Cover Story: Manchester, gateway to the world

When the world's airline passengers voted for their favourite airport, they were expected to choose the futuristic splendour of Changi or the efficiency of Amsterdam. Instead, they picked Manchester. Simon Calder explains why
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The Independent Online
Airports are awful. You turn up swathed in anxiety before a flight, then hang around for ages with little to do but eat uninviting food and spend a fortune in the shops on things you don't really want or need. To reach the plane requires a route-march along glum corridors, with the public address barking at "The last two remaining passengers to Paris". Peak times, such as next week's Easter break, bring the added problems of overcrowding. How many holidays have got off to a false start before even leaving the ground?

Changi airport in Singapore is beautifully planned and impeccably run. Schipol in Amsterdam applies the latest transportational ideas to allow effortless transfers between flights, or from the plane to the train. Yet this week the traditional star performers of the airport world have been pushed into second and third place respectively by the modest figure of Manchester - a feat akin to the Liberal Democrats winning the next election.

Every year the International Air Transport Association (Iata) asks passengers at the world's leading airports to rate the services provided by the airport. In the survey published this week, Manchester was included for the first time. And Britain's third airport easily beat Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt and Chicago O'Hare - the world's busiest.

Stranger still, Manchester airport is not owned by thrusting Thatcherite shareholders, but by a bunch of local authorities. Manchester City Council holds 55 per cent of the shares in the operating company, and the remainder are split between nine other authorities with Greater Manchester. The privatised company BAA plc runs Britain's two busiest airports, Heathrow and Gatwick, but these could manage only 26th and 12th places respectively in the survey of 43. So what is Manchester doing right?

"We never lose sight of what we're here for," says Geoff Muirhead, the airport's chief executive. "Retailing and catering are important opportunities for us, but we must never forget we're running an airport." So the traveller at Manchester is less at risk of missing a flight by being delayed by the abundance of shopping and eating possibilities. Mimicking the success of British Airways' "Putting People First" programme, the world's newly favourite airport has put each of the 14,000 people who work there through a "Building the Best" course. Everyone from baggage loaders to Customs & Excise officials is taught about the importance of customer service, and this week's reports suggests the programme has paid off.

Popularity with the punters doesn't guarantee success with airlines, however. South African Airlines and Qantas both pulled out of Manchester after disappointing results, and British Airways' service to Los Angeles ended after one season. The airport ostensibly has an ideal location - "Every flight from Europe flies over Manchester to get to North America," says Geoff Muirhead, with only slight exaggeration - but has yet to capitalise fully on this. Hopes are pinned on an ambitious pounds 500m development programme, including the addition of a second runway to allow for a proper "hub and spoke" operation. This would permit flights to arrive and depart in waves, with quick onward connections.

The project is still the subject of a planning inquiry. With Manchester's present runway far from full, goes the opponents' reasoning, why harm the local environment with a second? But Manchester's authorities think big. They see the airport as essential to the economic health of the North West, and fear that jobs will be exported to Continental airports if the UK fails to deliver facilities for the 21st century.

In purely financial terms, the airport is a roaring success. Profits for the present financial year are expected to be pounds 43m. Some is returned to the local authorities and used to reduce council tax bills, but the majority will be ploughed back into development. A dedicated British Airways terminal is under construction, and there are plans to extend the city's Metrolink tram network to the airport.

But what awaits the 14 million travellers expected to use the airport this year? The answer is a tolerable, humane journey, as opposed to the series of hurdles that some airports expect you to leap.

First, access to the airport is easy by motorway or rail - a new rail link was built three years ago, and has been judged a great success in increasing the catchment area. Trains run direct from as far away as Edinburgh to feed into the network of scheduled and charter flights from Manchester.

Second, the airport is under-used. It comprises the usual British mismatch of architecture (see Jonathan Glancey's story, right), but it handles less than its design capacity both in the terminals and on the apron. So even at peak times, congestion and delays for both people and planes are minimal.

If it's so good, then, why is it so far behind Gatwick and Heathrow in terms of passenger numbers? Because although small may be beautiful for customer comfort, size is everything in aviation. Heathrow has more international passengers than any airport in the world because it has more possible destinations and connection possibilities. Gatwick benefits from the Heathrow spillage, and actually has better links with London - half an hour by train from the centre. Any semblance of a national transport policy was long ago surrendered by the Government, so simple market forces will continue to draw the airlines and the passengers to south-east England. People are talking seriously about upgrading the little grass strip at Redhill aerodrome in Surrey to be an extra feeder runway for Gatwick, rather than using the massive spare capacity at Bristol and Birmingham, Stansted and Southampton.

We may continue to love Manchester until and unless it, too, becomes too successful. We shall continue to despair of Heathrow and Gatwick, but continue to use them in preference to the rest of the UK. And we will, most definitely, continue to complain about airports.

SECRETS OF THE WORLD'S FAVOURITE AIRPORT

Favourite destination (charter): Palma.

Favourite destination (scheduled): Dublin.

Favourite aircraft: the Boeing 737 is the most frequently used type.

Favourite meal: the Big Breakfast (comprising two sausages, a fried egg, bacon, tomato, mushrooms, beans, hash browns, toast, preserves and tea), pounds 4.99.

Favourite book: Rainmaker by John Grisham.

Favourite duty-free purchase: litre of Bell's whisky and 200 Benson & Hedges.

Favourite comment: "Friendly staff".

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