For a new airport, there are few challenges more extreme than an international recession hitting just as you’re finding your feet. The management team at Doncaster Sheffield Airport (DSA) in South Yorkshire, the UK’s newest full-service airport, has the bitter experience to prove it.
On top of the obstacles faced by a small airport working to claim market share in a sector dominated by London titans and a few large regional hubs, a sudden plunge of passenger numbers could scarcely have come at a worse time.
“It was a challenging time three or four years in,” says DSA aviation development director Chris Harcombe. “That global economic meltdown was not ideally placed for the airport. If that had come five or ten years down the line, we would have been a bit better placed to weather it. I think the airport weathered the recession pretty well. Really it was a position where those that had scale survived that period better than others, and even those that had scale lost an awful lot of traffic.”
A challenging start
Economic malaise hasn’t been the only difficulty experienced by the airport, which originally opened in 2005 as Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield on the former site of RAF Finningley. Sub-standard transport connections to and from DSA put the facility at a distinct disadvantage in its first decade of operations.
“Everyone asks, ‘You’re ten years in, are you where you want to be?’” Harcombe says. “Well, I think everybody thought the airport would probably be a bit further on, but if you look at the quality of transport connectivity for the first ten years or so, it was poor.”
Declining passenger numbers at DSA in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis continued through to 2013, and the airport changed ownership several times. As far as Harcombe is concerned, the return of Peel Group as full owner in 2013 marked a key turning point.
“We look at early 2013, when Peel Group came back in, as the start of a clean slate, a new chapter,” he says. “The management team was developed again. We were familiar with the challenges the airport had weathered, and we were able to say, ‘Right, what do we need to do to do this properly?’ Accepting what’s gone before, how do we make sure that we power on now, with a bit of stability?”
More recently, there have been more encouraging signs for DSA. The airport’s 1.25 million passengers in 2016 might only put it at 21st on the list of the UK’s busiest airports, but they represent a year-on-year surge of 47%, making DSA one of the country’s fastest-growing air hubs.
Addressing the facility’s accessibility issues has been an important milestone, with the Great Yorkshire Way – which opened in February 2016 – linking the airport to the M18 motorway within five minutes.
“It had been in the planning since before the airport opened, and I think again the recession and a change of government didn’t help that project, but that was a project that was delivered locally through stakeholder support,” says Harcombe.
So what is the airport’s management team planning to focus on in the immediate future? Harcombe describes a three-tier, mixed-use strategy centred around increasing passenger numbers, expanding cargo operations and developing aviation-related infrastructure around its large estate (the airport operates on 800 acres of land, with another 800 acres on-site that can be developed).
In terms of passenger numbers, DSA chief executive Steve Gill has set out an aim to double the airport’s annual passenger throughput over the next five years; DSA’s passenger terminal was designed to accommodate three million travellers, so it should be able to take the extra strain with no major upgrade required.
While the airport runs established services with low-cost carriers (LCCs) including TUI, Flybe and Wizz Air, Harcombe describes securing a core LCC as “key in driving that critical mass, making everything that much easier”. Developing long-haul capability is also important, whether as a mid-market servicer of local regions, or developing a connection with, for example, a major air hub in the Middle East.
The airport is currently investing to increase its cargo capability to 50,000 square feet. As for associated services, Harcombe points to ongoing talks to forge a relationship with the nearby Advanced Manufacturing and Research Centre (AMRC), a partnership between Boeing and the University of Sheffield.
“We’ve been working with these guys to understand how we can leverage some of those regional strengths in aviation and aerospace,” he says. “We’re exploring the opportunity to develop a training facility on-site as well. It could be a skills academy; it will train aerospace engineers of the future. We see that as important in terms of attracting inward investment. They’ve got a track record at the AMRC of attracting Boeing, Rolls-Royce, and McLaren is the latest name to go in there.”
DSA’s grand vision
The team isn’t kidding itself about where it stands in today’s UK aviation landscape, but that isn’t limiting its ambitions – Harcombe and his colleagues believe the site and facility’s natural advantages give it huge potential for expansion.
“If you compare us to our peer group, the scale of opportunities you’ve got, long-term, is unrivalled really,” Harcombe argues. “So [we’ve got the] geographic location, surface access, airport infrastructure itself and the capability, terminal development, and the land around that to develop it.
“The terminal is a great product, consistently ranked as one of the best in terms of passenger experience in the UK. The runway is everything that any regional airport would aspire to. Sheffield as a city has real scale. Access to competitors is poor; so you’re either over the hills to Manchester or back into traffic to get north of Leeds to the airport up there. It’s been overlooked, but then you can also say the same about Yorkshire. So I think we’ve got an underserved region.
“Also, if you just look at regional airport drive times, in terms of population base within 45-60 minutes, DSA comes out very, very strongly. Clearly not as strongly as a Manchester, given the size of the conurbation around there, but certainly bigger than Bristol and Newcastle, and Edinburgh and Glasgow airports, which have got scale. My challenge and our challenge as a business is to show airlines that we are what we are now in terms of our throughput, but the scale of the opportunity is so much greater.”
Within the next quarter in 2018, DSA is due to publish a masterplan charting the airport’s planned development over the next two decades, as well as a vision document outlining a ‘what if’ scenario laying how high the team thinks the airport could reach if everything goes right. Is Harcombe willing to offer a long-term upper traffic limit in the most optimistic scenario?
“Without putting a huge target on my head, because that’s an impossible question, isn’t it?” Harcombe says with a laugh. “But we see the transformational impact of the catchment: north of 10 million passengers within 90-120 minutes of DSA, with direct services up and down the east coast through major urban centres across the North. We’re incredibly ambitious; we have all the assets to facilitate a major airport of 20 million+. In the masterplan, we’re talking about an airport of five to seven million within 20 years. And these things are always based on the economic growth of the region as much as anything else.”
Connecting with communities
Any airport relies on the economic health of the region it services, but one particularly important connection that DSA is pursuing is a rail link between the airport and the East Coast Main Line, which runs the length of the country between London and Edinburgh, and whose closest stop to DSA, Doncaster, is just a few miles away.
“The East Coast Main Line is a bit of visionary piece of infrastructure,” Harcombe says. “It’s something we think we can make good progress on in the next two or three years, in terms of getting to that point where it’s a scheme that the region wants to back, and try to get that as a government priority. That’s a clear ambition of ours.”
More broadly, DSA is looking to create more partnership deals with high-profile local organisations, from AMRC to signing as the official air travel provider of Division 1 football club Sheffield United in September 2016.
“The airport needs the region to be successful, and this was the message that we give to the region: your economic growth, your inward investment capability, is better with a thriving airport,” Harcombe says. “If you compare us to our peer group of [airports with] just over a million passengers, I think many of those airports would see the facilities and capabilities we’ve got as being incredibly advantageous. Many of those have been open for up to 40 years, and they’re just at a million. So we see huge opportunity. Rather than just talk about it, we’re doing our best to get on and deliver.”