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Birmingham International Airport: Fuel for growth

Birmingham International Airport is implementing an ambitious infrastructure investment to accommodate an extra 23M passengers by 2030. Margo Cole reports.

Birmingham International Airport is many things to the many different people who use it, from low cost and charter airline passengers to international business people. But as well as passengers and airlines, Birmingham also has to consider its role in generating wealth for the West Midlands.

“We have always had a big regional identity,” explains Will Heynes, the airport’s operations director. “The airport needs to be a gateway to the West Midlands that everyone can be proud of, and that delivers high-quality business connections.”

“The airport needs to be a gateway to the West Midlands that everyone can be proud of, and that delivers high-quality business connections.”

Will Heynes, Birmingham International Airport

The airport is 50% owned by a group of seven local authorities from the West Midlands, and the connections the airport creates are seen as essential for attracting business to the region. Increasingly, the links are further afield: large companies from China and India are heavily invested in the region’s manufacturing industry, and there is a large and successful Asian business population in the Midlands that needs direct links to the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East.

As a result, Birmingham International Airport is in the throes of a major programme of investment that will increase total capacity and the range of aircraft that can take off and land.

The results of this investment can now be seen. A new £14M car park was completed recently in the central terminal area, and the opening this November of the £45M New International Pier will go a long way to helping the airport meet its aspiration to double capacity in the next 10 years and cope with 23M passengers a year by 2030.

A step change in capability

“The pier marks a step change in the airport’s capability,” says Heynes. “It will provide seven long haul, wide body stands for existing and future customers, and can accommodate the Airbus A380. It will also offer an excellent passenger environment for the range of customers we operate here, and the capacity for us to grow from 10M to 17M or 18M in 10 years.

“The shareholders have been keen to progress this project for a number of years, so it’s great to see it in reality,” he adds. The pier has been designed to give maximum flexibility, with each of the seven stands capable of handling either a single wide-bodied plane or two smaller aircraft.

“We have 50 airlines serving about 150 destinations − both scheduled and charter − so we serve a lot of different sectors,” explains Heynes. “We serve big and little airlines, and big and little aircraft, and a huge variety of passenger types who all need subtly different types of facilities, so we have to be flexible and multi-capable.”

“The shareholders have been keen to progress this project for a number of years, so it’s great to see it in reality.”

Will Heynes, Birmingham International Airport

While low-cost and charter flights make up a significant proportion of the airport’s business, it can also support long haul and transatlantic business, and currently has around six movements of wide-bodied planes every day, including regular Emirates flights to Dubai and Continental Airlines flights to New York.

But destinations are limited by the length of the runway. “There are wide-body, 430-seat aircraft flying from here to Dubai and the east coast of America, but we need to be able to offer airlines the capability of handling long haul, wide-body, heavy aircraft,” says Heynes.

“Heavy” in this context refers to full-laden, fully fuelled planes, which are capable of flying further − for example to China and the Far East, South Africa and the mid-west and west coast of America. But heavier planes need longer runways, and Birmingham must extend its existing facility by 550m (405m plus safety areas) to take it to 3km.

Local support

Planning permission has already been granted for this extension, and detailed planning and design development are likely to start in the next few months. “It was a very supportive decision from the planning authority, and indicates the way the airport is seen by the local authority,” says Heynes.

He describes the business case for the extension as “thin” from the airport’s point of view. It will mean an increase from six to between 10 and 15 wide-bodied flights a day, and only makes a small difference to the total capacity of the airport (taking it from 23M to 27M). But the real benefit is the potential for wealth creation in the region − hence the local authority’s backing for the plan.

And, while it will not necessarily make Birmingham a major airport hub, Heynes is convinced the presence of more long haul destinations on the timetable will encourage other airlines to transfer there for onward travel.

“It was a very supportive decision from the planning authority, and indicates the way the airport is seen by the local authority.”

Will Heynes, Birmingham International Airport

The £100M extension includes diverting major utilities and 1.8km of the A45 dual carriageway trunk road, which runs alongside the boundary of the airport and around the end of the existing runway. Construction of the extension will be phased, and could be completed within five years, provided external funding can be found for some of the cost.

In the meantime, planning permission has been granted for a new control tower that will give controllers a clear view of the full 3km take-off and landing strip. The existing tower is housed − as it always has been − at the top of the airport’s original 1930s terminal building, which now sits on the edge of the site overlooking the runway.

The new tower will be considerably higher, and offers the airport the chance to create an iconic structure alongside the A45. Initial designs suggest a strong design intent − something that Heynes has been keen to see in all the infrastructure improvements. “We have a pride in the facilities, and our aspiration to produce something of high quality can’t be compromised just because we’re trying to achieve value for money,” he says.

“Getting a balance between cost and quality doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the quality of the engineering and the architecture. I believe that by very careful designing and innovation you can still get value for money.”

High-quality materials and specifications in the public areas − such as the tiles and wood floors in the new pier − are offset by more basic finishes in the more functional parts of the buildings.

Next on the airport’s improvement and expansion programme is a complete remodelling of the internal spaces to combine the two existing terminals. By creating a single security area for all passengers, the airport can free up space with commercial potential − for shops and catering outlets, for example. Heynes describes the project as “a very complex internal remodelling with a lot of operator interfaces”, and says it is likely to take two years to complete.

This ongoing programme of major investment in the airport is underpinned by the owner’s belief that passenger numbers will continue to grow at a steady rate, and that improved facilities and a wider range of airlines and destinations will ensure Birmingham claws back some of the passengers who currently fly from competitor airports such as Heathrow, Luton and Manchester.

Surrounding connections

The airport has a massive catchment area, with 9M people living within an hour’s travel. But at the moment only 40% of flights taken by people within that catchment are from Birmingham International Airport.

“The airport is extremely well served by national infrastructure,” says Heynes. This includes the West Coast Main Line, which stops at the airport, and the Midlands motorway box. “But the same infrastructure that makes it easy for people to get here also makes it easy for them to go elsewhere.

“It may be a large catchment, but there are many other airports that overlap that catchment,” he adds.

Heynes is keen that the new High Speed 2 rail line should include a stop at the airport, as well as Birmingham city centre, to attract passengers who might otherwise use airports in the South East. “If there are constraints in the South East, why can’t Birmingham provide some of the solutions for that?” he says. “We have the capability.” That said, Heynes is not losing sight of the airport’s importance to the local population. “We are still here predominantly to serve the West Midlands,” he says.

Birmingham international airport facts

  • Birmingham International Airport is the UK’s second largest airport outside London, the third largest for charter traffic, and the UK’s sixth largest overall.
  • Levels of business traffic are second only to Heathrow.
  • The airport has around 50 airlines serving more than 140 destinations worldwide, including daily departures to New York and Philadelphia and twice-daily services to Dubai.
  • Last year Birmingham handled 9.6M passengers and experienced the biggest increase in passenger numbers of all UK airports, up 4.8% on 2007.
  • 9M people live within a one hour journey of the airport.
  • A planning application to extend the main runway by 550m (405m plus safety area) was approved in March.
  • The new runway will increase the capability of Birmingham International Airport to offer direct flights to the west coast of America, China, Japan and South Africa and claw back some of the 64% of demand that goes outside the region for air travel.
  • Forecasts show the airport could cater for 27M passengers by 2030.
  • The £45M New International Pier is the single biggest investment the airport has made in more than 20 years.
  • Birmingham International Airport is a public/private partnership. Current shareholders are the seven West Midlands district councils (49%), Airport Group Investments, a limited company owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and Australia’s Victorian Funds Management Corporation (48.25%), and the Employee Share Trust (2.75%).

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