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AIRPORT PROFILES Last modified on November 19, 2012

A right royal knees up: London City Airport celebrates its 25th birthday in Olympic style

Steven Thompson catches up with London City CEO, Declan Collier, to find out more about a special year for the airport.
It was one of the most memorable moments of 2012 – the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

Beamed live around the globe to more than one billion viewers worldwide, the most talked about moment of that ceremony was the scene in which James Bond escorted the Queen direct from Buckingham Palace to the Olympic Stadium.

Daniel Craig, playing the fictional secret agent James Bond, picked up Her Majesty by helicopter and flew to the Olympic Stadium, before the pair seemingly skydived their way into the arena.

The stunt, breathtaking and humorous in equal amounts, was what every Londoner was talking about the next day.

Not least, at London City Airport (LCY), because the morning after the night before, the gateway was welcoming one of the show stealing stars of the opening ceremony… and it wasn’t 007.

It had been 25 years previously that Queen Elizabeth had officially opened the airport. And so, as she prepared to fly out to Balmoral, for the summer holidays, her last official engagement, following the opening of the Games of the 30th Olympiad, was to mark London City’s quarter-decade anniversary.

Surely then, the airport’s new CEO – Declan Collier, who joined London City from Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) in March 2012 – would take the chance to ask Her Majesty about her meeting with Bond the night before?

“That would be breaking confidence,” he jokes.

“The morning after she opened the Olympics she was here with us to celebrate our 25th anniversary and that was a great visit because the Queen had opened the airport originally, so for her to come back at a time when she was so busy and on the day she was due to go on holiday, we were delighted. It was great for the airport and the staff.”

Just three miles from the Olympic Stadium and one mile from
ExCeL London – where events such as boxing, table tennis and weightlifting took place – the airport was the natural choice for many visitors to the Games.

The Queen was not the only VVIP to pass through the airport either. The gateway welcomed many of the athletes, including Team GB swimmers, as well as several European heads of state.

“From a personal point of view, I thought the Olympics were fantastic,” adds Collier. “To be so close to such a major world event was great. It was a really interesting, exciting time and it gave the whole country a real fillip.

“From a business point of view, we didn’t expect to see any huge increase in business and we didn’t see any huge increase in business.

“There was a great buzz around. The staff here got into the whole thing in a big way as well, so overall it was a very happy experience, but I would have been much happier if we’d doubled traffic volumes at the airport!”

London City has its constraints. It is the only airport actually located in London – although IATA officially recognises six – and its site next to the River Thames in the heavily populated borough of Newham means that it does not, physically speaking, have too much room for expansion.

However, Collier says it still has potential to grow, and could even help out Heathrow with its capacity issues in the short-term.

“Airports like London City have an opportunity to contribute,” he explains. “We have capacity here at LCY. We’re anxious to grow, we have the ability to grow, and I think we can help to solve the capacity issue at Heathrow by taking some of the short-haul and regional business, as we have been doing, into London City, and developing our business here, and creating some more space at Heathrow.”

The airport currently has permission to handle up to 120,000 flights a year. By the end of 2012, Collier estimates London City will be handling around 65,000 aircraft movements annually, so this still gives the airport scope to expand in traffic terms by nearly 50%.

“With development, we see this airport having the potential to grow to around 170,000 flight movements a year,” he adds.“We’re currently at around 3.2 million passengers a year and that could go
up to 12 to 14 million.”

The airport is just 10 minutes from Canary Wharf, a major business centre, 20 minutes from The City, and half an hour from the West End.

As such, the gateway is a big pull for business passengers and likewise for foreign travellers. Indeed, 65% of LCY’s passengers are travelling on business and 65% are foreign.

“A lot of our foreign customers recognise that if they want to get access to London then London City Airport is the place to go,” says Collier.

“Over the coming years we will see a change in that, as we start to access more leisure passengers. We have an important and significant leisure sector, particularly in winter for skiing holidays, but this year we’ve opened new routes to sun and sea destinations in mainland Spain and the Balearic Islands, for example, and that has proved to be very successful.

“We hope to grow that business into the future and I think part of that growth will be accelerated by the next generation of regional jets [from Bombardier and Embraer] that will come in to use London City.

“The aircraft are cleaner, quieter, much cheaper to operate and more fuel-efficient for the airlines.

“Very importantly, we see those aircraft having a much greater range, so the potential for the number of destinations we serve will change for the better. We look forward to adding to our transatlantic services when these aircraft become available.”

London City’s major airlines are Lufthansa, Alitalia and SWISS (Star Alliance; British Airways (oneworld; and CityJet and Air France (SkyTeam).

BA, in particular, is a big supporter, having invested €1.2 billion over the past 20 years, with 15 aircraft based at the airport. Top routes from London City are Zurich, Geneva, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Frankfurt and Dublin.

But it is on the non-aeronautical side where Collier hopes to change the airport’s fortunes.

Catering to demand
According to F&B provider, SSP UK, passengers using London City Airport are among the most affluent and discerning in the world, so its dining offer is very much aimed at top end customers.

"The food offer at the airport has been designed to appeal to the sophisticated tastes of the experienced traveller who is unlikely to be excited by the run-of-the-mill," admits SSP UK's chief operating officer, Mark Rainbow.

He believes that menus "featuring contemporary twists on traditional English fare" and restaurant design incorporating iconic images of 'The City' WHERE `id` = the bars and restaurants at London City help to create a true sense of taste and place.

At City Bar and Grill, an extensive wine-list features some of the most prestigious names in the world. Unusually, many of these, such as Château Pétrus 1983, are available by the glass, thanks to the use of innovative technology that preserves the quality of the wine in an opened bottle.

The airport doesn't have a lounge, so to meet the need for a lounge-style service, the bar's, 'At Seat' personal waiter service, allows customers to enjoy a specially selected menu without having to leave their seat.

A restaurant from upmarket 'rhubarb' – a well-known name at events, high-end London stores and prestigious arts venues across London – serves dishes such as, 'Baked eggs Arnold Bennett' WHERE `id` = or 'Venison casserole' with Guinness, prunes, pickled walnuts, spiced red cabbage and creamed potato, (and crucially, in under ten minutes).

Two Panopolis bakeries and an Illy coffee shop complete the offering.

Currently, non-aviation revenue stands at just over 20%, which, the CEO candidly admits, is “not enough”. The industry average is around 45%, and when Collier was at the helm in Dublin, it was a staggering 75%.

Why then, does London City not fare so well on this front, and what plans are in place to turn the situation around?

“I think it simply has been that we have concentrated on the aeronautical side, now is the time to concentrate on the non-aeronautical side,” says Collier.

“Part of it will be by growing new technology, and part of it will be by expanding the space available, because we’re very space constrained at the moment.

“Our first priority is getting our passengers through the airport safely, securely, and onto the aircraft, after that, we have to find opportunities to grow our revenues and we’re doing that.

“We’ve introduced new offers over the year. We’ve completely revamped our shopping area in the departures lounge and we’re looking more closely at our car parking offer, and at introducing a yield management system this year.

“We will look at other opportunities in the commercial area, such as the development of hotels to build our revenues.”

There are also plans to introduce “virtual stores” by the end of 2013, in an attempt to make the most of the airport’s limited retail space.

“I’ve seen this working in airports in the Far East,” adds Collier.

“You have a wall, and along that wall you have a virtual store, which has different products.

“By pressing the product you want on the wall you order the product and that product can either be delivered to you in the departure lounge or to your home address.”

This is not the only way in which the airport is embracing technology. London City offers free Wi-Fi and is also particularly good at engaging with its passengers via social media.

It has more than 15,000 followers on Twitter – not bad for an airport of its size – with passengers’ tweets displayed in ‘real time’ on a public screen within the airport.

“Our social networking is massively popular,” enthuses Collier. “People engage with us all the time and want to be put up on the public display board.

“The latest comment I saw the other day was someone comparing London City Airport to a Swiss Army Knife – it’s small, it’s convenient, and it’s useful.”

The gateway also came out top in a recent survey of friendliness at London airports.

“Our staff are genuinely focused on the passenger,” explains Collier. “We had a businessman just recently who tweeted that he was off to a very important meeting in Amsterdam and he’d just spilled coffee over his white shirt and what was he going to do.

“Without any asking, one of the staff actually went and bought a shirt and found him in the lounge and gave him the shirt. We didn’t ask them to do that, it was just a bit of initiative. It’s little things like that which help.

“The staff here have a particular focus on people. I think one reason is the part of London we’re in and because the people here are very outgoing.

“We like people and we like dealing with people and I think that comes across.”

Which brings us neatly back to the start. London City, it seems, is achieving everything that the Olympics opening ceremony aimed to do: showcasing everything that is good and everything that is British about the city of London.

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