Manchester Seeks Beijing, Mumbai Flights as 9-Year Record Falls

Manchester Airport
An Airbus A330 aircraft, operated by Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., taxis at Manchester Airport in Manchester, U.K. Photographer: Paul Thomas/Bloomberg

Manchester Airport is targeting direct flights to Beijing, Mumbai and Bangkok after its passenger tally reached an all-time high of 22.3 million in the 12 months through March, beating a record that stood for nine years after the financial slump clipped growth.

Britain’s No. 3 air hub -- the busiest outside London -- is also targeting more U.S. services and an increase in daily frequencies provided by Ryanair Holdings Plc and other discount carriers, Managing Director Ken O’Toole said in an interview.

Manchester’s operations have been transformed since the previous passenger record was set in the 12 months through July 2006, with full-service and low-cost airlines now each accounting for about 40 percent of traffic and once prevalent charter flights reduced to 20 percent of the total. Gulf and Asian carriers account for a large chunk of long-haul flights, making up for a loss of custom from British Airways, which has reduced its presence to a London shuttle service.

Carriers operating westbound flights include Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. and its part-owner Delta Air Lines Inc., which commences a service to New York JFK in May.

Other prospective operators of North American services include WestJet Airlines Ltd., Canada’s second-biggest carrier, which is adding Boeing Co. 767s to provide more trans-Atlantic capacity, and Boeing 787 operator Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA, O’Toole said. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston are among destinations that Manchester would like to see added, he said.

Fresh Look

While all U.K. airports suffered a slump in demand during the recession, Manchester endured a more protracted decline that persisted until 2011 and was only reversed following a rethink by a new management team, O’Toole said.

“We reviewed the strategy, our positioning, the catchment area and the characteristics of the market,” the executive said. The new passenger record represents annual growth of 7.5 percent and the scope for expansion remains huge at what is Britain’s only two-runway airport alongside Heathrow, with a notional capacity of 55 million passengers a year, he added.

With BA ending its last long-haul services from Manchester in 2008 to focus on its Heathow base and holiday flights from Gatwick, unlike most of Europe’s other top hubs the north-English airport has had no major incumbent to lead growth.

Manchester’s top carriers today are discounters Ryanair, EasyJet Plc and Jet2, regional specialist Flybe Group Plc and tour operators TUI AG and Thomas Cook Group Plc, O’Toole said. Among full-service airlines, most major European operators are present, while three daily Emirates flights, two using Airbus A380 superjumbos, account for 17 percent of long-haul capacity.

An analysis of short-haul routes has shown that there are no potential markets that lack flights, putting the emphasis on increasing frequencies and attracting new operator’s such as IAG SA’s Iberia Express arm, which is commencing services.

The airport already has more routes than London Gatwick, with recently added flights including a four-times-weekly service to Hong Kong operated by Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. Gatwick is ahead by passengers, with 38.1 million last year.

Manchester Airport Group also owns London Stansted, a Ryanair base, which lured almost 20 million passengers in 2014.

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