The boss of London Luton Airport (LLA) says its UK to Israel route will be instrumental in driving its recovery from the pandemic.
While Alberto Martin, who has been at the helm of LLA since 2018, does not expect passenger volumes to return to 2019 levels until 2024/25, he expects the Tel Aviv route to recover faster and stronger than others due to significant pent-up demand and successful vaccine roll-outs in both the UK and Israel.
In an exclusive interview with Jewish News ahead of next week’s update from the government on the plans for international travel, he said: “The mix of leisure, VFR (visiting friends and relatives) and business travel on the London Luton-Tel Aviv Route supports a swift recovery.
More than 60 percent of the traffic in 2019 was people visiting friends and relatives. “This section of the market is likely to rebound fast after significant pent-up demand being released and people booking trips to visit loved ones who they may not have seen for a long time.”
Martin said leisure travel accounted for the majority of the rest of the traffic, which is also likely to be strongly helped by the vaccine situation.
The pandemic’s impact on the UK aviation industry has been devastating. According to research by travel website MyBaggage.com, the crisis cost airlines an estimated £20 billion last year, with a 75 percent drop in passengers using UK airports.
There was an 82 percent reduction in LLA passengers between March 2020 and the end of February 2021.
The Tel Aviv route, credited by Martin as one of LLA’s most important and busiest, will be a key driver in ensuring the airport’s recovery.
Some 500,000 passengers travelled between the two hubs in 2019, with 35 peak weekly departures.
Even in 2020, when travel was heavily restricted, the route was served between the July and the November lockdown.
“Supported by the airport’s close proximity to the Jewish communities of London and Hertfordshire, we have established our reputation as the ‘airport of choice’ for the community,” said Martin.
While he does not envisage capacity to Israel returning to its 2019 peak for a while, he predicts there could be a surge in travel to Israel this year and next as people look for alternatives to European destinations.
And, post-pandemic, Martin identifies an opportunity for more Israel flights, including the possibility of a new UK to Eilat route. “We hope to see it appear on our departure board in the not-too-distant future.”
While the pandemic has had far-reaching effects on the sector, aviation will be crucial for economic recovery and also people’s longing to reconnect with friends, family and places.
“With many people looking forward to travelling again, and businesses needing to forge new trading relationships abroad, airports need to be ready to respond to this demand.”
On Monday, 5 April, Boris Johnson is set to announce more information about foreign travel, a week before the government’s Global Travel Taskforce is due to report to the prime minister to help determine when and how to resume safe international travel post 17 May. Martin says: “Public health must and will always come first.
The government’s roadmap out of lockdown means there is hope that travel will resume again soon, and I am confident the demand for air travel will return along with it.”
He is calling for a risk-based tiered system for gradually lifting all layers of current restrictions to help get international travel moving again. “We will await announcements from government on 5 and 12 April, which we hope will enable us to be able to plan for the months ahead.”
Asked if passengers should have vaccine passports, he said: “As we are seeing across the continent from countries that have already begun to develop this technology, the UK must become leaders in the design, production and use of a global health certification process, which will form part of a wider solution to get international travel moving again.”
LLA has submitted an application to up its passenger capacity from 18 to 19 million a year to accommodate the demands for travel when it comes.
“Clearly, we will not reach 19 million passengers for some time yet, but taking action now is essential to prepare for what lies ahead.”
Despite seeking increased capacity, Martin assures the company is “not taking our environmental responsibilities any less lightly”, adding: “Sustainability is at the centre of our recovery plans.
We are committed to balancing our growth with the impact we may have on our neighbours and the environment.”
Next year, DART (Direct Air Rail Transit) will open; it is an automated people mover that will create a more seamless journey from train to plane.
It will complement a new non-stop express rail service every half hour between the airport station and London St Pancras. “This means passengers can now reach us from central London in around 30 minutes and is one of the ways we’re encouraging more passengers to travel to the airport by public transport.”
Martin hopes to soon be welcoming passengers back and LLA is working hard to put safety measures in place to reassure them.
Last year, LLA was the first UK airport, and one of the first in the world, to be awarded certification by Airports Council International (ACI) in its Airport Health Accreditation Programme.
“We are constantly improving the layout of the terminal to speed up the travel process and we’ve introduced protective screens and hand gel dispensers throughout the terminal,” he explains. LLA has also partnered with Collinson to provide a drive-through Covid testing site for passengers.
The centre provides both pre-departure and post-arrival screening, allowing them to travel to countries that require a negative Covid-19 test certificate.
Martin became CEO at LLA in 2018. He joined as planning and investment director, and was responsible for the delivery of its recent £160m expansion project.
He has 20 years’ experience in airports, holding a variety of executive roles across Europe but, unsurprisingly, says the past 12 months have been extremely challenging.
This year looks equally as difficult. “The ongoing disruption over quarantine, changing travel guidance, together with Brexit uncertainty and the recent closures of borders, added significant pressure to the operations.
Without a successful aviation sector, the government’s ambitions to level up the regions of the UK and deliver a global trading Britain post-Brexit simply will be unachievable.” But he remains optimistic and looks forward to welcoming back the north London community in the not-so-distant future.
“The heart of our airport is the people it serves and the past year has been difficult for everyone. I hope the community will all be able to use our airport to take a break from the difficult year and enjoy themselves on one of our many routes.”
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