An interview with Karen Smart, Managing Director, East Midlands Airport. By Ross Falconer
The East Midlands is a vibrant region of the UK, founded on a strong manufacturing base, with established global companies that include Rolls Royce, JCB and Toyota. East Midlands Airport is perfectly-positioned to contribute to, and capitalise on, the economic growth, productivity, and skills offered across the wider region.
Currently handling around five million passengers a year, the ambition is to double that to 10 million. Leading these efforts is Karen Smart, the new Managing Director of East Midlands Airport. She took the helm in April 2018, having previously been Operations Director at London Stansted, which like East Midlands is part of Manchester Airports Group (MAG). Prior to joining MAG, Smart spent several years at the service provider Serco, and had a distinguished career in the Royal Air Force.
“My first few weeks in post have been spent familiarising myself with the business. Airports are complex, multi-layered organisations, and getting to know, not only the people, but how we function and operate, is absolutely key,” says Smart. “Stepping up from an operations role to Managing Director means that I need oversight of every aspect of what we do.”
As well as getting to know the team and ensuring the airport is well-prepared for the busy summer period, Smart has been spending a considerable amount of time getting out and about, meeting stakeholders and partner organisations to further her knowledge of the local political and business landscape. Already, she has hosted MP visits, met with business and local government leaders, and is proactively seeking opportunities to sit on regional boards and steering groups.
“Being Operations Director at the UK’s fourth-largest airport has set me up nicely to take on this bigger role. I know how to run an airport, but being Managing Director is much more than that – you become a figurehead and a regional ambassador, which I’m relishing,” says Smart. “My career as an RAF Officer prepared me well for leading large teams in demanding environments; strong leadership will be key to driving further success at the airport, but also more broadly within the region. My military career also developed my resilience, which is an important quality in delivering change and driving success. Meanwhile, at Serco I developed my business acumen, delivering large contracts and managing transformation prior to me leading a successful aviation portfolio within the defence business area.”
Attracting new networked carrier
What excites Smart most about her new role is the huge potential. East Midlands has one of the largest population catchment areas of any UK airport (8 million within a one-hour drive, and 30 million within two); it is located at the heart of the country, neighboured by three cities (Derby, Leicester and Nottingham); and has the capacity to accommodate more flights and larger aircraft.
“My focus is working out how we want to grow, what’s realistic and where this growth will come from,” Smart explains. “We’re talking to a number of airlines about new routes and increased capacity, but fundamental to our growth is securing links to Europe’s major hub airports, such as Paris CDG, Frankfurt and Amsterdam Schiphol, from where passengers can catch connecting flights all over the world. Our job is to convince airlines that there is demand for certain routes. If we are successful with this, I think we’ll be connecting many more people to a wider choice of destinations soon.”
The airport aims to secure a new networked carrier, allowing passengers to fly with one airline from East Midlands to the other side of the world via a major European hub, on one ticket. “EMA is one of the largest airports in the UK that does not offer this service, which leaves the eight million people who live within an hour’s drive of here without a dedicated networked global carrier,” says Smart. “We’re also engaging with existing operators with a view to increasing capacity. Our low-cost leisure offer is really strong, and we’re keen to build on this with existing airline partners.”
Absolutely key to future growth is improving access to the airport. At London Stansted, a quarter of passengers use rail to get to the airport. At East Midlands, that figure is only 1%. “We’re lobbying hard for better rail services, increased frequency and improved timetabling. We’re also beginning to think about how this airport can benefit from the wider connectivity linked to HS2 Toton (the East Midlands’ HS2 hub). This may seem a long way off, but if we don’t start planning now, we’ll miss out from this major piece of infrastructure, which has the potential to radically reshape the East Midlands.”
Enhancing infrastructure and passenger experience
Significant development is taking place across the airport and the wider site. UPS has started building a new £114 million (€130m) facility adjacent to the east apron. This will employ 1,000 people and significantly boost UPS’ East Midlands operation.
Meanwhile, not directly linked to the airport, but complementary to its offer, is the development of the SEGRO Logistics Park East Midlands Gateway. Over the next few years this will double the number of jobs across the wider airport site, making the area one of the largest employment sites in the region.
“We’re looking at our current capacity issues and what this means for enhancing our infrastructure,” Smart adds. “I can’t go into details here, but there are plans on the table that we’re currently working through.”
The airport is also constantly looking at ways to improve the passenger experience, and recently extended its free WiFi offer to passengers from one hour to four hours.
“We’ve also recently introduced Click and Collect. Passengers can now browse over 4,000 World Duty Free products online and, along with Dixons, can reserve items to collect as they travel through the airport. This means passengers travelling through EMA can access more products than are available instore,” Smart explains.
Meanwhile, a live chat customer function on the airport’s car park page is being trialled, with a view to it being rolled out at sister airports London Stansted and Manchester.
“We recognise that many customers want to self-service their way through the airport wherever possible, so we will continue to work with our airlines and UK Border Force to develop plans to enable this,” says Smart. “We know our arrivals process needs improving but, to help improve matters for passengers, we’ve introduced Fast Track Passport Control which, for a fee, means passengers can bypass the queues and go straight to the e-gates.”
Last summer was East Midlands’ busiest since 2008 and it is hoping to build on that, making 2018 one of its strongest years in terms of total passenger numbers. “We’ve made a strong start, which is looking promising,” says Smart.
While East Midlands remains a very seasonal airport with summer passenger numbers far exceeding winter’s, it is beginning to see a shift with more people flying through EMA for winter sunshine or to Europe’s ski resorts.
“I also hope that by enhancing our engagement with government, local stakeholders and partners, we can add meat to the bones for our longer-term vision of a future in which thousands of new jobs are created onsite, people can get here more easily, and passengers have a greater choice of destinations to travel to for both leisure and business. I hope to see the shoots of this vision starting to appear as the year progresses.”