As a (now ex) Manston Air Traffic Controller, I would like to respond to various misconceptions about the airport, as, having spent in excess of £15,000 of my own money to retrain for this career in my late forties, I feel it is important that someone knowledgeable should put forward a well informed case from the inside, as it were.
It’s clear to me that many of those who pontificate publicly about Manston and the way its various owners have run it over the last few years, know very little about the airport or the Aviation industry,
thus their views (to which they are perfectly entitled of course) amount to no more than uninformed personal opinions, unsupported by any evidence. I would like to remind those who do express opinions that there are human beings out here whose lives have been turned on their heads by the brutality of the closure.
I would of course be delighted to see Manston re-open, following a CPO if necessary, under the ownership of a new company who have some idea of how to run the business. Manston has suffered
badly in the recent past because, arguably, owners and senior management have lacked the commitment, business skills, vision, experience of aviation and courage to make it work. It is fatuous to
suggest, as some do, that the airport has failed because “it will never work” , and to extrapolate that lack of success to potential future owners. On the contrary, a new owner may well possess exactly the
attributes that have been so sorely lacking in the past To suggest otherwise shows a complete lack of understanding as to what has transpired and what we ‘inside the fence’ often had to put up with.
Infratil never really progressed beyond page 1 of their so called ‘Master Plan’. Their business ethic was fundamentally flawed, based as it was on the proviso that they would only invest significantly (as per that plan) once the business had come in. Operators will never come until they are satisfied that their
basic servicing needs – ground equipment, parking, power, steps, opening hours etc – can be satisfied.
Who would buy a car without wheels, on the word of the salesman that “we’ll put the wheels on once you sign on the dotted line”? Furthermore, once Mr Morrison (of supermarket fame) died – he was an Infratil Board member – they seemed to take their eye off the ball completely and their focus shifted back to their New Zealand and Australian heartlands.
By contrast, one need only look at the investment and commitment that Stobart has put into Southend – and the subsequent success that airport has become – to see where things have gone horribly wrong at Manston. I once asked senior management in a staff meeting to comment on the difference in business ethic between Southend’s owners and ours, and received, in my view, a patronising and
dismissive response . However the following week EasyJet announced they were starting services at Southend. Bear in mind that Southend has a runway that will never accommodate anything larger than those Easyjet Airbus 319s; in the instrument strip (which is the protected surface surrounding the runway) there is an enormous church. All obstacles that infringe this strip are supposed to be ‘frangible’. Consequently EasyJet, and any other operators, have to sign an indemnity to the effect that they are happy to operate with this, which most definitely does not conform to modern standards and is a legacy of other times. In other words Southend has succeeded because it had a serious, structured plan of modernisation and investment, and took a long-term view on returns, DESPITE having serious limitations and handicaps. Look where they are now. And look where we are. Manston’s owners seem
not to have been serious about running an airport in the 21st century, or have simply lacked the ideas or capital to do what needs to be done.
It was all too apparent to some of our operators that basic equipment was old and sometimes barely serviceable. CargoLux pilots nicknamed Manston l “Lagos North” – implying of course a third world, run down dump. Again, I put this to senior management , who did not understand until I explained it.
Those are the sort of comments that get around in the Aviation industry. Operators phoning to book in – let’s say – their multi-million pound business jet for training, got through to the Operations Department which may or may not have been diverted to a mobile number. The unfortunate Ops Officer might well have been on the runway at the time, talking to ATC, discharging a shotgun as part of bird control duties, trying to file a flight plan, put out a NOTAM to indicate essential works, or any one of a hundred other tasks. In short, they were in no position to talk to an operator about their training details and to be able to confirm or not. So, what happened during the ensuing delay before they could get back to the office? The operator took his shiny pride and joy elsewhere. Again, I pointed out to senior management that this was a sure fire recipe for losing business but they did nothing to address the problem. Surprise, surprise, business was lost. Look no further than when Thompson brought their first new B787 Dreamliner to us for crew training. An essential question in the booking-in process was missed out and a fiasco ensued, culminating in the Senior Training Captain saying he would never bring anything – let alone the pride of the fleet – into Manston ever again for training. It is axiomatic that new business clients needed to be treated, encouraged and booked in by a
dedicated team, fully conversant with the operational peculiarities of Manston in order to give these customers the best experience possible, and full satisfaction for the fees they were paying. I cannot
stress enough that this was just not the case.
Senior management knew full well that KLM had requested a Radar service for their Fokkers and that this was going to be tricky with our staffing numbers in ATC. However we were instructed NOT to talk
about radar with any of the KLM representatives who visited for co-ordination purposes. This amounted in effect to a deliberate policy of under investment in staff and an arrogant attitude towards a blue-chip client. Despite that, once KLM saw and experienced for themselves the sort of service they could expect from staff at Manston, they quickly began bringing in their aircraft for crew training. They appreciated the space, flexibility and service that we in ATC and our colleagues in Operations endeavoured to provide. In other words, once one builds proper, sound business relationships with quality companies, then a profitable and regular pattern develops. Thus makes it even more bizarre that following British
Airways bringing their first A380 and Dreamliner to us for several MONTHS for crew training, the relationship was simply allowed to wither. Despite the extra fuel costs, BA went to Chateauroux in
France instead because, yet again, management failed to work with them and follow through.
Now, despite these obvious signs of what could have been done and what regrettably was not done in the training sector, we sit here hearing about “market testing” as the next phase. Try asking KLM – but then you are likely to get a sharp response after the disgraceful way they were treated at the end …….
I could continue – further anecdotes which are evidence of a naivety towards aviation business management that defies belief. Having to hold a 747 on the Alpha taxiway for 25 minutes for instance ,
engines running, because there was no parking available. Why? Because Infratil had not extended the Echo apron, as per their Master Plan, to accommodate two 747s at the same time. Another example: diversions to Stansted in a stiff NE breeze with low cloud because that end of the runway only had a Localiser approach (instead of a full ILS system). Unacceptable for a modern airport – third world facilities. There were also other diversions to Stansted because there was no CAT3 ILS at Manston for low visibility ops, which again, any airport with pretensions to serious operations would have. Look at Newquay for example, which has that system, and is in a far worse location than Manston for sensible traffic and profit. (Note: owned by the local council.) Etc. etc.. I could go on.Of course Manston needs investment, as do many businesses in many fields. That much was accurate in the recent Falcon report.* But people should be looking at exactly what has been going on, what was
happening and why, and how it has all led to the current deplorable situation. Infratil should justify their actions and explain why they failed to implement most of the commitments in their plan (apart
from the Equine BIP which was barely used). Likewise, some explanation would not go amiss from former chief executive Charles Buchanan.
Indeed, why not ask Ann Gloag too? Perhaps it could be clarified why – during the much-trumpeted business review that allegedly took place during her first three months of ownership – the Cargo and
New Business Manager Allan McQuarie was not once consulted? Not to mention why, following the due diligence period, Mrs Gloag stated that she was going to invest £20million in the first year and
£20million in the second. Nothing changed following due diligence. There is plenty of evidence to see where things went wrong, and why and how they could and should have been put right. This will at
least, I hope, enlighten our thoughts for the future and put a few things in perspective.
I trust the above is sufficient evidence to make my point. Manston has not had the chance to succeed and indeed – as Sir Roger Gale has said – it could even be argued that owners have actually chosen to fail. Given the evidence, one cannot possibly conclude that past failure signifies inevitable future disasters. The airport and its staff have paid a heavy price for some scandalous and avoidable failings of basic business strategy.
Yours sincerely, Andy Wilby
* As an aside, Falcon did not get the runway length correct. It is 2748m NOT 2752m as stated. (The latter is the old figure some years out of date.) Not much difference but I would expect even the most junior Air Traffic Services Assistant with 2 months experience in the operational environment to get that right. There is only ONE source of information for these facts – the Aeronautical Information Publication – where 2748m is clearly stated. Where then, did Falcon get this old figure from ???
Andy Wilby – Air Traffic Controller
Zoë Escudier – Airfield Operations Officer
Bill Watson – Air Traffic Services Assistant
Andrew Johnson – Airfield Operations Officer
Malcolm Sadler – Motor Transport Supervisor/Manager
(As an aside, Falcon did not get the runway length correct. It is 2748m NOT 2752m as stated. (The latter is the old figure some years out of date.) Not much difference but I would expect even the mostjunior Air Traffic Services Assistant with 2 months experience in the operational environment to get that right. There is only ONE source of information for these facts – the Aeronautical Information Publication- where 2748m is clearly stated. Where then, did Falcon get this old figure from?)