INTERVIEW: ‘The people of the North West deserve better connectivity’ - CoDA Managing Director Steve Frazer
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Mr Frazer came with a wealth of experience having moved from his previous position as Director of Engineering and Deputy Chief Executive at Gulf Helicopters in Qatar. He was also previously T5 Engineering Manager at British Airways, having joined there as an apprentice.
Recalling his baptism of fire on taking over the reins at City of Derry, the Limavady man told the Journal: “I joined in February and shortly afterwards it was not the job I thought it would be when I first signed up, but the whole world has gone through this same thing so I certainly can’t complain.”
And Mr Frazer and staff at City of Derry wasted no time when the pandemic arrived in the Spring, with the local airport becoming one of the first public facilities in the north to get itself fully kitted out with PPE and extensive safety measures after the decision was taken to keep the airport open - a decision, Mr Frazer said, that was not taken lightly. “We had to ensure staff and passenger safety. Firstly, I spoke to the people who were travelling just to make sure I was doing the right thing keeping the flights open, and nearly every person I spoke to in those first few months was a doctor, nurse, key worker, working in care or working on constructions projects. That was something we really did learn. I came to the conclusion it was the right thing: we were literally flying hundreds of doctors, nurses, carer workers every month and look at the difference that this bunch of people can make in a pandemic. As things have opened up a wee bit you can see there is a lot of construction workers and engineering firms who use the service as well, particularly to London.
“With the history of the region here with high unemployment a lot of people travel for work and come back home at the end of their shifts or tours. There are very strong ties and connections between here and London, Edinburgh and Scotland, Liverpool.”
Fast forward to the weeks leading up to Christmas, and as staff pulled out all the stops to make the airport as festive as possible, the number of passengers arriving rose significantly. This however “flipped last minute” with people who had returned home to the north west having to change their plans and leave earlier due to new government restrictions which landed in the mouth of Christmas.
“The staff have been fantastic. They day on day take direction because every week of the pandemic we are learning. We are there to set the example to the general public, we have every possible precaution and more. And we have all been affected, staff have had to self-isolate, so we have had our own staffing issues and we have had to lean on each other and I’m very pleased with how people have reacted. There’s been no moaning, everyone has supported each other. We did have a small amount of people we had to put on furlough, they were casual staff, and this ensured they got 80% of their salaries and we topped them up to 100% as well.
“Local suppliers were fantastic as well. As soon as they heard it was for the airport everyone was very quick to react. We have thermal checks on entry we have signage everywhere you look, on seats, hand sanitisers, masks freely available, and we have had a couple of very positive visits from the Health and Safety Executive. And we have had a very intelligent bunch of passengers as well. Everyone is very respective that the measures have been put in place to keep everyone safe. People have been very complimentary and pleased and we have some people using the airport who said they would love to come back, particularly as you can rock up at the car park, walk one minute to the door, if you are already checked in you go straight through security in five minutes, if you are being checked in that’s another five minutes. No more than ten minutes and you are through and people love that. It helps build appreciation of a regional airport.
Every January the airport normally sees heavy loads with local people and visitors living or travelling elsewhere heading back home but that won’t the be the case this year. “The decisions by the governments have affected plans for everyone at very little notice,” Mr. Frazer said.
Over 2020 CoDA have developed a much closer relationship with George Best Belfast City and Belfast International Airport, and while passenger numbers at those airports dropped down to 10-12% at times compared to 2019, at City of Derry it has been around 35%. “It was significantly different and that was because we had that real core of people with a genuine need to travel,” Mr Frazer said.
And as restrictions eased over the summer months of July and August, there was some further bounce back locally, with the airport carrying around 45% of its passenger numbers from 2019, although this has changed dramatically with any new government restrictions. “November was terrible for us,” Mr Frazer said. “We were only 20% of what we were last year.”
Mr Frazer said government restrictions south of the border had also impacted. “At times you have 40% of our passengers coming from Letterkenny and the rest of Donegal so it is significant, and that is why we call ourselves the gateway to the north west - it’s not just about Derry, it’s about the Causeway, Donegal, it’s generally the whole north west that the airport serves.”
Speaking before the Council last week urged the NI Executive to review its decision to keep airports open here, Mr Frazer said early 2020 will be extremely quiet at the airport given the new lockdowns and the situation with Ryanair, who announced they would have to pull routes from UK airports, including services from Derry, due to regulatory changes, unless a resolution with the Civil Aviation Authority can be reached. After that announcement Mr Frazer wasted no time and contacted the North-South Ministerial Council and urged them to do what they can to help facilitate the retention of Ryanair services from Derry and Belfast. “We are in quite a unique situation being on an island and that needs to come with bespoke measures from time to time which we don’t always see,” he said.
“In CODA in particular we are effectively NI’s only regional airport and we do serve both areas, north and south but we don’t benefit from any of the benefits the southern airports get. They are an excellent government when it comes to the funding of the airports, they have a Regional Airports Programme which recognises that airports do not make money if they are under 1m passengers, just like CODA, so they need some help to fund them for safety, security costs, capital expenditure. We don’t benefit from that. And all airports down south are Air Passenger Duty (APD) free, but the British government puts APD on every flight in the UK, and that’s a huge thing for a low cost operator as it adds £26 to a return tickets.”
An independent report concluded recently by York Aviation revealed that City of Derry Airport was worth to the local economy, and it turned out that in 2019 CoDA put £26m into the regional, while it cost £2.5m to run.
“We are putting ten times more into the economy. Of course that does not take away from the poor ratepayers who have to fund it - the ratepayers of one single Council, and I can assure you that that is something myself and the Council really want to move away from for the ratepayers and that was why we had this report done.”
Mr Frazer said that the new report was now evidence of the economic value of CoDA to the north west which can be presented to central governments in Belfast, London and Dublin.
He said the Council and CoDA will urge them to “please step up and support CoDA because these are the real benefits. And we have to look to RoI for a bit of that too. That’s the masterplan, now we know what we are worth.”
Given established practice in Europe, including the south of Ireland, Wales and Scotland, where the government subsidises airports and routes to the Highlands and Islands in acknowledgement of how vital connectivity is to those communities and the wider economy, it was time for CoDA to be treated in the same way, Mr Frazer asserts.
“The whole of Europe recognises it now, below one million passengers you just can’t make money. Here in NI I have to be honest, there is too much protecting of the block grant. They might recognise the benefits of the airport - the benefits are there, and we shared the report with them just recently - but they are not stepping up. They recognise there is a differential but if you really want to address the differential you have got to invest a little bit. That protection of the block grant is becoming a bit of a bit a stumbling block for us - everything is about following the policy from London, so then they get the equivalent funds for that, but the policy from London isn’t going to address the bespoke and unique nature of CODA.
“Our three airports in NI share an island and are battling against zero APD in all the Irish airports and battling against a regional airports programme that funds all their regional airports in the south and ours are not touched. We are on a lose-lose situation at the minute.”
Mr Frazer said some of this was getting through to London but that the UK Department for Transport must also do more for regional airports. “It’s in the government’s manifesto about levelling up regionally, that will bring something for us in NI as a whole but then our own Executive are going to have to step up here and say what they will do. The Executive need to step up and Dublin has to step up a wee bit, but they (Irish Govt.) have been positive and the New Decade, New Approach document does mention the Derry to Dublin route.
“We have to get through Brexit first, but early new year we will have to start talking about that properly because the momentum will gather on that Derry to Dublin route. It’s critical really, when you look at it for businesses and for hub connectivity. Dublin airport is one of the best hubs in Europe. I’m sure the extra support from Dublin will come. Businesses are crying out for it. The Council did a lot of stakeholder reviews across the north west, including Donegal, and asking what do you need and this Dublin route was 90% top of the list.”
Looking towards the year ahead, despite the pandemic continuing to wreak havoc, Mr. Frazer remains optimistic. “It is going to start on the down but the great news is the vaccine. The more that accelerates the more people will get confidence. People are just holding off on the summer bookings as they want to see how this six week lockdown goes. Luckily enough we have the Palma flights this summer.
“The people of the North West deserve good connectivity and better connectivity, it’s fair to say, than the airport has provided them in the last few years, but we have to look towards the effects of APD.
“We are looking forward to getting that Dublin route, and I’d dearly love to get someone onboard for Manchester and Birmingham as well. There is an extraordinary amount of people from the north west travelling to Manchester and having to use other airports. For CODA, we have to be realistic but it’s certainly not beyond the possible to say Dublin, Manchester and Birmingham are on the radar.
“The next year,” Mr Frazer concludes, “is going to be an exciting year for CoDA.”