Birmingham International Airport needs to focus on “little steps” until the economy recovers after its chief executive said he did not expect the market for air travel to improve until 2011 at the earliest.
With the aviation industry currently in chaos from a host of problems – including the recession and the volcanic ash cloud – Birmingham has seen a number of smaller airline contracts come and go.
A week ago, VIP charter jet company Cello Aviation said it was starting up private flights from the airport, hoping to target celebrities, sports stars and other wealthy customers. A few days later, Irish firms Aer Lingus and Aer Arann started flights to Shannon, on the west coast of Ireland.
But the airport has also lost some of its smaller carriers as well. Last month, Spanair put plans to start flying from Birmingham to Barcelona and Madrid on ice, blaming the recession. And Iceland Express cancelled long-held plans for a new line linking Birmingham and Reykjavik – it was due to start this week.
Airport chief executive Paul Kehoe said there were opportunities to find new contracts, but the airport had to concentrate on smaller customers at the moment, until the economy improved.
He said: “It’s about building the business on little steps. I don’t see in the current market there being a big bang in terms of massive announcements. But recently there has been, if not a sense of buoyancy, but optimism that the market is starting to recover.
“If you look at short-haul, low-cost travel, that’s the most challenging market out there at the moment. But for European short-haul flights, businesspeople are still flying and still need to do business.
“And we are seeing those sort of passengers starting to come back.”
But he said there were still a lot of problems, adding: “It’s fair to say we have had our fair share of losses as well, the Spanair situation was a mark of that. You just couldn’t excite the Birmingham market for Barcelona and Madrid, it could be the travel market was already too well serviced.
“I would like to be optimistic and say there are some green shoots coming up – and there are some – but there’s still a lot of scorched earth. He said the long-haul flights connecting through the USA and the Middle East were still performing surprisingly well, and there were plans by FlyBe to start a number of new routes to regional French cities this summer.
And he identified the national infrastructure as the biggest block to expansion at Birmingham once the market started to expand again.
“We have a very simple strategy – you get the airline and you get the passengers and then you get the value,” he said. “We can get the carriers, and when the passengers come here we can do as well as any other airport.
“The one area where I can criticise us for being weak is how you get passengers to and from the airport. If you want to get passengers from Stoke or Oxford coming to Birmingham, that’s where the real challenge is.”
The airport is looking toward the plans for a high-speed rail network that could cut down on times for inter-regional travel. But the plans announced by the Labour government are still up in the air after a tenuous commitment from the new coalition.
Plans to scrap expansion at Heathrow could provide an opportunity for Birmingham to take up the slack as the aviation market grows.
Mr Kehoe said he was still confident that plans for the extension of the runway at Birmingham would still go ahead, meaning it could take on more flights to the Far East and the USA if it was bringing in traffic that might have gone to Heathrow.
Aviation expert Dr Pat Hanlon, of the University of Birmingham, said that the industry would continue to expand once the economy picked up, and if Birmingham could attract the new airlines, there was potential for passengers to substitute from London airports to Birmingham.
But he said a high-speed rail link would mean Birmingham also faced more competition from other airports for Midland passengers.
He said: “One of the problems Birmingham has suffered from is that the smaller range of services there means quite a lot of passengers have used airports elsewhere – half of the travel in the West Midlands is exported to other parts of the country.
“While high-speed rail will make Birmingham more attractive to the South-East it will also make Heathrow more accessible to West Midland passengers.”