Robert Sinclair – CEO of Bristol Airport

Robert Sinclair

This month The North Somerset Business Leader interviews Robert Sinclair – who is the CEO of Bristol Airport.

Can you tell readers a little bit about your role at the airport?

As Chief Executive Officer I am involved in every aspect of the Airport. This includes operations, regulatory issues, infrastructure development, finance, commercial, and public and stakeholder engagement – which I particularly enjoy.

Airports are very public assets – everybody has views on how the Airport should be run and part of my job is to engage with people, internally and externally, and listen to their views.

It is a great role because it is such an amazing place to work and a fascinating industry, I love the people side of the business. I also get involved in a wide range of business disciplines. For example, I enjoy helping out with sales and marketing and being involved in the development of our current brand.

The UK is officially out of recession – do you believe the worst is behind us?

Although I feel that the worst is behind us, I do not feel as though we are completely out of the woods yet. But I am a ‘glass half full’ kind of guy and I do believe the very worst is behind us – but it will take time to get back to a full recovery.

Here at the Airport the continued lack of consumer confidence remains an issue as it impacts on discretionary spending. The Eurozone crisis is also a concern as we are exposed to the financial crisis in places like Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. However, the risks seem to be slowly reducing.

How has Bristol Airport fared during recession?

In 2009 we suffered a ten per cent decline in passenger numbers, which coincided with the worst year in commercial aviation history.

But since then we have been back on a growth path, seeing incremental year on year growth in passengers of around one or two per cent. This compares well to other regional airports. We have outperformed most of them over this period and some are still declining.

Ultimately it has been a very testing time but Bristol Airport has been very resilient. We remain stable, positive and focused on the long-term future and our goal to reach ten million passengers per annum.

Do you feel the media has exacerbated the recession?

The media in the UK concentrates too much on the doom and gloom and this does have an impact on people’s behaviour and consumer confidence.

The media should report a balanced view and also tell us about the positive things that are happening.

But I think that most of the public understand the reality and the media certainly has not completely stifled the British public’s desire to travel – that remains very strong and people are very reluctant to give up their holidays.

Moving onto local issues, what do you feel are the benefits of North Somerset as a business location?

North Somerset is a highly desirable place to live in the UK because of its climate (at least relative to the rest of the UK!) and beautiful countryside. It also has a central geographical location that makes it a good location for an airport serving the South West and Wales.

It is located in a strong catchment area and has good rail and road links to the M4 and M5 as well as relatively short journey times to London.

North Somerset and the broader West of England region also boasts a very skilled workforce and an economy that is less exposed to public sector cuts that are currently being implemented.

The region is very much a knowledge economy and has a strong media and creative sector with a good mix of high-tech manufacturing businesses as well.

Do you feel enough is being done to communicate these positives?

Here at Bristol Airport we work closely with North Somerset Council and I think they are doing a very good job. They are working hard and delivering for the area but you can always do more.

We are also working with airlines and other organisations in order to promote the area and deliver new routes.

We’re also looking for better surface access to the Airport and working with the local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnership to deliver major infrastructure projects and schemes.

This goes some way to communicating the positives but everybody has to keep on plugging away.

You sit on the Local Enterprise Partnership. Which development coming forward in North Somerset do you feel has the most potential?

The Junction 21 Enterprise Area is a key development that stands out as the torchbearer.

I have really enjoyed being involved with the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership to help deliver this and other schemes which will ultimately achieve economic growth and job creation for the area.

The Enterprise Areas that have been set up are very coordinated and international in their focus. Businesses are locating into this area and more should follow which is very positive.

That said, it is not just about one development. These are exciting times when you consider the major transport schemes that are underway and the agreement in place under the City Deal which will pool money and resources to deliver major infrastructure projects.

Regarding the Airport itself, can you tell readers about your vision for it?

We have a very clear vision for the Airport. We want to continue the journey to becoming a world leading regional airport with ten million passengers passing through it each year. Currently the airport handles approximately six million passengers per annum.

We are not aiming to become another Heathrow or an alternative hub airport, but an outstanding regional airport that is very easy to use, stress free and convenient, serving the South West and South Wales market. In short, a place that provides a personal service and brings enjoyment back into travel.

What challenges are on the horizon for Bristol Airport?

The challenges will continue to come from the impact on demand caused by the weak economic environment, as well as continued issues with aviation policy and taxation.

In the future we are keen to grow and handle up to ten million passengers per annum and plans for the development of the airport to meet this goal were approved by North Somerset Council in February 2011. We also have plans for an on-site hotel which are continuing to make progress.

We will continue to strive to create a fantastic airport which is convenient, stress-free, and provides a personal service.

In the medium term we are looking to open up more routes to Scandinavia, and destinations in Germany, the Middle East and North America.

To end on aviation – do you feel government is doing enough to help regional airports?

Government has a clear overall economic policy to create private sector jobs and encourage long-term infrastructure projects and investment which is financed by the private sector, which I support.

However, I feel its Draft Aviation Policy Framework is weak in key areas, particularly in its support for regional airports. It was neither clear nor bold and was unbalanced in its focus on controls and limits compared to the benefits of aviation.

Airports connect markets, are very important entry points and big job creators. But more needs to be done to promote regional airports. The South East airports are congested, but there are no capacity constraints at regional airports – no lengthy taxiing to the terminal, and no wasted time spent in holding patterns waiting for a landing slot.

Every year, six million passengers pass Bristol Airport to fly from London airports. We need a more efficient infrastructure to get people to ‘fly local’ as this reduces carbon emissions and eases the strain on congested airports.

Heathrow is operating at 99.5 per cent capacity, and whilst we do not expect there to be legislation to ensure people ‘fly local’ there does need to be more clear and tangible policy support for regional airports.

More can also be done to promote inbound tourism; cut red tape and market the whole of the UK. The Olympics were great for London and London airports but we need a sustained policy to ensure regional tourism also benefits.

One way Government can address all of these issues is to implement a regional rate of Air Passenger Duty (APD) as the current flat rate system has a disproportionately damaging impact on airports outside London.

Bristol Airport information

200 people are directly employed by Bristol Airport and there are nearly 3,000 people employed altogether on-site – making it the biggest single site employer in North Somerset.

Bristol Airport has an incredible range of over 100 destinations – covering approximately 30 countries and 13 capital cities. Flights are operated by a mix of full-service, charter and low-cost airlines.

Bristol Airport is the biggest easyJet base outside London, and is also home to five based Ryanair aircraft.

Multiple daily frequencies to the international hub airports of Amsterdam, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Brussels and Dublin open up connections to hundreds of onward destinations worldwide.