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Manchester Airport’s new boss has said the travel chaos holidaymakers have seen over the past few months are ‘behind us’. Managing director Chris Woodroofe has admitted customers suffered a ‘poor’ experience when flying from the airport.
The new boss has warned that passengers to Manchester Airport will be asked to arrive three hours before departure and queues over peak-times will continue this summer. Mr Woodroofe has vowed to ‘get passengers on their way’ as they head through the holiday season.
Manchester Evening News reports that the new director is realistic about the challenges in front of him. Speaking to the Manchester paper just 11 days into the job, the former Gatwick boss looked to brighter times ahead.
It comes after the hub emerges from a pandemic which has crippled the travel industry, leading to queues which extend into car parks, missing baggage, police rescues after flights failed to take off and thousands of passenger trips cancelled by text message.
“It’s not going to be as good as we want it to be, it’s not going to be as good as it was in 2019 but what it will be is considerably better than it was three or four weeks ago,” he said.
“On day two I said to staff, what questions have you got for me? One of the obvious ones was ‘what attracted you to come to Manchester Airport?’ And of course it’s almost a question I was surprised to be asked in a way because you’ve got this enormous opportunity to take the airport in the North of England, my airport when I was growing up, and turn it into something that’s amazing.”
Mr Woodroofe accepts that not everyone shares his ‘positive sentiments’ about the hub of his youth, but said feedback on his appointment has included appeals for him to ‘make it better’. “You kind of feel like Manchester is behind you,” he said. “The people of the North are behind you. They want Manchester to be better, they are sorry about what’s happened in the last few months, but actually it’s about looking forward and making it the best it can be.”
Originally from Widnes in Cheshire, Mr Woodroofe, an engineer by trade, was chief operating officer at London Gatwick from 2016 to 2020. His most recent role was at Chevron Traffic Management, where he had overall responsibility for operational performance and driving growth.
He admits he hasn’t flown much out of Manchester of late, but says staff who do travel regularly through the hub report a ‘pretty decent experience’. He added: “The big issues of earlier this year are behind us. Again, 11 days in, are we in a position to say it’s going to be like it was in 2019? No, there are still going to be difficult periods, we are still on a recruitment ramp-up and as a result security officers are going to be fairly new and they are still finding their feet but you can see the positive steps in the right direction.
“The vast majority of passengers this summer are going to have a reasonable experience.” Mr Woodroofe said his priority was to ‘get people away on their holidays without having lots of cancellations’, adding: “I’m sure we’ve all done what we can to line ourselves up to get everyone on their way. It won’t be the perfect experience that I would have liked it to have been but it will be an awful lot better than it was earlier this year and the important thing is they will get on their way.”
On the request for passengers to arrive three hours before their flight, Mr Woodroofe stressed that arrival should be three hours ‘on the nose’, as those passengers who arrive early can be ‘as unhelpful’ as those who leave it too late.
In the new director’s previous role at Gatwick, the benchmark for security queues in 2019 was to get 95 per cent of passengers through in five minutes. In Manchester it was 92pc within 15 minutes. It was hoped that the £1bn transformation of Terminal 2 into a high-tech ‘super hub’ would bring these figures into step, but the pandemic delayed its opening before travel restrictions resulted in mass redundancies and a staffing crisis when passenger demand surged.
As a result, Manchester is now aiming for 93% of passengers to complete security in less than 30 minutes. It’s hoped this will soon rise to 95pc. That’s an improvement on May, when 91pc of passengers made the 30-minute mark. With 50,000 passengers expected to travel through the hub every day, some will still be in queues of ‘up to an hour’ at peak times, it’s predicted.
“I don’t want people to imagine I’m content with 95pc of passengers in 30 minutes. It’s realistic of what the summer has to offer,” said the new director. “That’s the mathematics of my definition of a ‘reasonable experience’. It’s not going to be like it was in 2019, I think it’s fair to say if you went to Gatwick that wouldn’t be the case any more than it is at Manchester.”
But passenger complaints extend beyond security, to baggage handling, check-in, Immigration, delays and cancellations – all the responsibility of the hub’s partner agencies and airlines. To that end, Mr Woodroofe says he has already met with the UK managing director of handling agents Swissport and ABM, with special assistance firm PRM and with the boss of DHL.
“I’ve picked these people on purpose,” he said. “Because what I want to open is a dialogue that says we’re having these conversations about where we are at because in that way we can help each other to be more successful. I don’t want to be having issues with passengers waiting a long time for bags to be returned.
“Across the board, at Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, the experience in 2022 is not going to be as good as it was in 2019. What I’d like to get across is that summer 2022 is absolutely not the right standard going forward and it’s absolutely my intention to get ourselves back and use the autumn and winter of this coming season to get ourselves there so in summer 2023 we will be in a reasonable position.”
The key to getting this ‘reasonable position’ is having enough staff in place to deal with the ‘surge’ in post-pandemic passengers following the mass redundancies brought about by the travel restrictions of Covid. Many of the workers who left the hub have now found other jobs.
This year, more than a thousand staff have been hired to replace them. Of those, 500 are now on the floor. A further 500 are currently going through security and background checks. Mr Woodroofe is personally greeting and thanking each new wave of recruits.
“Every security officer that joins makes that passenger experience that little bit better each time. I’ll do the same thing tomorrow with the next recruitment wave of security officers, it’s great to see it in real life and meet security officers who are going out tomorrow to help make the passenger experience better,” said the new boss.
The staffing crisis has hit not only Manchester Airports Group (MAG), but also its many partner agencies, including baggage handlers and airlines. It’s led, when reports of travel chaos have been at their worst, to much buck-passing, with the spotlight at times falling on air traffic control, Government vetting delays and overly-prompt passengers.
Mr Woodroofe argues the challenge has been unprecedented. “What’s interesting is the entire industry has never had to recruit the volumes of people it has in 2022 and I very much hope it never has to again,” said the new boss. “It doesn’t matter which process you look at, none of them fit the purpose to meet the passenger demand.
“It came on like a switch so it doesn’t matter where you are looking, at the vetting background checks or the process of interviewing new people, it doesn’t’ matter which business you look at, the airports, airlines, ground handlers – it’s a massive ramp-up to deliver and it’s not one anyone ever had to do before.
“Retention in the industry is not that great. Teams are used to recruiting 10 per cent of the workforce, not doubling or trebling their size in that period. It’s a very very difficult business and I hope we never have to do it again.”
Everyone, argues Mr Woodroofe, has been ‘behind the curve’. “And passengers have had a poor experience as result, we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. As a I look forward, we won’t have to do that in 2023, we won’t be trying to double or triple the size of the workforce, we’ll be back to a more standard process, and we will therefore be much better placed in summer 2023, to give a similar experience to 2019.”
While management teams in the industry have insisted their hands were tied when it came to mass redundancies during the pandemic, unions including Unite have blamed their ‘corporate greed’ for ‘slashing jobs’ to ‘boost corporate profits’.
But Mr Woodroofe ‘s response is that the public have a ‘short memory’ when it comes to the true impact of the pandemic. “It was only in January that Omicron was around and it was only in March that the Government actually turned off all of these restrictions about testing and everything else that opened the doors to all this recovery that’s happened. And so I guess that’s the place that I come from that says its easy to throw stones from outside but if you are in those businesses you’ve got to survive in order to be there tomorrow and then when it’s come back on it’s come back on really really quickly.
“The recruitment market is quite different to the one you left behind in 2020.”
He added: “I would like to say how grateful I am and we are to all of the staff, the frontline teams in particular, their efforts in this period. They are the ones on the frontline, they are the people who are engaging with passengers who have been in queues that nobody wanted them to be in. I went down to a security lane on Wednesday afternoon to lend a hand.
“I hope they get the sense from me that I am just wanting to help them have a better day. You bring in more security officers, bring the queues down then the security officers have a better day and it’s like this virtuous circle.”
On staff morale, Mr Woodroofe admits he was ‘wondering what he was going to find’, but said he’d been impressed with the level of professionalism among colleagues.
Even before the pandemic, Manchester Airport’s reputation had been through turbulent times. Queues are not a new phenomenon, while the introduction of drop-off charges in 2019, their increase since, parking fees and other costs like trolley-charging, have long been features of passenger reviews.
But Mr Woodroofe’s goal is to ‘move Manchester Airport on from where it was in 2019 and acknowledge that not all of it was perfect’. On the ‘one liner’ that the hub is the ‘UK’s global gateway in the north’, he said the ambition is to ‘make that sentence feel real’, adding: “Do I think there are some things other than security queues I need to get fixed in order to do that? Yes I do.”
Citing investment in Terminal two as a sign the hub is starting to compete on the ‘global stage’, he concedes there is ‘a lot of work to be done’ to ensure that was the standard experience for passengers. He said infrastructure investment needed to continue, while, once security queues were brought under control they would look at ‘how to make Manchester Airport even better’.
The key, he argues, is for all the hub’s many moving parts to operate ‘as a family’ – ‘working together, helping one another for the collective benefit of Manchester Airport passengers’. He added: “Everyone has to do their bit to get a successful journey for a passenger. There are lots of touch points, lots of complexity, that’s part of what attracted me to the industry and kept me in it for the last 15 years.”
He added: “I don’t think these are pipe dreams, I think it’s possible. Airlines are going to compete with one another for passengers, that’s right and proper, but it’s in no one’s interest to have in general a poor experience so we need to find ways of saying if one or other has a difficult day, there are ways to sweep that up so from a passenger’s perspective, they don’t notice.”
It’s been suggested by passengers, even before the pandemic, that Manchester puts ‘profits before passengers’ – and with a huge chunk of those profits going to the 10 councils of Greater Manchester as stakeholders, it’s not a straightforward issue. But Mr Woodroofe says they are not cost-cutting, arguing they have ‘thrown everything’ at the recruitment crisis.
He added: “Is it three months later than everyone would like? Yes it is. But if you are me 10 days in I’m looking forward not back. I’d like people to judge me on that in the future. Because seeing is believing. The summer of 2022 is not going to be the summer it was in 2019 but the reasons for that are clear and they are not about profits over experience.
“I think if you look forward and if we have conversations again as we head into summer 2023 well then we will be able to judge really whether we have taken passenger experience seriously and what I very much hope, because this is absolutely my intention, that we are talking about these great experience passengers are having and how much better it is and we are no longer using 2019 as a benchmark because we are better than that.
“That’s the direction I want to be going. I’m an engineer so I tend to be the sort of person who judges these things based on the mathematics. You won’t get a sales pitch from me. Judge me based on what we do. And what I hope is that your judgement is things are getting better.”
Asked if he expected a bonus this year, the keen mathematician said that was a question for the Board and remuneration committee, adding: “It’s day 11 and my focus is on 2022.”
Written by: thehitnetwork
Drivers could face harsh fines if not followed