EXCLUSIVE Interview – Can Britain’s Worst Airport Improve?

Last week, London’s Luton Airport was named as the worst UK airport for the third year running. In an annual passenger satisfaction survey by Which?, just 35% of passengers said they were satisfied with the experience of travelling through London Luton. It is understood that some 521 passengers were asked about their experience at London Luton, between April and May of this year. Passengers were asked to rank aspects of the airport experience such as toilets, bag drop queues, staff, shops and seating. Luton Airport scored one star in all of these categories.

can Luton’s fortunes be turned around?

However, Luton is embarking on am ambitious redevelopment project (work which may have negatively impacted on this year’s survey results), designed to enhance accessibility and modernise the airport. Therefore, on the 80th Anniversary of London Luton Airport, our Editor – Ethan Chandler –  had the chance to interview Kimberly Kennedy, Head of Terminal Operations at Luton to find out whether Britain’s worst airport can turn around its fortunes, with its upcoming redevelopment plan.

Ethan Chandler: You are investing £160m into improving the London Luton Airport experience for your travellers. Can you briefly outline what changes you are implementing within this programme?

Kimberly Kennedy: London Luton Airport’s £160m redevelopment is nearing completion. This is the single largest investment in our history, and will increase annual capacity to 18 million passengers. As part of the transformation, LLA has more than doubled the retail and dining space in the terminal to offer passengers a greater variety of choice.

An overview of the changes LLA are making to the airport, due for completion in 2026.

Since the start of 2018, more than 30 new stores have opened at the airport, including Chanel, Hugo Boss and Oliver Bonas. A new boarding pier containing eight new boarding gates. In addition the redevelopment has delivered a new dual carriageway access road, a multi-storey car park, re-modelled coach and bus interchange, new taxiway extension, additional aircraft stands and a larger security hall.

30 new stores have opened at LLA just this year, including Hugo Boss and Chanel.

Work has also start on the DART (Direct Air Rail Transit) that will replace the current shuttle bus between Luton Airport Parkway station and the terminal, with a journey time of less than four minutes. This is expected to be in service by 2021.

EC: Luton Airport is 34 miles from Westminster and the centre of London. How will you work with Govia Thameslink and the Government to deliver faster services to the capital and what are you doing to improve the passenger experience when travelling between Luton Airport
Parkway and the airport terminal?

KK: LLA is already really well served by rail, but is the only London airport without an express-style rail service. This is why we are calling for four fast trains per hour to call at Luton Airport Parkway (LAP) station under the new East Midlands rail franchise. The change could be made through a simple timetable change which requires no capital expenditure. A more frequent train service would reduce the journey to central London to under 30 minutes and would encourage more passengers to travel to the airport by rail, cutting congestion and emissions on local roads.

EC: This year Luton Airport has seen more expansion with new flights with Wizz Air to Athens, Bari, Larnaca and more, with direct services to Tallinn, Eliat, Verona, Grenoble and Tromsø yet to launch​. What steps is the airport taking to cope with additional passengers in key areas like the security hall and how will Luton Airport ensure ample seating capacity and dining options for all customers?

KK: As part of the current transformation, we have expanded the terminal building, which includes increasing the number of seats available for passengers and providing a greater variety of shops and restaurants. More seats will be added in the main departure lounge this year. Across the airport we now have 18 food outlets (the same number as Stansted) these include, Bella Italia, Oriel Grande Brasserie and The Smithfield pub and kitchen.

LLA’s newest eatery – the Smithfield Pub.

We have also changed the layout of the terminal to make it simpler to navigate for passengers. The security area has been relocated downstairs and the number of security lanes has increased, while new equipment has sped up security checks.

EC: In recent months, London Stansted has gained new long-haul flights to Dubai and to key cities in North America. Does Luton Airport have ambitions to gain long-haul flights in the near future and, if so, which destinations and airlines are being targeted?

KK: We are always considering new ways to improve our passengers’ experience, which includes planning new routes and offering a greater choice of destinations. However, there are no immediate plans to introduce new long-haul flights from the airport and our core business will always be low-cost flights to Europe.

LLA’s focus will remain on low-cost flights to Europe, rather than branching out into long-haul services.

EC: So do you view low-cost flights to the US as a concept that could work from London Luton, given the tide of low-cost transatlantic flights we have seen launched from the UK in recent years?​

KK: There are no immediate plans to introduce this service. However, we are always listening to what our passengers want and this may be something we consider in the future.

EC: In a Which? survey in 2018, London Luton scored just 35% for customer satisfaction and was named the worst airport in the UK. Luton scored low in categories for range of shops and food outlets and toilets; some called it ‘chaotic’ and ‘crowded’. Going forward, how will the redevelopment programme address these issues and transform Luton into one of the UK’s leading airports, rather than one of its worst?

Which? polled 521 of its subscribers who had travelled through the airport between May 2017 and May 2018, just 0.003% of all passengers in that period. During this time we’ve undergone a period of significant change, investing £160 million redeveloping the airport to increase capacity and
transform the passenger experience. In the first six months of 2018 alone, 1.2 million passengers responded to our customer service tracking, 70 per cent of whom told us they were happy with their experience. As we near the end of our transformation we’re proud to have recently opened 30 new shops,
restaurants and additional toilet facilities. We’ve added close to a thousand new seats throughout the terminal and doubled the size of our security search area.

The airport has made a priority of ensuring security is a smooth and efficient process.

Evidence of our focus on improving the passenger experience is paying off, as we were recently voted the best airport in London in survey comparing objective data.

Our advice is people should come and experience LLA for themselves.

EC: Thank you. I’m pleased to say I’ll be taking your advice and travelling on Wizz Air’s inaugural flight to Tallinn in September. I look forward to seeing the positive changes LLA is making.

Thank you to the team at LLA, who granted me this Q&A with Kimberly Kennedy. Photos courtesy of London Luton Airport.