One-to-one with John Cunliffe, Aviation and Commercial Director, Leeds Bradford Airport

John Cunliffe joined Leeds Bradford Airport in May 2018 and is its Aviation and Commercial Director. He brings with him more than 10 years of experience in commercial aviation, including management roles at Emirates and easyJet. Cunliffe told’s Chief Analyst Nick Preston that Leeds Bradford is aiming to increase its passenger numbers from four million a year to five million annually, over the next five years.

Leeds Bradford Airport, located in the North of the UK, has seen a number of significant changes in the past 18 months. In November 2017 it was acquired by AMP Capital Partners, which also owns interests in London Luton and Newcastle airports in the UK, along with Melbourne in Australia. Leeds Bradford also welcomed John Cunliffe as its new Aviation and Commercial Director last year. Cunliffe brings with him more than 10 years of experience in commercial aviation roles, including management positions at Emirates and easyJet.’s Chief Analyst Nick Preston met with Cunliffe at ‘Yorkshire’s Airport’ as it has recently been re-branded, to discuss how Leeds Bradford plans to position itself for future growth. How many passengers did Leeds Bradford welcome in 2018 and how did this compare to the previous year? How many passengers is the airport targeting for 2019 and beyond?

John Cunliffe: “Our financial year runs from April to March and we’re targeting just over four million passengers for the year ending 31 March 2019. It is broadly flat versus last year, but let’s not forget that in the previous financial year, ending 31 March 2018, we saw the loss of Monarch Airlines, which was a significant carrier for Leeds Bradford. We managed to recover all of the routes and capacity that was lost when Monarch ceased operations, thanks to which provided backfill of a large amount of that lost capacity. This was testament to the relationships we have with our partner airlines. We’re looking at growing from four to five million passengers over the next five years. Beyond that we’re targeting seven million passengers by 2030.”

aa: What do you consider to be Leeds Bradford’s key catchment area and what is the composition of this catchment?

JC: “There are 1.25 million people living within the Leeds and Bradford post code areas. Leeds is the third biggest city in the UK, Bradford is the fifth biggest, and we see it as one area. If you put them together, we’d argue that our combined city is the second biggest in the UK. When you’re talking to airlines that don’t necessarily know much about the Leeds Bradford region and you start getting into fundamentals, that sort of statistic is really significant, and you really see a change in how people think about it. If you look at the wider Leeds City region, which is supported by the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), that extends from Barnsley in the south to Harrogate and York in the north. Around three million people live within the Leeds City region. There are a huge number of financial services, legal and corporate businesses within Leeds, but also a great, local entrepreneurial spirit in places like Bradford, which was voted the best place in the UK to start a business. There is a youthful population in Bradford. The wider region of Yorkshire is home to 5.4 million people, most if not all of which are accessible through our airport. That’s bigger than the population of Scotland and also Ireland. There is a statistic that the Leeds City region has a larger economy than a number of EU member states. Whichever way you look at it, there are a lot of people in Yorkshire and currently there isn’t enough capacity at this airport to support them all.

“Since the new owner took over the airport in November 2017, we’ve made material changes. We’ve rebranded as ‘Yorkshire’s Airport’, which creates a real sense of affiliation. For us, four million passengers isn’t good enough. We know that about eight million additional annual journeys are being made from our catchment that are not flying from Leeds, so we need to control that surface leakage.” 

The first phase of redevelopment was completed at Leeds Bradford in 2018. This included the introduction of new VIP lounges and F&B outlets, as well as a new meet-and-greet car park layout.

aa: Do you have a specific new route wish list for Leeds Bradford? Are there certain destinations or markets you believe the local catchment is crying out for?

JC: “Historically the airport was predominantly focused on leisure traffic and whilst that remains a very important segment of traffic, we’re very keen now to introduce more hub connectivity and more business connectivity. We’ve got three daily services to Amsterdam with KLM, double-daily links to Dublin with Aer Lingus and we’ve got up to double-daily with British Airways down to London Heathrow, all of which connect well onto their respective networks and beyond. We would love to see more frequencies with all of our hub airlines. We’ve just announced a bmi regional daily service to Munich, which is really exciting for the catchment. More point-to-point destinations in Europe remain a target too.

“We’re currently involved in a full re-write of our aeronautical strategy, taking it back to grass roots. This will involve using a lot more data to give us a good understanding of certain markets. We can then start to anchor our route development strategy around that. I see there being scope for improvement across the airport’s whole network of flights. We already know our largest unserved and under-served routes and they include a mixture of short-haul, long-haul, hub connections, point-to-point services, missing leisure traffic. We recognise that we can do better across the board.

“One of the core areas we’re missing is Pakistan. We don’t have a service to Pakistan despite having one of the largest Pakistani communities in the UK within five miles of the airport. We are missing an MEB3 carrier and we know that the US is our largest unserved market on a point-to-point basis, in terms of where we see our leakage. Regional airports have proven that they can support links to the likes of the US, especially where you’ve got long-haul, narrow-body operators and airlines in the long-haul, low-cost space. We know there are a lot of people in the area that go on their US holidays from neighbouring airports, but there’s no reason that we can’t sustain a service from this airport. Aircraft are getting much more efficient and economical, the 787 for example, is a really attractive aircraft for Leeds Bradford. New long-haul, narrow-body aircraft are also starting to open up more secondary and tertiary markets. For us there’s a huge amount of scope in this area. We do want to secure long-haul flying. There’s no reason why we can’t do that. We have perfectly capable infrastructure and assets to do that.”

aa: What do you consider to be Leeds Bradford’s closest competitor airports? Do the services on offer from these airport’s influence Leeds Bradford’s target markets?

JC: “Since airlines have assets that can move, you could argue that you’re competing at EU level for capacity. At a regional UK level, we have neighbouring airports in Liverpool and Manchester to the west, Newcastle to the north, Humberside to the east, Doncaster Sheffield, East Midlands and potentially even Birmingham to the south. It’s about recognising that we have a significant catchment and about securing those passengers for Leeds Bradford.

“In terms of our competitor route networks and whether they influence our strategy, they don’t, I’d rather anchor our aviation strategy in core data. When people leave Yorkshire, where do they go and how do they get there? Arguably, we don’t need to create or stimulate demand, because the demand is already there, that’s driven by the strength of our catchment. We know that, anecdotally, there are about eight million trips being made from Yorkshire where people are not using Leeds Bradford and using data we can get down into the detail and see exactly where that is. These days there is so much credible data available to prove the economic case for airline investment.”

aa: Excluding passenger services, what other aeronautical activities take place at Leeds Bradford? How important are these activities to the airport?

JC: “We have a cargo presence here and there’s no reason why we can’t increase cargo activities, especially as we look to improve the airport’s surface access. We’ve got a lot of general aviation activity, with Multiflight offering MRO services. Multiflight is also a Fixed Based Operator (FBO), so we have a lot of business jet visitors. We have around 2,500-3,000 business jet movements per annum. It’s an area that is good for the business, but our primary strategic focus is on driving passenger growth through the airport. We have a lot of pleasure flying as well.”

Leeds Bradford will break ground on a new three-storey terminal extension in February. The 7,000-square-metre extension, plus the reconfiguration of the existing facilities, will increase peak time capacity by 30%. The redevelopment will also lead to more parking stands becoming contact stands, with less need to bus as many passengers to and from their aircraft.

aa: Last summer, Leeds Bradford opened the first phase of its planned refurbishment. What did this stage involve?

JC: “We have done quite a lot already in terms of redevelopment in the airport, starting with three new VIP lounges. We launched three separate products, the Yorkshire Lounge, the White Rose Suite and we have the 1432 Runway Club, our first class offer, named after the runway headings. These lounges were opened in April 2018 and have already welcomed more than 100,000 travellers. We’ve built two new car parks, the meet-and-greet area, plus an off-site valet offering. We have upgraded some of our F&B offerings and welcomed a Starbucks outlet to the airport. The consumer choice available has been increased markedly.”

aa: In December, Leeds Bradford announced that its plans for a major terminal extension had been approved. What will this extension involve?

JC: “The recently approved works will involve a terminal extension and a reconfiguration of parts of the existing building, which will drive a 30% capacity increase at peak times. The improvements will result in more contact stands, reducing the need to bus as many passengers to and from their aircraft. We will have additional space available in departures, allowing not only for much more free seating, but also more opportunities for additional F&B plus retail outlets. We’ll also be reconfiguring our security, immigration and baggage reclaim areas. This will make passenger flow through the airport much more logical. The extension will be a 7,000-square-metre, three-storey building connected to the eastern end of the current terminal. It will be a modular extension, which can be further extended in the future to keep pace with growing demand. There will be a ground-breaking ceremony in February, and through 2019 the core of the extension will be built. Towards the end of 2019 and into 2020 we will start to reconfigure areas of the existing terminal.”

aa: What are the main challenges Leeds Bradford faces in terms of attracting new airlines and routes in the next few years?

JC: “The challenge is around changing perceptions. I think we’ve already made a huge step forward in this area in terms of branding ourselves as ‘Yorkshire’s Airport’. The work that has been done with the LEP, and local Chambers of Commerce etc, has really moved the dial. People speak a lot more positively about Leeds Bradford now than they used to and we need to continue that momentum. It’s about getting people and airlines to believe in the vision that we have for the airport and getting them here on the journey and enjoying it with us. We don’t intend to stagnate at four million passengers for the next five years. We want to develop and deliver the right services that the catchment demands and an airport that Yorkshire can be proud of.”

aa: What are the airport’s main strengths and opportunities for future growth?

JC: “We have a strong local economy, a huge catchment, a lot of latent demand. The new owners are materially investing in the airport, which is already helping to change the customer perception. We’re working hard to improve surface access, looking at new road access to the airport as well as a new rail station by the early part of the 2020s. The potential parkway station could be an absolute game changer and airlines are already talking to us about how much of an extension to the catchment area it could provide.

“What we really want is people saying, ‘what a great airport, it’s a great facility with great choice, great connectivity, I actively choose to fly from Leeds Bradford, rather than anywhere else’. People want to use this airport, but in the past may not have been able to do so for various reasons, maybe the required routes weren’t available for example. We know the previous problems and now we’re putting the solutions in place.”

John Cunliffe informed Nick Preston about Leeds Bradford’s large and strong catchment area, which has proven latent demand for air services. He added that his goal is to ensure that the airport is offering the connectivity and customer service levels that the local population deserves. The airport has already undergone phase one of its terminal refurbishment, which included the opening of new food and beverage outlets as well as three new VIP lounges.


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