City Airport’s boss on why London’s future is in the east

Marion Dakers
FOR A man whose airport was closed by almost half a foot of snow just days ago, Declan Collier was remarkably upbeat when City A.M. met him at the airport’s headquarters last week.

“I’m satisfied that we brought as much as we possibly could to bear to the problem, in terms of equipment and manpower,” said Collier, who had spent the last few days in hourly contact with London City Airport’s dozen airlines as they battled unsuccessfully to stay airborne.

“We have the right type of equipment, we’ve got the expertise, we’ve got the crews, we’ve got the people in place so it’s really just down to the circumstances... That dictates how successful you’re going to be,” added Collier, after his first brush with snow since joining the Docklands airport in March 2012.

The garrulous Irishman is keen to emphasise the differences between his firm and the other London airports, and says City Airport with its focus on business travellers is “complementary” to bigger rivals such as Heathrow or the mooted Thames Estuary hub.

“In a small way we can help contribute to a solution in terms of slots. But for the rest of it… I don’t think we will impact on an estuarine airport if that’s what happens.”

Collier’s first project since taking over the top job has been to re-examine City Airport’s own ambitious expansion plans, having won permission in 2009 to increase traffic from 60,000 flights a year to 120,000 with a goal of rising from 3.1m to 10m passengers within the next 12 years.

The airport will submit fresh plans to Newham Council in a few months, which are set to include provisions for new aircraft stands, a parallel taxiway to make better use of the runway and, eventually, a new arrivals terminal.

Underpinning the expansion is a shift in “the whole centre of gravity in London towards the east,” says Collier, with the redevelopment of Stratford and a burgeoning enterprise zone near the airport drawing in millions of potential passengers.

He is speaking to firms at the Silvertown Quays project across the docks about direct flights to their main markets. Siemens has already brokered such a deal with airline CityJet, this week enjoying the first services from City Airport to its base in Nuremberg, and the next generation of planes will enable links to Africa, the Middle East and eastern Europe.

“I think it’s one of those virtuous circles where the development of an international airport with the development of these opportunities ... ratchets up the benefits,” said Collier.

The service offered to businesses is only possible thanks to the airport’s close links with its airlines – a refreshing change for Collier, who spent seven years on the receiving end of Ryanair’s ire as boss of Dublin Airport.

CityJet chief exec Christine Ourmières cheers Collier’s “fresh perspective” and the speed at which he has gotten to grips with a business-focused airport.

Collier hopes to use the growth plans to create jobs, for example at the airport’s unusual retail facilities, which track customers using facial recognition.

“We’re really space-constrained here. We can’t build – though we’d love to – a Bluewater type of retail offering. What that forces us to do is look at new, innovative ways.”

Collier hopes to trial “virtual shopping experiences” by the end of the year, allowing time-pressed passengers to place orders for groceries on a projected shop shelf, for delivery upon their return to London.

The airport is currently funding this upgrade work with existing financing, and further cash will depend on Newham’s planning decision, he said.

He is tight-lipped about the long-term plans of Global Infrastructure Partners and Highstar, the airport’s main investors since 2008, though says they are “strong and supportive” shareholders.

“I would have to say that they’re very happy investors in the airport and we’re meeting the expectations that they have quite rightly put on us.”

Education: MSc in economics from Trinity College, Dublin

Lives: Moved to London from Dublin with wife and children last year to take City Airport job

1978: Joins Esso Ireland, moved up the ranks at parent company ExxonMobil in Ireland and the UK.
2005: Takes up the chief executive role at Dublin Airport Authority
2009 - June 2012: Non-executive director at Allied Irish Banks
March 2012: chief executive of City Airport