Edinburgh airport told vision is needed to pass bmi test

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GOOD - but not good enough is Nigel Turner's take on the fast-expanding Edinburgh Airport.

While conceding that the airport has invested heavily in facilities and infrastructure development in recent years, the chief executive of privately-owned airline bmi is unequivocal in stating that the Capital's air hub has a long way to go if it really wants to establish itself as Scotland's gateway to the skies.

"If Edinburgh gets it wrong, what's going to happen?" he asks. "Scotland will get strangled."

There is perhaps a bit of jockeying for position going on here between Mr Turner's airline and BAA, the firm that runs Edinburgh Airport.

Bmi has been operating out of Edinburgh - and Glasgow - since 1980 after breaking the monopoly of British Airways. Indeed, it's the only UK-based carrier to operate from all of Scotland's main airports: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Prestwick and Inverness.

Currently it operates more than 70 flights a day from Scotland, carrying more than 1.5 million passengers a year - many business travellers - to their destinations.

But Mr Turner wants more, specifically BAA's approval for him to open a twice-daily route between Edinburgh and twin-town Munich, in Germany. At stake is better choice for passengers departing Edinburgh to link with the global network of Lufthansa, not to mention an investment of 11.4 million. But BAA is dragging its heels over unresolved issues which he believes are threatening the creation of the new route.

"One of the issues that needs resolving is that they need to give us strong assurances we will be able to operate in a unconstrained manner," insists Mr Turner, whose firm has 200 employees in Edinburgh.

By that he means guarantees that Edinburgh will tackle facilities and infrastructure shortcomings, such as queues and long check-in times, he claims bogs the airport down at peak times and can lead to delays.

Tim Bye, Mr Turner's deputy, says that with up to five bmi flights shuttling between Edinburgh and Heathrow during the peak morning hours, it's "very rare" that all get in on time, given there's usually a "bottleneck".

"Unless there's growth in the airport's facilities to handle this, planes are going to be pushed out of their arrival times. Once you've missed the early ones, you're going to be up against it all day," he says.

Given the investment proposed by bmi in the Munich route, Mr Turner is even more keen to secure an acceptable deal on fees and landing charges.

"At the end of the day, when looking at new routes, I have to have reassurances that my fees and charges are going to go down, just like fares have.

"We don't want to do this lightly. We've not finally decided whether to fly this route from Edinburgh, we're still in discussions.

"But there are currently airports marketing routes to me much better. I have about 60 routes that will offer me long-term, low-cost packages. I'm not saying Edinburgh is a one in 60 chance, it's in the top few, but BAA need to push on."

Mr Turner - who took up the chief executive's role at Derby-based bmi last November after serving as chief operating officer - notes the improvements a 100m investment at Edinburgh Airport has brought.

"There's been a lot of work done on roads and the realignment of taxiways," he says. But adds: "I still think there's more to be done on the ground. Clearly they need to work a little bit harder, particularly during summer and peak times and also when Edinburgh is hosting special events, such as the MTV Awards."

But giving some ground back, he adds: "It's very difficult in one sense to build your church just for Easter Sunday, but that's the issue of infrastructure at all airports."

Mr Turner says private conversations with Edinburgh Airport chief executive Richard Jeffrey provide an acknowledgement of the problems. "But I'm a little bit concerned with the use of averages, rather than specifics," states Mr Turner. "We're running a business based on punctuality and I'm not relaxed about my aircraft being delayed. If you start late then you're stuffed for the rest of the day. It's absolutely crucial that ATC [air traffic control] and airports are working perfectly between 6 and 7.30am. Other airports manage it, Manchester, for example.

"In a competitive world, if they [Edinburgh] can't handle it, I will take my flights elsewhere."

While neither BAA nor Mr Turner will discuss the specifics of fees charged to use the airport, Mr Turner is firmly of the view that the ball is in BAA's court.

"Scottish taxpayers are having to subsidise the fees and charges because BAA won't," he insists. "The Scottish Executive wants services to places that are routine within the UK, but BAA are just folding their arms." However, BAA says it has to strike a balance between investing in facilities and offering low charges to airlines.

A spokesman for BAA Scotland says: "There's no lack of commitment from BAA to developing Edinburgh Airport. There will always be operational challenges at an increasingly international airport where pressure from airlines is to have investment but at the same time have reduced charges to pay for that development."

On trams linking to the airport, Mr Turner says: "For me, the issue of public transport is not fundamental. What matters is getting this airport ready to handle the peaks and troughs and getting ready for competition without the taxes of the nurses and doctors of Edinburgh."

Bmi revamped its forward strategy over the summer in the wake of a poll of 10,000 of its customers to find out what they wanted and didn't want from the airline.

ITS new model focuses on punctuality, choice and speed on the ground - hence Mr Turner's vociferous stance. "We asked them: 'What's most important to you?' 'To leave on time' was the answer," says Mr Turner.

So the firm invested "heavily" on technology to speed up on-the-ground transactions, such as electronic check-in. Now 40 per cent of all check-ins are electronically conducted. "By the end of next year that'll be 50 per cent," Mr Turner adds.

"People also wanted more choice on things like fares and on-board offerings," says Mr Turner.

On board, long-haul cabin crews were reporting that many passengers were not drinking on flights. "In recognition of that, we decided to introduce payment for alcohol. If you want it, you pay for it. That way you're not subsidising the person next to you whose drinking alcohol partly covered by your fare."

Punctuality is a mainstay of bmi's business model. Between Edinburgh and Heathrow from January to July, bmi saw 75 per cent of its flights arrive or leave on time, compared with competitors' record of 70 per cent.

"We settled on punctuality as the bedrock and have put a huge emphasis on that and reliability," he says, reiterating that Edinburgh needs to up its game. Underlining his expansion aspirations for bmi are the six new long-haul routes launched since Mr Turner became CEO, to destinations such as Las Vegas, Mumbai and Riyad.

While Mr Turner concedes bmi is not the first to try to operate both full-service and low-cost models, he believes bmi's success has come from "reasonably separate" management teams and a rationale that both wings of the company don't try to compete against each other.

"I think we're particularly successful at that."

Overall, Mr Turner sees the airline industry as "feast or famine", describing competition as "brutal". "In terms of the International Air Transport Association, member airlines have lost more money than they have ever made," notes Mr Turner. Figures from the airline body indicate a combined loss this year of around 4.2 billion.

"The industry needs a little bit of consolidation," he says. "At the moment, that's not coming. It's happened on a low-scale with KLM and Air France merging. Ten years ago that was unthinkable."