11 July 2017 Interview

Rapid ascent: the future of London Luton Airport

Nick Barton, CEO of London Luton Airport, talks about the impact of Brexit and how SMEs can support infrastructure

From a personal perspective, why did you decide to get involved in the airport industry?

My background is as a chartered surveyor and I’ve always been fascinated by infrastructure and development.

Developing our airport infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges facing the UK, given rising passenger numbers. As one of the most regulated industries there is, it also presents a fantastic professional challenge.

What do you see as the major challenges facing the airport industry in the coming years?

Delivering capacity growth. Official Department for Transport figures predict that passenger demand will more than double to 445 million passengers per year by 2050.

In the past 12 months, 14.5 million passengers travelled through the airport for both business and leisure

The government has agreed to expand Heathrow, which is undoubtedly an important step. But the biggest barrier to meeting demand in the short to medium term is not runway capacity, but access to airports to allow us to use the capacity we already have. You need good public transport to get passengers to and from their flights quickly and conveniently.

LLA is a prime example. Despite being the fastest-growing major London airport, we are the only one without a dedicated express-style rail service with four fast trains per hour to Central London. The East Midlands Trains refranchising process later this year is a chance to change this.

The service could be improved through timetable alone at no cost to the taxpayer. Just as importantly, it would help us ease the current airport capacity crunch in London and the South East.

How are you addressing these challenges?

Like all airports, in the South East, demand at London Luton Airport is growing rapidly. In the past 12 months, 14.5 million passengers travelled through the airport for both business and leisure, an increase

Small, local businesses are an essential part of all communities across the UK

of 16.5% on the previous year. We have now seen three years of continuous growth and are the fastest-growing major airport in the UK.

To address this, we are undertaking the biggest single investment in the airport’s history.

This will not only increase annual capacity by 50% to 18 million by 2020, but also transform the experience for our passengers. Work is well underway and due for completion by 2020.

We are also working with Luton Borough Council to introduce a new £200m Mass Passenger Transit (MPT) system, which will link the terminal building with Luton Airport Parkway station.

The MPT will run 24 hours a day, replacing the current shuttle bus. It will both reduce journey times for our passengers – travellers will be able to reach Central London in less than 30 minutes, faster than both Gatwick and Stansted – and benefit the local community by helping us to reduce traffic on nearby roads.

How will Brexit affect your industry?

The UK and the EU will remain friends and partners whatever happens with the Brexit process.

This isn’t the first time that UK business has faced a challenge in recent years. We’re still waiting to see the impact of Brexit, but we know it’s coming and I’m sure UK airports will be able to adapt to operating within a different framework.

Why are MSBs so vital to our economy?

Small, local businesses are an essential part of all communities across the UK: they are an important economic driver and provide valuable jobs. The small businesses operating in and around Luton are no exception.

As transport networks and digital infrastructure have evolved, businesses of any size are now able to think bigger and begin to trade internationally. Establishing an international presence has never been easier, but we need to make sure these businesses are properly supported.

Maintaining those transport networks will be vital to their ongoing success. At LLA one third of our suppliers come from within a 30-mile radius. We also hold regular events, including ‘Meet The Buyer’ networking meetings and a regular jobs fair, to support our local business community.

How can the airport industry engage with local communities?

A collaborative approach should be at the forefront of any airport’s engagement strategy – it’s at the heart of everything we do at LLA.

Our community engagement strategy seeks to recognise the diversity of our local area; we set targets across a range of areas to respond to the needs of different stakeholders.

Developing our airport infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges facing the UK

For example, we hold regular consultation sessions with residents to help improve our environmental performance and mitigate noise. At the same time, we promote local economic development through our supplier events, careers fair and employment and training initiatives targeted at disadvantaged young people. Finally, in the past year we have also delivered over £150,000 to local groups and good causes through our community trust fund and charity partnership.

How will your plans benefit local businesses?

An independent analysis showed that our current investment to transform LLA will have a hugely positive economic impact, both locally and nationally.

Our economic contribution to the three counties area is set to more than double to £1.4bn by 2030. Not only that, our investment in LLA will create an additional 10,500 jobs. And these are good jobs – the average gross wage at LLA is £38,000, compared with £27,000 nationally.

In fact, even those estimates are likely to be conservative. The analysis was completed before Luton Borough Council confirmed the plans for the new £200m MPT link: that project is undoubtedly creating even more new opportunities for local businesses. Securing an improved rail connection with four fast trains per hour will also accelerate the benefits.

But the impact also goes beyond the airport itself. The transformation of LLA was a significant catalyst for the launch of the £1.5bn Luton Investment Framework, which looks set to transform the whole town.

I believe that local businesses are only as good as the infrastructure supporting them. LLA is fantastic example of the benefits strong transport links can bring to a region. Our priority now is to continue to improve local rail connections and better integrate the airport with the wider transport network to encourage the continued growth and success of businesses across the three counties region and beyond.

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