The Big Interview: Edinburgh Airport chief Gordon Dewar

It is a booming, bustling travel hub that last month saw more passengers pass though its doors than ever before. But Edinburgh Airport has faced no shortage of turbulence in recent years, prompting criticism over issues such as its security screening times, delays, the so-called 'kiss and fly' drop-off charge and planned changes to its flight paths.

A victim of his own success, Dewar hopes the airport doesnt get quite as close to capacity again as it has this record-breaking summer

Chief executive Gordon Dewar is therefore understandably on the defensive about the airport’s activity and expansion plans, which he insists are essential to cope with its rapid growth and to help foster broader economic prosperity. The terminal is the busiest in Scotland and the fastest-growing in the UK, while passenger numbers are set to hit 13 million this year (well ahead of a previous target of 12.3 million by 2020) and 16.5 million by 2021.

Dewar says the biggest frustration in his role is people not taking a broader perspective on its activity.

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“I’m perfectly happy to stand up and defend our proposals on an occasion where it won’t make people entirely happy – that’s an inevitable part of any business,” he says. “But I wish people would just apply some wider perspective.

“I don’t expect everybody to think what we say is right – but let’s have a debate covering all of the issues, not just one issue at a time, because in the real world that’s how it works.”

July saw the airport’s passenger numbers soar to more than 1.4 million, including an 8.6 per cent year-on-year jump in international travellers and marking a record for a Scottish airport.

Furthermore, work has started to create a three-storey extension to the main terminal building, marking the take-off of a £80 million investment plan. The expansion, part of a £220m-plus five-year investment programme, is due to be completed next summer and will boost the likes of immigration and customs facilities, broaden retail, food and drink options, and add six gates.

Dewar stresses that the airport’s expansion “doesn’t come on its own – a number of things have to fall into place and there are a number of compromises we have to make to allow that to happen”.

One of the more hotly debated aspects of such growth is proposed changes to flight paths, which would go directly over towns including Livingston and South Queensferry at peak times.

The airport’s Airspace Change Programme (ACP) attracted objections over issues such as additional noise, and nearly 4,000 responses were collected from people living in Edinburgh, the Lothians and other areas of Scotland. Of this total, 52 per cent were negative, 28 per cent positive and the remainder neutral.

Dewar believes the airport has presented a solid case for why people should want it to keep growing. “Clearly, if you change anything there are inevitably going to be some winners and losers,” he says, adding that the airport needed to “go out there” and be highly transparent about any suggested changes.

The plans were submitted to the Civil Aviation Authority earlier this month, and Dewar said at the time that the application had been amended due to feedback received while he admitted that discussions on the ACP were at times “full-blooded”.

Noting the need to extend both the airport’s road and air capacity, in his view the vast majority of people in Scotland “value and understand” the need for growth. “But we have to look after those who are maybe not overly positively impacted by it.”

The airport began life in 1916 as the Royal Naval Air Service aerodrome, serving as a key military base in the First World War and later becoming RAF Turnhouse. More than a century later, Dewar notes, it is one of the biggest contributors to the Scottish economy, and last year accounted for nearly £1 billion and supported 23,000 jobs.

Dewar is proud of the impact of considerable investment in recent years, especially on security checks. “You’ve been really unlucky at Edinburgh Airport if you wait more than ten minutes… and the vast majority of people wait considerably less than five minutes, so I think we get it right on the whole, although there’s always room for improvement.”

He says much publicised teething problems related to the airport’s upgraded security system have been resolved. “We know if you make people wait for 20 minutes and don’t treat them very well that’s… a really silly thing to do.”

None the less, Dewar is unapologetic about the unpopular drop-off charge, dubbed the “kiss and fly tax”, introduced in 2010, even though it made Edinburgh the fourth most expensive airport in the UK according to insurer Admiral last month.

“Fundamentally, we believe that to be successful we’ve got to keep the price down for airlines, because you don’t come to the airport for the sake of the airport – you come to catch a route.

“And if we keep charging airlines more and more we’ll just have fewer of them, and that can’t be the right answer, so we really just want everyone that uses facilities to pay for them.”

Dewar has spent his career focused on transport, starting out in consultancy with Halcrow and covering projects like extending the Jubilee line on London’s Tube. And he jokes that his career has probably been “the wrong way round – you should probably get into consultancy once you actually know something, but it didn’t quite work that way for me”.

He also worked for what is now known as Strathclyde Partnership for Transport for a couple of years on secondment from his consultancy employer, and was part of FirstGroup for about six years, followed by a spell with ScotRail.

As a result, there is now only one kind of transport left for him to cover. “I’ve never done ferries,” he says.

Dewar’s focus moved to the skies when he took the controls at Glasgow Airport, joining just before 2007’s terrorist attack, and then at Edinburgh, while the two sites were owned by BAA (now known as Heathrow Airport Holdings). He also spent a couple of years in the Middle East.

It was revealed in 2011 that BAA was selling Edinburgh Airport, and Dewar says he was “delighted” to have been contacted by one of the bidding companies who asked him to return if it was successful.

That was Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP), which in April 2012 struck a deal to buy it for £807.2m.

Dewar describes it as a “fairly easy Yes” to return to his native Edinburgh, seeing a great deal of potential at the airport.

“Part of the attraction here was… not only writing your own destiny, but actually creating a fully functioning business for the long term, so although it’s a similar job title it was a very different job because of the responsibilities that came with it.”

Named Director of the Year at the Chamber of Commerce’s annual business awards in 2015, his duties now have an increased emphasis on longer-term planning and external relations.

Actions taken included assessing the airport’s capabilities and passenger needs, and maximising knowledge of the Edinburgh market’s strengths to attract airlines.

An early priority was the Middle East, adding carriers such as Turkish, Qatar and Etihad, and now the airport boasts 33 carriers covering 130 destinations.

Additionally, Norwegian launched its low-cost, long-haul flights to the US earlier this year to great fanfare. “We hope that’s the first step of many here,” says Dewar.

He also acknowledges the oft-cited desire for a direct air link to China. “As I’ve said many times it’s a matter of when not if, but when really is quite a difficult thing to predict because you’ve got so many moving parts.”

Last year, 160,000 Chinese travellers visited the Scottish capital, and Dewar says numbers are growing by up to 15 per cent a year. “We’re very, very confident that as soon as these routes start, there will be enormous growth opportunities there.”Additionally, Edinburgh Airport and Beijing Capital International Airport in May signed a partnership agreement to drive co-operation between the two.

In coming years, Dewar is targeting more connections (“because that is the lifeblood of every airport”) and leading in technology provision. A board member of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, he is also keen to see Air Passenger Duty scrapped completely. Such a move would cost the Scottish public purse about £380m, but he believes that to quickly and significantly boost tourism, “that’s the lever to pull”.

The airport is also planning to sacrifice its secondary runway to create a business and housing complex that could stretch to 111 acres in a move to create one of the best-connected developments in Scotland, although some have questioned the purpose of such plans and called for greater clarity.

Additionally, a “big swathe” of land for a planned second runway, expected to be needed by 2040 at the earliest, has already been reserved to the north of and parallel with the main runway.

Dewar now says he does not want the airport to be as close to capacity as it has been this summer, admitting that it was “squeaking”, and explains that the aim is to get “two or three years ahead of that demand curve”.

And ten years hence, "we’re certainly going to be a lot bigger physically and we’re going to be probably one of the largest private sector employers in the country”.