New chief executive at Stansted Airport looks forward to a decade of further growth

PUBLISHED: 17:24 12 October 2017 | UPDATED: 17:24 12 October 2017

The main terminal at Stansted Airport.
Picture: Stansted Airport

The main terminal at Stansted Airport. Picture: Stansted Airport

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For the past four years, Ken O’Toole has been chief executive at Manchester Airport, currently the biggest operation within the Manchester Airports Group (MAG) in terms of passenger numbers.

Stansted Airport chief executive Ken O'Toole, speaking at the announcement of Primera Air's new routes to New York and Boston which start next year.

Picture: Tony Pick Stansted Airport chief executive Ken O'Toole, speaking at the announcement of Primera Air's new routes to New York and Boston which start next year. Picture: Tony Pick

But despite having last month exchanged the chief executive’s role at Manchester for that at Stansted – with Andrew Cowan, his predecessor, moving in the opposite direction – Mr O’Toole does not expect it to be long before he is again heading the group’s busiest airport.

The annual passenger total at Stansted has already increased from around 17.5m to more than 25m since MAG acquired the airport from the former BAA group in February 2013.

And with more new airlines opting to fly from Stansted, notably including Primera Air which is due to start flights to New York next May, and existing operators, including Ryanair and Jet2.com, adding additional routes, Stansted’s annual passenger total is on track to overtake that of Manchester some time during MAG’s next financial year.

Although new to Stansted operationally-speaking, Mr O’Toole was, in fact, a key player in MAG’s purchase of the airport, with one of his first core remits on joining the group in 2012 as chief commercial officer being to put together the business case for acquisition.

An artist's impression of the new arrivals building planned at Stansted Airport, with the existing terminal to the left. An artist's impression of the new arrivals building planned at Stansted Airport, with the existing terminal to the left.

In some senses Stansted is also at a similar stage of development to that of Manchester when Mr O’Toole first joined with passenger numbers at Manchester having grown from around 17m a year to nearly 28m over the past six years, helped by a major advance in long-haul connectivity.

Besides having run Manchester Airport for the past four years Mr O’Toole also brings with him experience from the other side of the airport-airline relationship, having previously spent six years with Ryanair.

He initially joined the Irish carrier as head of revenue management – he is a qualified chartered accountant – but went on to become director of new route development.

This background, says Mr O’Toole, gives him an insight into the needs of airport customers as well as the operational realities which a fast-growing international airport faces every day.

Stansted Airport.
Picture: Stansted Airport Stansted Airport. Picture: Stansted Airport

“I am very excited about being here,” says Mr O’Toole. “London Stansted is a really interesting space from an aviation perspective.”

“We now have a decision on airport capacity in the South East, which has been a long time coming, but while Heathrow has been chosen for expansion I do not think it is unfair to say that delivering on that will be a challenge for them.

“Heathrow is saying the new runway will take 10 years but I think there is a degree of optimism in that. I would say 10 to 15 years. During that period, Stansted will become much more important in London, and in the UK as a whole.”

Stansted’s runway has the potential to handle around 20m more passengers a year, equivalent to around half of the increase in demand expected in the London area over the next 10 years.

Not that the decision on how to use this capacity is entirely straightforward. It could be that, in future, a choice has to be made between more flights to popular European destinations or more long-haul routes.

For now, however, Mr O’Toole recognises that “there is huge demand in the immediate catchment area around Stansted for direct long-haul services”, whether to North America, the Middle East or further into Asia.

However, the Government’s recognition of the need to expand airport capacity in the South-East cannot disguise the lack of joined-up thinking in broader aspects of transport policy, says Mr O’Toole.

Despite regional train operator Greater Anglia’s investment in new trains, the improvement in journey times Stansted would like to see – from 50 to 55 minutes between London Liverpool Street at present to 30 to 40 minutes – will also require network infrastructure improvements. Notably, he says, this needs to address the bottleneck at Liverpool Street which often sees Stansted trains caught behind slower commuter services. On the road, the lack of a fast dual-carriageway link all the way to the A12 also needs to be addressed, he adds.

But policy also needs to be more joined up in a broader sense, Mr O’Toole believes, such as in the form of a cut in air passenger duty which would benefit not only airlines and airports but the whole tourism sector.

MAG plans to invest around £600m at Stansted, including a new arrivals hall alongside the current main terminal for which planning consent has been obtained. The existing terminal will the be reconfigured for departures only, although some interim changes are already taking place including the provision of additional seating.

If all goes as hoped the new arrivals hall will become operational in the 2019-20 year with the revised layout of the existing terminal following in 2020-21. Additional taxiways and aircraft stands are also planned, with construction being phased as demand builds but starting as early as next year.

Underpinning all of this a planning application due to be submitted shortly to lift the cap on Stansted’s annual passenger total from the present 35m to 44.5m.

“There is an exciting time ahead for Stansted and I am looking forward to being part of it,” says Mr O’Toole. However, he concedes that the expansion plans will involve a balancing act when it comes to the airport’s relationship with the local community.

The Stop Stansted Expansion group has pledged to oppose the application to raise the annual passenger cap from the current 35m to 44.5m, warning of a significant environmental impact in terms of both air and road traffic.

Mr O’Toole says the airport’s plans will include a range of mitigation measures, although this is not always simple. For example, tightening flightpaths has the effect of concentrating the noise on those who are still affected.

The airport’s case will also include the positive contribution it makes to the local economy, with 12,000 already employed on the site.

“It is always a balance,” he adds. “We think we do a pretty good job but are we perfect? No, we are always looking to improve. Will we satisfy everybody? No, we are not naive enough to think that, but we strive to do our best.”

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