Published in August 2016 issue

Situated in northeast England, Newcastle international airport (NCL) serves as the gateway to a catchment area that includes England’s north east, Cumbria, and north Yorkshire, and the south of Scotland. Its economic impact on the region exceeds UK£646 million (nearly us$936 million), and the airport supports 12,200 jobs, including 3,200 onsite.

By Ramsey Qubein

It is a mid-size facility that offers flights to various parts of Europe, but is stretching its wings to add North America, Dubai, and the Caribbean to its route map. The airport authority is keen on keeping the facility modern and contemporary so as to attract and keep business travelers to and from the region.

Newcastle is home to both Newcastle University and Northumbria University, with tens of thousands of students studying in and around the region. This generates a lot of excitement in the city and keeps international traffic brisk with visiting academics and traveling students.

The region is also home to a significant manufacturing base and has been playing an important role since the industrial revolution. It is the largest city in the northeastern region of England and attracts a large influx of business and conference visitors to town.

Evolution of the airport

Despite its proximity to Scotland’s two major airports of Glasgow (GLA) and Edinburgh (EDI), and to larger English airports like Manchester (MAN), Newcastle Airport has thrived for years. A big reason: the British travelers’ ever-growing demand for sunny European destinations.

The airport’s origins date to 1935, when, on July 26, it was opened by the British Secretary of State for Air, Sir Phillip Cunliffe-Lister. Then called the Woolsington Aerodrome, the airport consisted of a clubhouse, hangar, workshops, fuel garage, and grass runway.

When World War II broke out, the aerodrome was requisitioned by the Royal Air Force, which placed a Maintenance Unit in charge of salvaging crashed aircraft around the region. Despite this role, the airport saw little operational flying during the conflict.

After the war, Woolsington was handed back to the city council and began to experience modest growth. In 1954, the first concrete runway was laid, making the airport available for larger aircraft. BKS Air Transport was a major airline served by the airport, flying routes to the Isle of Man and Jersey from 1953, and to Dublin and London from 1957.

The airport modernized in the 1960s, with a new terminal, apron, and control tower—which replaced the original wooden structure built in 1946. Over the winter of 1965-66, the airport closed while the runway was being strengthened, resurfaced, and extended for jet aircraft. Prime Minister Harold Wilson officially reopened the airport on February 17, 1967.

With traffic approaching the million passenger- per-year mark in the 1970s, the airport status was upgraded to Category B—that of a regional international airport. Soon came a new name: Newcastle International Airport. Jet service to European destinations followed, with Spain—and particularly Majorca—as a prime holiday destination.

In the 1980s, the growing airport added more check-in counters, dining options, and duty-free shops. A metro station opened in 1991, improving connectivity to the city by enabling travelers to reach its center in less than 30 minutes.

The Rise of the Low-Cost Carriers

With the onset of even more passengers, it became more urgent to expand the terminal building. In 2000, the airport opened a new £27 million ($39 million) extension of the check-in hall, with Prime Minister Tony Blair on hand for the ceremony; the first low-cost carrier (LCC) arrived when British Airways Go (GO) inaugurated a service to London Stansted. The GO service was a sign of the times to come in the next decade.

However, the aftermath of September 11, 2001, took its toll on Newcastle. Local carrier Gill Airways (9C) folded, representing a loss of 240 jobs and of an important airport tenant. But the void was promptly filled by the arrival of EasyJet in March 2003. That helped NCL hit the 3.9 million passenger mark—a new record for the airport.

Today, nearly 35% of flights in and out of Newcastle are operated by LCCs, with EasyJet (U2) leading a competitive regional market with two additional major players: Ryanair (FR) and Jet2 (LS).

To cope with the ongoing passenger growth fueled by the LCCs, the airport expanded in 2004, doubling the size of the departure lounge. Another growth spurt in 2015 brought a dazzling new airside departure area with shops, locally themed cafes and bars (including an American-themed diner and a beer house with pull-your-own-tap local brews), and more restaurant and seating spaces.

As it is traditional in many UK airports, passengers remain in the shopping and lounge areas until shortly before their flights, when the gate information is posted. Only then do passengers move toward their gates, which offer simple seating and washroom areas. This is why the airport chose to invest so heavily in a modern and comfortable airside setup. With passengers arriving earlier than in years past to get through security in good time, a 21st century facility was imperative.

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Passenger comforts are key

Newcastle must compete with Glasgow and Edinburgh to its north and many other airports to its south. Road and rail links to and from the area are excellent. To keep passengers flying from NCL, it is important to maintain a strong route network with fair prices and modern amenities.

The airport has launched a customer service initiative that is intent on making it the most welcoming in the UK. Happy or Not panels are positioned throughout the airport, giving travelers the chance to rank their experience with smiling or frowning faces. The most recent figures recorded an 87% positive rating. At security, the airport can process 97% of passengers in six minutes or less. Try that at Manchester or London Heathrow!

Two lounges are available in the main terminal. One is operated by British Airways (BA) and is open to all eligible oneworld fliers. The other is the Aspire Lounge, open to all passengers, regardless of airline, for a fee. Within the lounge is a play area for children and, interestingly, an upgraded inner lounge that offers better food and drink options for an additional fee. Many airlines use this as the contract lounge of choice when operating from NCL.

Complimentary wireless Internet has been introduced throughout the terminal, and work is complete on upgrading the check-in stations and departure hall area.

The airport has a strong route network aimed primarily at leisure traffic. Especially popular are flights to mainland Spain and the Canary and Greek islands. Business destinations include Amsterdam (AMS), Brussels (BRU), Copenhagen (CPH), Dublin (DUB), Dusseldorf (DUS), Geneva (GVA), London, and Paris, among others. The airport is keen on attracting more business fliers in hopes of expanding its network to include other major cities like Istanbul (IST) (Airways, May 2015) and Madrid (MAD).

Hunting for long-haul destinations

Airports are constantly pitching the areas they represent and the facilities they offer to airlines and, when Newcastle went fishing for a long-haul carrier, Emirates (EK) bit in 2007. Newcastle’s non-stop daily flight to Dubai (DXB) has become so successful that it is currently served by a Boeing 777-300ER—while other similar airports receive the smaller Airbus A330-200 in their service to the Middle Eastern destination. It is certainly a contrast to see the massive aircraft parked at one end of NCL’s narrow terminal building.

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Emirates (EK) and NCL maintain a close relationship. The airline sponsored the new control tower, which was inaugurated in September 2007 by Nick Brown, the Minister for the North East, and Tim Clark, the president of Emirates. Standing 147ft (45m) tall, the tower offers 360° views of Newcastle, the Tyne Valley, Northumberland, and the coast.

Plane spotters will be excited to learn that officials plan to turn the former control tower into a public spotting deck for visitors.

Airport officials seemed to have scored another success by enticing American Airlines (AA) to fly nonstop to New York JFK. To get the flight, they had conducted intense studies and held meetings with local companies encouraging them to support it. However, American pulled out in late December 2005, before the inaugural flight, citing high oil prices. Flights had been set to start in May 2006.

Despite the setback, the airport authorities’ confidence and hard work eventually came to fruition. In 2015, United (UA) announced seasonal non-stop flights from Newark (EWR) five times a week. These were so successful that, at the time of writing, UA plans to return in 2016, this time with an additional weekly service.

The airport expects United to eventually operate its flights year-round. So far, the heaviest traffic has been westbound, with British travelers flying to their North American vacations. In United’s second year of service, Newcastle and its surrounding areas are planning a tourism push in the US to encourage visitors to Northeastern England.

From Newcastle, European carriers Air France (AF) and KLM (KL) have achieved steady growth on the routes to their respective hubs. Thomson Airways (BY) has launched new, long-haul service to leisure destinations like Cancun (CUN) and Orlando Sanford (SFB) with its Boeing Dreamliner 787 aircraft.

The latest destinations on the airport’s route network include short winter breaks to Finland and to Spain’s Almeria (LEI)—further evidence of the importance of the facility for the area’s holidaymakers.

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Despite a bright future, some challenges lay ahead

Scotland and Wales are planning to nix the Air Passenger Duty (APD) imposed by the British government on tickets for flights departing the UK. This tax can rise to as much as UK£188 (US$272) for long-haul flights in a Premium cabin.

The lifting of this tax from Scottish airports could begin to eat away at the market for English airports, as people would drive across the border for cheaper airfares. No other airport stands to lose more than Newcastle, given its proximity to Scotland, although Bristol (BRS), in the south, near the Welsh border, has similar concerns.

“It is essential that the UK Government matches any reduction in the tax in Scotland,” airport officials insist, “so that the rest of the country does not lose out as a result.”

Despite the Scottish threat, NCL airport authorities are bullish about the airport’s growth. Efforts to entice more long-haul flights are underway, and the latest passenger figures are at 4.6 million.

Part of the recent excitement involves the airport being advertised in another one. Yes, ads for Newcastle Airport, promoting its ease of use, are affixed throughout Heathrow Airport (LHR). The region won a competition for advertising funding from VisitBritain to promote itself to the massive international audience that passes through the country’s busiest airport.

Near Newcastle’s terminal, a new Doubletree by Hilton has opened its doors, and a new business park was launched in 2014, bringing a possible 7,000 more jobs to the area. The first phase of development, with new office buildings, is already underway as the airport enters into its 81st year, NCL is serving over 80 destinations worldwide and playing a significant role in the region’s economy. In 1935, nobody would have ever imagined such a future for the little fledgling airport.