The famous phrase immortalized in the song Imagine has become the motto of Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport (LPL). The late Beatle was born in the city, and his name is now affixed to one of the oldest airports in the United Kingdom.

By Lee Cross

Located about six miles (10km) southeast of the city center, LPL has long lived in the shadow of Manchester Airport (MAN)—the third busiest airport in the country—which is just 30 miles (50km) away.

More than eight decades in existence, Liverpool Airport is a living part of the history of the UK and, despite its ups and downs, it is looking to the future.

It’s had its hard day’s nights. But now, above it, there is only sky.

THE EARLY, TURBULENT YEARS

The original Liverpool Airport, located north of the current site on the grounds of Speke Hall, officially opened on July 1, 1933, after being licensed by the Air Ministry. Flights by Imperial Airways, the predecessor of BOAC (Airways, April/May/June 2015), and, subsequently, British Airways (BA) had actually been operating there since 1930.

In the years leading up to World War II, LPL had become the second busiest airport in the country. An ever-increasing demand for air travel across the Irish Sea meant that, on a typical day, over 80 aircraft movements could be recorded. Independent airlines such as Blackpool & West Coast Air Services, Midland & Scottish Air Ferries, and Hillman Airways operated domestic links. KLM (KL) commenced international service to Amsterdam (AMS) in May 1934.

A new control tower and large hangars opened on June 11, 1937, forming part of the art-deco terminal that was completed in 1939. Today, the premises are part of a four-star hotel and leisure complex and are listed as some of the finest examples of early aviation buildings still remaining in the country.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) took over the airport after the onset of World War II and renamed it RAF Speke. Handley Page Halifax bombers and Bristol Blenheims were built at the airport. The Lockheed Aircraft Corporation used it to assemble Hudson and Mustang fighters that had been shipped from the US to Liverpool’s docks. Passengers could fly to just two destinations—the Isle of Man (IOM) and Dublin (DUB)—through Railway Air Services and Aer Lingus (EI).

The Ministry of Civil Aviation regained control of the airfield in 1944, and passenger flights resumed to London Airport, Croydon, and Belfast (BFS), operated by the prewar carriers and by the newly formed British European Airways (BE). However, government ownership proved detrimental to LPL’s fortunes; MAN had refused to accept RAF control in 1939 and, under local council management, it was free to expand. From 1949 onwards, MAN gained the lead in the number of passengers. LPL’s prewar status as one of the UK’s busiest airports began to dwindle.

TRAFFIC DECLINE AND PRIVATIZATION

The city council took control of the airport on January 1, 1961, and drew plans for expansion, despite the space constraints imposed by the proximity of the River Mersey and of National Trust land around Speke Hall. A new runway, still in use today, was opened on May 7, 1966. With money being tight, designs for a terminal next to this runway remained on the drawing board.

Passenger traffic decreased in the early 1970s and doubts were voiced over the airport’s future. However, on October 29, 1978, British Midland (BD) took over BA’s routes from LPL, including the London Heathrow (LHR) link, and immediately increased frequency to five daily. The airline continued Irish Sea routes to Belfast (BFS), DUB, and IOM, and added a five-time weekly link to Jersey (JER).

Finally, in 1982, the council decided to proceed with plans to relocate the airport adjacent to runway 09/27. Work on a new air traffic control tower was completed on November 24, followed by a new parking apron and taxiways. The terminal, affectionately dubbed the ‘cowshed’ because of its basic design, opened its doors on April 28, 1986, and served the airport well until being integrated into a newer facility in 2002.

On June 1, 1990, British Aerospace (BAe) purchased a 76% stake and, despite many seeing this as a turnaround in fortunes, the decline in passenger numbers continued. By the late ‘90s, the airport was surviving on passenger services to just three cities— BFS, DUB and IOM—operated by British Airways Express (CJ), Manx Airlines (JE), Emerald Airways (G3), and Ryanair (FR).

LOW COST CARRIERS ENTER LPL

The seemingly never-ending drop in passengers ceased in 1997, when low-cost carrier easyJet (U2) announced the launch of operations with daily flights to Nice (NCE) and Amsterdam (AMS) to commence on October 26 that year. It added more destinations in 1999: Geneva (GVA) and Barcelona (BCN) in January, BFS and Malaga (AGP) in July, Madrid (MAD) in September, and Palma (PMI) in October. In October 2000, the airline signed a 10-year agreement, stating it would base seven Boeing 737s there by 2003 and continue expansion with new routes. By 2001, easyJet had carried some 1.4 million passengers.

Ryanair was next to see expansion opportunities at LPL. The airline had served DUB since May 26, 1988, after taking over the route from Aer Lingus. Initial flights to Brussels (Charleroi) began on June 27, 2002. In November 2004, Ryanair announced it would base four Boeing 737-800s at LPL.

In November 2006, Edinburgh-based FlyGlobespan (Y2) commenced flights to Tenerife South (TFS). Despite healthy passenger numbers, the direct service was re-routed via Stansted (STN) before being dropped on March 30, 2007. An advertised flight to Prague (PRG) never got off the ground.

The low-cost boom sparked by U2, FR, and Y2, and the subsequent rise in passenger numbers, passing the 1 million mark for the first time in 1999, put the airport in need of expansion. In July 1997, Peel Holdings purchased the 76% majority shareholding from BAe and began improvement works: an extension of the main parking apron and construction of four new hangars, beginning in September 1998.

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LONG-HAUL AMBITIONS

Liverpool’s venture into the trans-Atlantic market came on May 25, 2007, when Y2 launched service to New York (JFK) and Toronto (YHM). The flights, aimed at both leisure and business travelers, initially enjoyed much public support and good load factors. Sadly, due to numerous financial issues with the airline and technical difficulties with its fleet, the JFK service was dropped in October the same year, with Toronto ceasing soon afterwards. This is one market that the current CEO, Andrew Cornish, is keen to re-instate.

“We have ambitions to start looking at some direct long-haul flights,” he said, “with routes to the East Coast US obviously being very attractive, especially with new aircraft coming into operation, such as the Airbus A321 long-range.”


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CURRENT OPERATIONS

Today, the airport’s biggest operator is easyJet, serving 30 destinations with a based fleet of seven Airbus aircraft. In July, it launched a new weekly service to the Greek island of Zakynthos (ZTH) and, on August 6, celebrated carrying its 35 millionth passenger from LPL.

Ryanair currently operates 32 routes from LPL and bases four Boeing 737-800 aircraft there. The airline recently stated it would look at further expansion with the arrival of new aircraft. Indeed, the carrier is the launch customer for the new Boeing 737-8 MAX 200 high-density variant and will soon welcome 100 (with options on a further 100) into its fleet.

Cornish believes that the relationship with these airlines remains strong. “We have an excellent open and honest relationship with all our operators,” he says. “We are constantly looking to expand their portfolio of routes from the airport, especially to areas we see as underserved, such as Scandinavia, Italy, and Germany.”

Hungarian operator Wizz Air (W6) began service in 2004, and has steadily increased flights and capacity. Today, the airline serves three destinations from LPL. Flights to Warsaw (WAW) and Gdansk (GDN), in Poland, have recently increased to three times weekly, and twice-weekly service to Riga (RIX), Latvia, launched on April 24, 2015.

Flybe has flown to IOM since March 30, 2008. The route, which runs three times per day, has performed well despite competition from easyJet since May 21, 2010.

In February 2015, Flybe resumed flights to Belfast (BHD). With passenger numbers rising, the frequency quickly increased from three to four, and then five flights per day.

But it was the announcement, made in March 2015, that Flybe was to begin flights to AMS that brought LPL back to a global network. The three-times-daily service began on September 7, 2015, with flights timed to coincide with many long-haul connections.

KLM had axed the route in 2012 after three years, and reestablishing a ‘hub-feed’ had been the airport’s priority for some time.

“The addition of Flybe to AMS in September with codeshares with KLM, Cathay Pacific (CX) and Etihad (EY) will connect us to the world,” Cornish said. “The key with this route is not to go headto- head with easyJet. It’s to connect us with up to 70 destinations around the world, which is brilliant for the city region.”

Hot on the heels of Flybe was Aer Lingus, which announced plans for thrice-daily service to DUB, with onward connections on its North American network. Operated by a 174-seat A320, the 16 flights per week were scheduled to commence on October 23, 2015. Ryanair immediately responded by increasing its frequency on the route to four flights per day.

Blue Air, the Romanian low-cost airline, has been flying to Bucharest (OTP) three times weekly and to Bacau (BCM) twice weekly since December 2014 and March 2015, respectively. “The Blue Air flights are really working and numbers are way ahead of expectations,” Cornish said. “Load factors are in the high 80%, which, for the first six months of a new route, is excellent.”

In February 2015, CSA Airlines (OK) announced a twice-weekly route to Prague with a 144-seat Airbus A319. Despite teething problems pushing the start date back, the inaugural flight was greeted by the obligatory water cannon salute on July 17, 2015. In a massive coup, LPL became the Sky Team Alliance members’ first service to the UK, after the airline left the market in 2010.

Thomson Airways, part of the TUI travel group, recently announced a weekly service to Palma, Majorca, beginning May 3, 2016. This will be the first time in seven years that regular charter flights will operate from LPL. Operated by a 189-seat Boeing 737-800, the route will run for 26 weeks through the summer season. “Forward bookings are looking excellent and we’re hoping for more flights from them,” Cornish said.

On September 9, 2015, Vueling Airlines, part of the International Airlines Group (IAG), announced three-a-week service to Barcelona, to start in March 2016. Operated by an Airbus A320, the year-round flights will depart Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

This brings the total number of new airlines launching flights from LPL during 2015 to five.

“This is more fantastic news for [the airport] and the Liverpool City Region, with another airline to add to our expanding list of operators,” Cornish said. “This further adds to our growing reputation among Europe’s major airlines as a gateway not only to Liverpool but to the wider North West market.”

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THE EVOLUTION OF LPL

In July 2001, in a major rebranding, LPL became first airport in the UK to be named after an individual. The renaming immediately raised the airport’s profile both with the general public and the aviation industry.

In 2002, a £42.5-million passenger terminal was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II, tripling the previous size and passenger capacity. The building was further expanded in 2003, increasing capacity from 3 million passengers per year to 4.5 million. A new, state-of-the-art, 41-meter high air-traffic control tower to the south of the airport went into full use in January 2002.

The Vantage Airport Group acquired a 65% majority share in LPL from Peel in June 2010, and began a £12 million project to provide a larger passenger security screening area and a new departure lounge.

Passenger figures for 2015 exceeded both 2014 and 2013 levels. In July, the airport reported a 7% rise in passenger numbers, the sixth consecutive month of growth, and the increase was expected to continue for the second half of the year.

Volume of passengers on existing services also increased. EasyJet reported a 7.2% rise in its passenger levels since 2014. WizzAir’s load factors rose to 89%.

The airport is one of the most punctual in the UK. Overall on-time performance of scheduled flights in 2014 was 90%, a crucial factor in low-cost operations.

For passengers, LPL offers a pleasant, speedy, and stress-free experience. Getting there is easy, with good public transport links and convenient access to the main road and motorway network. The check-in area is welcoming and, with many customers using online check-in, queues rarely form.

Expansion of the security area in 2010 has reduced waiting times, although it can still get busy at peak times. The new departure lounge, which has recently benefited from over £1 million worth of improvements, presents excellent views across the apron, runway, and Mersey Estuary and includes a number of new and expanded retail units.

The arrivals experience through immigration, baggage claim, and customs is equally as seamless. Indeed, customers frequently comment on LPL’s motto: ‘Faster. Easier. Closer.’

“We have a really good product,” Cornish said. “We’re driven by the ‘Faster. Easier. Closer.’ motto and that’s what we are focusing on at the moment.”

‘FASTER. EASIER. CLOSER.’

Since taking the reins, Andrew Cornish has made his vision for LPL clear. He is confident that the airport can return to the UK top-10 in the near future and that the current facilities can easily handle seven million passengers per year. “It’s achievable for us to get that many passengers and still have a fantastic customer experience,” he said. “We have the infrastructure there to support it.”

One way LPL is looking to widen its appeal is to transform itself into a niche, boutique-style airport.

“What we are trying to do,” Cornish said, “is to be good at what we’re good at and stop worrying about trying to be something else. We have a really great product; so we now need to focus on our strengths. And that’s exactly what we intend to do.”

A total of £4 million (US$6 million) will be spent this year to improve staff and customer perception of the airport. Seating and flooring are to be replaced, and then land and airside restrooms refurbished. A large flight-information screen will soon greet passengers as they enter the departure lounge.

“Long-term, we’d love to have a direct link to the Middle East. We’re in constant talks with many airlines,” Cornish said. Closer to home, LPL has not had a link to Heathrow since 1992. After the 2015 report by UK Airports Commission Chair Sir Howard Davies said that LHR should gain a third runway, the London hub announced a new package of commitments linked to its expansion. This included a route development fund to provide startup support for five new services with airports such as LPL.

“The announcement of extra capacity at LHR, although that may not be until 2028-2030, is very exciting,” Cornish said. “We were hoping we could start doing something earlier. They’re very slot-constrained, but something could happen.”

New hub connections to AMS and DUB mean that Liverpool is once again opened up to the world. Exciting times lie ahead for the airport, and Cornish has big ambitions for where he wants LPL to be in 10 years: “Over 10 million passengers per year, redevelopment of the terminal, served by 20 airlines, with direct connections to the Middle East and North America.”

As he imagines it, the airport named for John Lennon should be “Still small enough to care, but big enough to cope.”