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Perspectives with Robert Sinclair, Chief Executive Officer of London City Airport.

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In Perspectives we ask the most insightful voices in infrastructure for their take on the issues and challenges facing the industry.   

This month we talk to London City Airport’s CEO, Robert Sinclair.  Since moving from his native New Zealand, where he was Chief Financial Officer at Auckland Airport, Robert has established himself as one of the UK aviation sector’s most respected leaders.  He took the helm at London City in 2017 having steered Bristol Airport to eight consecutive years of growth.  A qualified lawyer and chartered accountant, Robert is a board member of the Airport Operators Association and Airports Council International Europe. 

We asked Robert about the challenges facing aviation, from COVID-19 to climate change. 

How has COVID-19 impacted your sector and how is it recovering? 

Clearly the Coronavirus pandemic and its fallout have severely affected the aviation and travel industries. London City Airport is no exceptionThe decision to temporarily suspended flights from the airport was difficult but done for the right reasons – to protect staff, our passengers, and our community. 

While this has unquestionably had a significant cost – and the crisis will continue to do so for months to come – the important steps we took to protect as many jobs as possible and to use the time productively, preparing the airport for ‘Covid Secure’ operations as soon as it was appropriate to restart, mean that we are well placed to weather the storm. 

While silver linings have been thin on the ground during this period, we have been able to make progress with our development programme, including new aircraft stands and a parallel taxiway which will enable us to cater for 45 movements per hour, and potentially more than that as demand returns.  

The outlook is definitely mixed from a demand point of view, and certainly was not helped by the quarantine announcement. However, thankfully, the government have listened to our calls and now seem to be making decisions which will not only benefit the industry but the entire UK economy.  

We have worked very closely with our airlines, in particular BA CityFlyer, to get them back flying from the airport and I’m pleased to say from 10th July onwards they will begin flying to Ibiza, Florence, Málaga, Palma, the Isle of Man, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin – re-establishing important Anglo-Irish domestic connections, as well as offering a chance for a well-deserved summer holiday. We will also see KLM resume flights between Amsterdam and London, restoring our most popular route. And from Monday 6th July, two new routes to Teesside in the north east and Dundee in Scotland will begin with Eastern Airways and Loganair respectively – further boosting regional connectivity 

We have also placed special emphasis operationally, and in our communications, on giving passengers the confidence to fly from the airport. Measures like temperature checking and enhanced cleaning regimes using long-lasting anti-microbial treatments go beyond government guidance and demonstratethat we are doing all we can to keep passengers and staff safe.  

But we also believe that, while much has changed, speed through the airport is as important now to passengers as it was before. We will continue to offer the fastest airport experience of any London airport, which will help us stand out.  

 

Do you see any long-term impacts on travel as a result of changes in working patterns and consumer behaviour during lockdown? 

While an initial caution is to be expected, I am very confident that people will still want to travel and fly for both leisure and business. 

Our customers have told us as much. A recent survey of over 4,700 City flyers found that 79% are either very likely or quite likely to travel when they are told it is safe to do so by the Government and airports or airlines. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given how tempting a holiday is after months in lockdown, 42% plan to travel for leisure within the next three months. And we’ve seen a high level of bookings in the first few days on popular Mediterranean routes. 

Interestingly, 41% anticipate they will take a flight for business within the next three months – contradicting claims that business travel is overSpeaking to people from all sorts of industries, it’s clear they still want to travel for business and many plan to do so as soon as they can – you can’t beat meeting colleagues and clients in person, being on-site or seeing something for yourself. For these reasons deals and transactions will still be done in personAlthough there will be a reduction in the short term, as companies maintain restrictions and wait to see how the situation develops, business travel isn’t going away. 

As the capital’s most central airport, we play an important role in connecting people and businesses to opportunity. Just as important as enabling someone to fly to Frankfurt, Zurich or Edinburgh to do business, we also enable people to come to London for business and leisure. It is these people who are critical for our hard-hit businesses in the hospitality, retail, entertainment and culture sectors. I am confident London City Airport will continue to be a driving force in the UK and wider economy. 

 

London City Airport’s USP has always been its speed and convenience for passengers, particularly those travelling on business.  How will social distancing considerations impact this USP? 

It has never been more important to get through an airport quickly, with little dwell time and safe areas in which to wait. 85% of our customers said they would be more likely to use an airport if they can get to their gate in 20 minutes or lessThe good news for them is that we have designed the measures, put in place to keep everyone safe, to maintain as much as possible the speed and ease when travelling through London City Airport that passengers value so highly. You will still be able to get through the airport to your plane within 20 minutes. 

 

Looking beyond COVID-19, what other challenges are facing airports? 

The need to be more sustainable has not changed, and the public demand for cleaner, greener operations will not go away. Airports have an established track record of reducing carbon emissions, being energy efficient and embracing innovation. In December last year London City was accredited as carbon neutral by the Airport Carbon Accreditation Programme.  

The challenge for industry to face is around substantially reducing carbon emissions from aircraft. Huge steps have been made by airlines and manufacturers in the last decade, which they should be applauded for. The A220 which operates from LCY produces about 20% less emissions than competitor aircraft, for instance.  

But to move the dial, industry must work collectively and with the support of the government. There are certainly some encouraging signs with the Government recently launching the future of flight challenge. We at London City are absolutely committed to this agenda. With our location and the size of our operation, we are ideally placed to lead the industry on this. 

Another challenge comes from rail. While its future is not entirely clear, HS2 and high-speed continental connections with Eurostar offer a competitive form of transport which is considered to be more sustainable than flying. Clearly, high speed rail does not and is unlikely to ever cater for all parts of the UK. And for some places it currently serves, or will eventually, flying is still quicker and more convenient. So, I am confident rail and air travel can co-exist, and that there is sufficient demand for both. The challenge is in demonstrating that they can co-exist and refuting the claim rail is a replacement for flying. 

We also face a challenge with policy keeping pace with technological innovation. We have always been keen to embrace new technology that can improve what we do at London City Airport. Later this year our air traffic control operations will ‘go digital’, switching to a virtual control tower at NATS’ headquarters in Swanwick. Using advanced camera, imaging and radar systems, the digital tower will improve on the traditional system. Indeed, we are on the edge of a tech-led revolution in air travel which will transform systems and processes, some of which are generations old 

Technologies like biometrics, blockchain and artificial intelligence can create significant operational efficiencies and make substantial improvements in the passenger experience – such as frictionless transit through airports and beyond. Unfortunately, the policy required to adopt these technologies and realise their potential lags someway behind. If we are to avoid the UK falling behind more agile countries, we need policy makers to grasp this issue and create future-proof policy based on technology. 

 

The Prime Minister’s ‘New Deal’ announcement placed infrastructure at the centre of the UK’s economic growth plans.  What projects would you like to see prioritised as part of ‘Project Speed’? 

I certainly welcome the Prime Ministers ambition and recognition of the important role infrastructure will play in the UK’s recovery. However, I’d urge him to consider three points: 

Firstly, levelling up the UK is hugely important and we at London City will play an important role in providing fast connections to regions around the country – but don’t forget London. It is the engine room of the UK economy, and once COVID passes, the city will need more housing to meet demand, improved digital capacity and a better connected transport system that finally links air, road, rail and sea.  

Secondly, let’s make planning simpler and let’s make it quicker. Projects of strategic importance take too long to determine. We need to find a way to fast track them so that we get consensus quicker rather than the elongated, and costly, planning process that we now have. If government can make progress here then we really might be able to build, build, build. 

Thirdly, airports are essential infrastructure and will be crucial to the recovery. Indeed, we will be the barometer of how successful Global Britain becomes. And if you look around the country, ambition to grow sustainably and to create jobs has been stunted. As the industry recovers, it is my hope that Government works with us to create a dynamic industry that’s green, that’s clean and a wealth generator for communities and regions.  

 

Airspace is sometimes described as our ‘invisible infrastructure in the sky’.  Why is its modernisation so important? 

Our airspace ‘infrastructure’ was designed over 60 years ago. It was never designed to handle the volume and type of traffic it does today. While the Covid-19 virus will have its short-term impacts, we will see over 3 million flights a year in our skies by the early part of the next decade.  

Modernisation will not only enable us to handle that volume safely, it will have tangible benefits for people on the ground. We will be able to keep aircraft higher for longer, providing more reliable and equitable noise respite for communities. It will also enable the airspace to be used more efficiently. This, in turn, means aircraft can operate more efficiently, resulting is considerable reductions of emissions. This is essential if aviation is going to meet its commitments to becoming more sustainable. 

Without modernisation the impact on people on the ground will only increase. Passengers will experience many more delays and cancellations, and we will miss out on new domestic and international connections. All of which will have significant social and economic consequences, at a time when the country is forging its own path after Brexit.  

Clearly, this is an important item on aviation’s agenda and has wider implications for the UK. So, we look forward to learning from the Civil Aviation Authority and the Department for Transport how this will be progressed. 

 

Looking ahead, how can the aviation sector play its part in meeting the UK’s net zero target? 

We remain fully committed to becoming one of the most sustainable airports in the UK and have set a goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 without using carbon off-setting. In December we reached a very important milestone when our operations were rated as carbon neutral by the Airport Carbon Accreditation programme. This achievement underlined our commitment to building a more sustainable future for the airport and the aviation industry. But our efforts have not stopped there. We know very well that reducing carbon emissions and having a more sustainable future is a priority for many people, which we share. 

We have seen a similar commitment to net zero from the rest of the industry, which at the end of last year launched roadmaps on reducing carbon emissions and advancing sustainable fuelsAchieving these goals will need genuine collaboration between industry peers, the government, and the community. We at London City Airport want to play a leading role in this, steering the industry forward in creating a framework that sets out how sustainable growth can be achieved, implementing changes and participating in projects that deliver solutions to make flying more sustainable. 

This is important opportunity for the United Kingdom to lead the rest of the world in making aviation more sustainable. If we can lead the way, we will reap the economic rewards from the necessary innovation and resulting growth. 

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