may be their last opportunity to do so this year. It’s encouraging to see a spike in bookings over the coming days and passenger figures suggest we are starting to see up to 50% of pre-pandemic passenger volumes for the October half-term, which is a step in the right direction. It’s also really pleasing to welcome colleagues back into work – particularly those who have been furloughed for long periods of time.
It is estimated that passenger numbers may not return to what they were pre-Covid until 2026 for EMA, so we have a long way to go. Our recovery will be gradual, and I still have a delicate balancing act to maintain in keeping costs down while making the case for investment to ensure that EMA remains the airport of choice for so many customers.
If things continue as they are I’m hopeful that, come the dark long days of January when the Christmas and New Year festivities are over, people’s attention will turn to sun, sea and sangria and booking overseas summer breaks.
Demand for air cargo soars
There are, of course, two sides to the EMA operation. The knock-on effect of people saving money from not going on holiday, and spending more time at home, has resulted in a massive surge in internet shopping. If something is ordered online and it is not stocked in the UK, there’s a strong chance it will be flown into the UK through our airport. This, combined with fewer long-haul passenger flights, particularly transatlantic, which would have carried goods as well as suitcases, has meant that the express air freight operators based at EMA have been busier than ever. In the coming winter months in the run up to Black Friday and Christmas, the likes of DHL, UPS, FedEx and Royal Mail will work flat out to ensure your presents, household gifts and clothes reach you in time.
The EMA cargo operation has also thrown a lifeline to regional businesses that rely on imports and exports. In the early days of the pandemic, much critical PPE and hospital equipment, some of which was manufactured in this region, was flown around the world to hospitals that needed it most urgently. We are already seeing a 10% increase in the volume of goods compared with 2020, so records are likely to be broken again this winter.
As the pandemic eases, I can look a bit further ahead and begin thinking more strategically about how this airport continues to provide an invaluable service to all customers. There are big opportunities around the corner. Assuming success of the East Midlands Freeport bid, EMA will be the ‘port’ to the UK’s only inland Freeport. We can also start to give more thought to our role within the region and how we can best support the work that is happening to shape a new identity for the East Midlands. I’m also considering what sustainable aviation will look like and what measures we need to take now to ensure we hit our goal of zero carbon emissions by 2038. Changes to technology and people’s expectations will drive significant development within aviation and we need to be ready.
The future is not without its challenges, but aviation is resilient and enduring, our people are passionate and motivated. There is much to look forward to and I relish tackling the opportunities ahead!