Stansted Airport's new managing director Steve Griffiths is optimistic about recovery
As coronavirus continues to send shockwaves around the world, Stansted Airport’s new managing director is used to coping with seismic change.
Steve Griffiths worked for Virgin Atlantic for almost 18 years, during which time he saw the aviation industry reel from a triple whammy of attacks by Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda on the USA on September 11, 2001, the global financial crisis in 2008 and the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in 2010.
After he left his role as Richard Branson’s chief operating officer, he faced the political bear pit of running public transport in London, taking charge of the Underground when it was handling up to five million passenger journeys a day and implementing the biggest changes in 20 years with a controversial closure programme for ticket offices and introduction of the Night Tube schedule.
He said: “I’m not unused to choppy waters.”
While Covid-19 has put unprecedented pressure on airports across the globe, it is clear those battle scars are standing him in good stead as he tries to steer Manchester Airport Group’s (MAG) southern satellite into a flightpath for recovery.
There is a bumpy ride ahead, especially now that MAG has announced that 376 roles at Stansted are among 892 in total under threat as it looks to cut costs following a 91% drop in demand for travel through its three airports – Manchester and East Midlands are the two others – from April to August compared to the same period last year.
MAG chief executive Charlie Cornish has been blunt when expressing his frustration with the Government’s lack of support for the aviation industry and ongoing concerns about how it implements quarantine restrictions, condemning its strategy as "sluggish, illogical and chaotic".
Mr Griffiths – who began his career with Rolls Royce working at its helicopter arm in Leavesden, now a Warner Bros studio and home of its Harry Potter Tour – is focused on dealing with the practical fallout of these political decisions.
He took the job as Stansted’s chief operating officer and then chief executive Ken O’Toole’s right-hand man in October 2018 to add breadth to his leadership portfolio and was eager to step up to the latest challenge.
He said: “I’m not an individual who wants to sit in the back seat and stay quiet. I want to lead this business through the crisis and out the other side and I don't shy away from that. You come out of these experiences knowing a lot more about yourself.
“I and the team have been in [the airport] throughout this crisis, protecting the business for our people as well as our customers.”
The pandemic put the brakes on a boom at Stansted, with 28 million travellers through the terminal in a year dwindling to a trickle.
“We were really growing the airport passenger numbers and the portfolio of airlines and suddenly everything stopped within a very short period of time and we had to scale down the airport to minimal operations.
“How do we do that in a smart way which protects the business when you need to start up again?”
While commercial passenger numbers plummeted, the terminal and airfield needed to remain operational for repatriation flights and cargo aircraft carrying medicines and food.
Mr Griffiths said the management team had a tricky balancing act: to take quick and decisive action to cut as much expenditure as possible to ensure Stansted survived the crisis but without damaging infrastructure or the workforce.
MAG’s management has been restructured with a 25% reduction in headcount, a 10% salary cut for a year was imposed across the board and at the peak of the pandemic around 70% of workers were furloughed. The key to communicating such difficult decisions was “openness, honesty and integrity”.
The measures so far have resulted in a 30%-35% reduction in fixed costs on last year, but Covid-19 protection for customers and colleagues added £1m to the bottom line.
As flights increased in July and August, there were grounds for some optimism. Mr Griffiths paid tribute to the flexibility of staff who stepped up to cope with a surge in travellers which exceeded expectations. “We were the second busiest airport in the UK and in the top 10 in Europe,” he said.
Morale was boosted as Ryanair, Jet2 and easyJet resumed operations and there was strong demand for flights to Turkey.
But then came a further hammer blow as the Government imposed quarantine restrictions for returning passengers, first from Spain and then France, and passenger totals tumbled again.
Mr Griffiths has taken some succour from that shaky restart. He said it was clear Stansted’s strength – often regarded as a weakness by pundits in the past – is its large number of flights to see friends and family and its holiday traffic.
He said: “Business [flights] will be the third sector to recover and that will take some considerable time.
“I think Stansted Airport will be one of the strongest airports to emerge from this crisis – and one of the quickest to emerge from the pandemic.”
In the meantime, much depends on clear quarantine advice and development of a vaccine.
His prediction for the winter season is sombre. Airlines make the vast bulk of their revenue during the summer and will struggle to survive as Covid-19 impact continues to at least the end of the year.
Mr Griffiths said: “There are highs and lows, but I have optimism and we know there are green shoots coming through. All the actions we have taken are to ensure we are in the best place possible.”
At such a crucial time, there has been criticism of MAG’s decision to press ahead with a planning appeal to extend its current passenger cap from 35 million a year to 43m after permission was refused by Uttlesford District Council.
A costly public inquiry is expected early next year, but Mr Griffiths’s sights are set firmly on the next five years and a dedicated team is working on the appeal.
He said: “It’s a really important part of our longer-term growth but it doesn't create any distraction.”
Although recovery maybe three or four years away, he said: “We know that when things bounce back, this airport will absolutely get back to growth and get back to previous numbers.”