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Belfast International airport boss Graham Keddie: 'We have to scrap air duty, our politicians seem scared'

Claire McNeilly talks to the 52-year-old managing director of Belfast International Airport about the challenges facing the business, his exciting work in exotic locations and his brush with a killer disease.

Published 08/06/2015

Plane speaking: Graham Keddie is frank about the problems facing the aviation industry but he still remains optimistic for the future of Belfast Bnternational Airport
Plane speaking: Graham Keddie is frank about the problems facing the aviation industry but he still remains optimistic for the future of Belfast Bnternational Airport

Q. After nine months in the top job at Belfast International Airport (BIA), what is your biggest challenge?

A. Increasing passenger numbers while lumbered with air passenger duty (APD), which levies £26 on a return ticket to Great Britain and European destinations. The Republic and the Netherlands saw the damage the tax was doing and got rid of it. Scotland and Wales want to do the same. If Northern Ireland doesn't scrap it, we'll be in trouble because there are no trains or road links. To get anywhere from here, you have to fly.

Q. Why do you think that Stormont isn't taking action to abolish APD?

A. The politicians seem be scared it'll eat into the block grant. There's also a lack of ambition and aspiration. Their position is in contrast to the former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who said he'd get rid of it as soon as he could. He's an economist and understands he has to be outward-facing to the world.

Q. George Best Belfast City Airport (GBBCA) wants a restriction removed on the number of departure seats it can sell in a year, currently capped at two million. It believes abolishing the restraint would help Northern Ireland economically. Do you think the cap should be lifted?

A. No, I don't think the restriction should be removed. As far as benefiting Northern Ireland is concerned, my only response would be to ask, when was the last time City introduced a route which wasn't already served from International?

Q. Liz Fawcett, chair of Belfast City Airport Watch, a campaign group that is against lifting the restriction, said GBBCA was trying to duplicate BIA. Do you agree with that? Do you see GBBCA as a direct competitor?

A. Exactly. We prove the routes, we invest the money. Of course it's a direct competitor.

Q. What about KLM's new Amsterdam route from GBBCA? It's being billed as a big bonus for business travellers. Does it directly compete with BIA?

A. It's more important to have direct flights than through a hub. It's directly competitive to our Easyjet service to Amsterdam. May the best airline win. I know who that's going to be.

Q. BIA carries more than four million passengers every year and flies to 70 destinations. However, it has been seeking to attract new airlines flying to new destinations amid increased competition from both GBBCA and Dublin Airport. What happened to the Toronto and Abu Dhabi flights BIA had hoped to get at the end of 2014? Are they still on the cards?

A. We certainly won't be getting them this year. We're still talking to a number of airlines and we still have a number of potential leads. We know the market is there. We're up against a state-supported, state-owned airport in Dublin, with all the backing of the Irish state, and that makes it much more difficult for us to compete in those markets. However, we will do our damnedest as a private company to go out there and try to do it.

Q. Dublin Airport has been bragging about a 52% growth in passengers from Northern Ireland. Last year, 864,000 passengers headed south, which is the equivalent of 1.7m return journeys. Recently released figures from Dublin Airport Authority suggest that New York is their most popular route for people from here. What do you make of that given that United suspended its Belfast/Newark flight from January to March this year?

A. That has changed - New York wasn't even in their top five last year. As far as Dublin is concerned, it's not a level playing field.

In November, they spent an absolute fortune on marketing in Belfast and - let's be honest - that's primarily targeted at us.

Q. How can the Belfast/Newark flight suspension be justified if there's enough demand? Could BIA be doing more to promote the service? Will the service be suspended again this year?

A. United suspended services in six other European cities following a decision made network-wide in Chicago. It was nothing to do with Belfast specifically. We know that there is demand here. We've got marketing everywhere, we're on the radio. United spend a lot of money marketing here. We've got buses wrapped, buildings wrapped, we constantly talk about New York. I don't know how much more we could do. As to further flight suspensions, ultimately, that's United's decision.

They haven't said anything to us, but they have given us nothing but positive vibes. Our view is that the flight is here to stay. They've been here 10 years this year. It's very unusual for a British regional airport to have a New York service. For example, Liverpool doesn't have it and East Midlands doesn't have it.

Q. Being extremely well-travelled, you've obviously noticed that ours is one of the few international airports in the world that doesn't have a rail link. How detrimental is that to growth?

A. It's not a huge thing. We have a very good bus service. The train line runs one mile away from BIA. It still exists. However, the standard wisdom is that you need nine or 10 million passengers to make a rail link effective. We have just over four, so what I would rather have is a dual carriageway link from the M2 direct into the airport.

Q. Have you discussed a possible dual carriageway with the powers that be?

A. I'm constantly speaking to politicians and the Department for Regional Development. I've raised it with Transport Minister Danny Kennedy. They know the issue - it concerns 7.9 miles of dual carriageway. I think everything is possible - it just depends where it comes on the list of priorities.

We need the infrastructure across Northern Ireland because a big one for us would be to have the M2 onto the A6 dualled all the way to Londonderry. That would be fantastic for us because it would open up Londonderry to us much more. We're in the centre of the province. Airports are huge jobs drivers. A successful airport drives jobs.

Q. Would that not mean that BIA would be competing with Derry Airport?

A. Derry is much smaller than us and they have a very niche market. They have limited international flights. It would mean 45 minutes to BIA from there.

Q. Does BIA have a future as a proper hub without the kind of infrastructure you've been talking about and the lack of international flight destinations?

A. It will always have a future because we're the second largest airport on the island of Ireland, both in passenger terms and in cargo terms. We're the only category 3B airport on the island of Ireland, so we can operate in any weather and planes can land in any visibility, just about. We have two runways and we have a cross runway. When the wind blows in Dublin in the wrong way, the aircraft pile in here. We're Ireland's safe haven.

Q. How can you actually grow the airport, given that your hands are tied?

A. We still have a reasonable market. Easyjet have just announced 160,000 additional seats for the winter. We've had Jet2 start five new routes (Verona, Prague, Rome, Gran Canaria and Zante) this year, and Wizz has started operating two new routes (Vilnius and Katowice). There's already growth there. And we could accelerate that growth if we had no APD.

Q. Do you have any fears that Dublin Airport could put you out of business?

A. I don't think they can put us out of business. I suspect they'd love to.

Q. Some people have complained they don't like the security experience at BIA, and the main room has been likened to a shed. Do you think that's a fair assessment?

A. We've been working with our security company over the last few months. Hopefully, people should have seen an improvement. We've put a lot more effort into customer service and we've had some positive feedback. Aesthetically, what we have is what we have. All we can do is to try and make it as pleasant an experience as possible.

Q. It was recently announced that the airport was to get a new £2.7million VIP business centre. Any other major investment plans afoot?

A. We've got a rolling toilet replacement programme. We've just refurbished them all in the international arrivals section and they're fabulous. Domestic arrivals is next. People will start seeing a difference as we roll through some key areas and spend some real money. This year, we'll have spent £2.8m by the end of the year. Close to £2m of that will be spent on renovating all the toilets. We're committed to high-quality, decent facilities.

Q. Do you think that security restrictions in general are over the top, given that they differ from airport to airport?

A. I can understand that it's frustrating for people when the rules are inconsistent when they travel through, but at the end of the day we've got to be safe and secure. Better not to take any chances. We've got to make sure the experience of going through security is as pleasant and painless as possible.

Q. What about BIA's drop-off policy? Most people hate paying £1 for 10 minutes. Any plans to scrap that?

A. No. It's perfectly priced at £1 and it works well. It keeps the area clear. We may look at rejigging the space to make the flow slightly easier, but the system is here to stay. Since its introduction, we don't have security alerts in our drop-off zone anymore. From our perspective, the new system works.

Q. What could Tourism Ireland do to help BIA more?

A. Northern Ireland needs to get maximum benefit from the money given to Tourism Ireland. They should be selling Northern Ireland as a great place to come. We can only ask that we get as much bang for our buck as possible.

Q. What about the Aer Lingus dispute (BIA is suing the Irish carrier for £20m over the switch to GBBCA in 2012)? They say they didn't breach a contract by pulling out of BIA. Has BIA recovered from the blow of losing the airline?

A. We have it in writing. That's why we went to court. We're waiting for a decision on that soon (within the next two weeks). The airport has bounced back following its withdrawal.

Q. On a more personal note, you had a massive health scare more than a decade ago, when you were managing director of the regional division of the Manchester Group and MD of East Midlands Airport (from 2001 to 2005). Tell us about that.

A. I didn't know I'd been getting more and more ill for upwards of six years. Then, in August 2004, I collapsed at work. I ended up in the back of an ambulance on my way to Derby Royal Infirmary. When I got there, my system started to shut down. I nearly died, so I was a very lucky boy. Turns out, I had massive amounts of calcium in my bloodstream. During surgery, they removed two parathyroid glands and took a nodule from the second. Then, on December 23, 2004, I was told I had cancer. They removed my thyroid gland on January 12, 2005 and, thankfully, I was given the all-clear. It was one of those life-shaking things.

Around that same time, my marriage was falling apart, so when a mate offered me a job in Lagos as chief commercial officer of Virgin Nigeria, I grabbed it with both hands. I had a ball for a year in Africa. Then I took a job in Bahrain as the CEO of Baharian Export Services. I spent 18 months there before being offered a job in Abu Dhabi, for Abu Dhabi Airport Services and Abu Dhabi Cargo Company, where I spent almost six years. Next, I worked in Cyprus as the head of commercial for Larnca and Paphos, but that didn't last very long because I was offered this job at BIA.

Q. You've been in Northern Ireland for nine months. Why come here?

A. I did my research before I came here. The job with BIA is interesting and it seemed like a great place to come and live. Belfast is a fascinating city and this is a fascinating country.

Q. You have two sons - Gavin (20) and Jonathan (22) - from your first marriage to Susan, three stepchildren - Dominic (23), Joseph (26) and Johanna (36) - and one granddaughter - Eliza, Johanna's daughter, who is three weeks old. You've been married to 56-year-old Theresa, a former retail fraud expert, since 2008. Tell us about your family background.

A. Susan is from Inverness in Scotland. We were in the same law class at university and got married when we graduated. I was 22. I got bored being a lawyer after a year and fancied going overseas. I was lucky enough to be accepted by John Swire and Sons Ltd as a management trainee based in Asia and seconded into the aviation division with Cathay Pacific (the Hong Kong airline). Over the course of 12 years, I did eight jobs in four countries - Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines. Susan travelled with me, so the kids were born in Scotland but brought up in Asia. Our marriage lasted until March 2005, almost 20 years. We'd come back to England, and then I met Theresa, who's from Connemara, at the beginning of that summer.

Q. So how did you go about wooing Theresa?

A. It's funny when you haven't dated a woman for more than 20 years. In fact, it was frightening for an old chap like me. Our first date was at a restaurant in Loughborough, England. We got on so well we were the last people out of the restaurant as they were closing up. It was love at first sight, pretty much. Typical of me. Bang. Flash. That was it. I haven't looked back.

Q. You're a Scotsman married to an Irishwoman, with a house in England, and you have spent your life travelling the world. Where do you actually call home?

A. I'm currently in a serviced apartment in Templepatrick and I've been commuting, but Theresa and I will hopefully be moving into a house in Doagh. I've had a house in Loughborough for seven years, but I've lived overseas for a long time. Theresa stayed there while I was away working. I was born outside Glasgow, in Grennock, but I call Banffshire my home. It's where I grew up as a teenager and where my dad still lives.

Is Dublin pondering a cheeky move for George Best Belfast City Airport?  

Belfast Telegraph

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