Airport reaches new heights as winner of top flight award

John Bamber, an airsite operations controller at Southampton Airport
John Bamber, an airsite operations controller at Southampton Airport
From left - Angela Holloway, Tess Balchin and Nicky Wood
 from the support group, Grumbling Grandparents     Picture Ian Hargreaves  (180014-1)

REAL LIFE: ‘We had to make very tough choices’

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Southampton Airport has been voted best in the country by readers of a travel magazine. RACHEL JONES goes behind the scenes and meets the people who work there.

As the lights of an approaching plane break through the clouds at Southampton Airport, John Bamber watches from a ringside seat.

John is about 105m from the edge of the runway in his four-wheel drive vehicle, keeping his eyes peeled and waiting for the landing.

To many passengers he is simply one of the people who dart around the airfield in yellow vehicles.

But as a member of the airside operations team, his role is essential for the safety of the planes taking off and landing.

The team’s duties include scaring way and discouraging birds, checking the runway for debris and monitoring the conditions of the runway and site.

It’s just one of the many interesting and exciting roles that make bustling Southampton Airport, just down the M27, tick.

Managers who declare the airport and air space open and closed each day, firefighters, front line customer services staff, security workers and employees of agencies like NATS air traffic control are just some of those who strive to keep the airport running smoothly and safely, even when the unexpected happens.

And they’re all giving themselves a well-deserved pat on the back. Southampton Airport has recently won a Top UK Airport award.

The accolade has come from readers of Wanderlust travel magazine, who gave Southampton the best marks for customer satisfaction.

‘The readership is people who travel world-wide, people to really respect in terms of their views. So it’s great news and goes to the heart of our brand Breeze Through,’ says MD Dave Lees.

‘We aim to make the service at Southampton fast, easy and friendly and I think we do that by playing to our strengths. We are a small airport, we’re not Heathrow or Gatwick, but that makes things easier for passengers. Getting to their cars is quicker and easier and we have excellent transport links.’

And he says the commitment of staff plays a huge part.

‘We have over 1,200 people here across 30 different companies and it really feels like a community. We have fantastic people here and I’m really proud.’

He says staff pulled out all the stops in the December cold snap, putting in extra hours to clear the runway and help passengers.

Everyone from baggage handling and check-in staff to the airfield operations team must face the inevitable surprises that come with dealing with 2,000 people a day. But Dave says: ‘Regardless of the challenges, whether it’s ash clouds, weather or air traffic control strikes in Europe, we must always try to make travel as predictable as possible.’

Back on the runway the plane lands safely and John heads off again, like his airport colleagues going about the daily business of keeping things safe and efficient.

Airside operations

A yellow vehicle is moving around the airfield making a variety of startling sounds.

The aim is to scare away the birds that could cause catastrophic damage to an aircraft.

The vehicles have a digital scaring system that sends out a variety of bird distress calls and the driver has a switch which can be turned to 12 different species.

‘We’re kind of a moving scarecrow,’ says John Bamber, a member of the airside operations team.

It’s one of the team’s duties to keep the birds away and part of the training involves identifying different species.

‘You become a bit of a bird expert, learning about different types of gull and habitat management, that kind of thing,’ says John.

They even have to keep their eyes on the length of the grass which must always be six to eight inches long – any shorter and it becomes a feeding ground, longer and it provides a hiding place.

And they never forget the extent of their responsibilities.

In 2007 an aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing at Manchester when birds were sucked into an engine and the Hudson River plane crash in New York was caused by a flock of geese.

John says: ‘The thought of something going wrong is horrendous and we take that responsibility on our shoulders with the commitment that’s required.’

The team are also in the enviable position of being able to drive up and down the runway – when air traffic control has given them clearance of course.

In his vehicle John has regular communication with the tower and can hear the conversations between controllers and pilots.

Other duties include monitoring the weather and condition of the runway and receiving and sending out weather reports to other airport workers.

And then there are the people with the ‘baseball bats’. ‘They’re marshalling bats,’ laughs airside operations duty officer Kev Clarke, back in the team’s control room, explaining that they’re for guiding planes in and out of their stands.

Airport ambassadors

A mum is trying to make her way from the baggage reclaim with her crying child in a pushchair and several cases and bags.

It’s a challenge but luckily Barbara Houghton, pictured, has spotted her and is offering her assistance.

As an airport ambassador, Barbara finds herself with all kinds of duties, from listening to nervous passengers to checking the conditions in a ski resort on her iPad.

‘You have to be flexible, confident enough to talk to people and you need to be a good listener. And you have to be very calm under pressure,’ she says after leaving the mum and child with waiting family members.

The ambassadors are the airport’s front line staff for help and information so they sometimes bear the brunt of problems.

Not surprisingly they were in constant demand when December’s bad weather grounded flights and closed airports across the UK and Europe.

‘Someone actually asked me when the snow was going to stop,’ she says. ‘I think they realised as soon as they were saying it. But you can understand people’s worries and concerns.’

They were busy helping people find hotel accommodation, book taxis and check transport times and availability.

The ambassadors need to know everything that is happening at the airport and out on the runway so they can inform passengers. And they are first aiders and, like all airport staff, security trained.

One minute Barbara is checking the weather in Malaga for a hen party and the next she is helping an old lady use a mobile phone.

‘It’s rewarding but you have to be prepared to deal with all kinds of situations,’ she says.

Fire service

Plumes of smoke rising from the airport site have caused alarm on a number of occasions.

But when the BBC have called after being alerted by members of the public, staff have been able to tell them it’s all in the name of training.

Southampton Airport Fire Service have to be prepared for the most catastrophic of events and they have the most realistic fire training available.

At a far corner of the airfield sits a mock-up short-haul passenger jet. Pressurised fuel can be fed into key points and ignited, so the firefighters can work on different scenarios. This sometimes results in calls from the public and media.

The training rig is fitted out like a passenger jet and different situations can be played out using smoke machines or live fires.

Dummies placed inside can be rescued and firefighters have practice working under ceiling temperatures up to 200 degrees C.

‘We have a special temperature gauge outside the rig which is always being monitored. We train in a safe way but obviously we have to get used to working in that kind of heat,’ says watch manager Daz Nield.

The 34 firefighters based at the airport cover four watches. They have a station and fire engines with specialist equipment for tackling aviation blazes.

Their training is also very specialised as they need to respond in a different way to crews dealing with building fires.

‘The risk assessment has to be even quicker,’ says Daz. ‘You are on the scene straight away and there’s no time to stand outside for a few minutes and sort out risks.’

The service also provides commercial training, including first aid, fire prevention and safety and courses for professional firefighters.

They work with many organisations and people, including those involved with the helipad at Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra Hospital.

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Past and future

On March 5, 1936, aircraft designer R J Mitchell brought his Spitfire prototype to what is now Southampton Airport for the maiden flight.

Following this landmark event, over 22,500 Spitfires – considered among the finest fighters ever designed – were built and helped to defend Britain during historic conflicts such as The Battle of Britain.

To mark the 75th anniversary, Spitfire pilot Carolyn Grace will be taking off from the airport in the morning and will be flying along Southampton Water. She will perform the re-enactment of the original test flight at 3.30pm.

The original Spitfire flight was a momentous occasion in the already rich history of the airport site.

The first ever flight from Southampton Airport was in 1910 by local man Eric Rowland Moon in his Moonbeam II aircraft.

In 1917 Stoneham Farm was requisitioned by the War Office as an Aircraft Acceptance Park, but before completion, the base was given to the US Navy to develop an assembly area. In the same year the hangar which became the terminal building was constructed by First World War prisoners.

Today Southampton Airport is operated by BAA and welcomes 1.7 million passengers a year, flying to and from 48 UK and European destinations.

In accordance with the government’s White Paper, The Future of Air Transport, the airport has set out a long-term vision.

The forecast is for 3.05 million passengers by 2015 and six million by 2030. This will mean an increase in flights and a need for further development which has alarmed local pressure groups, concerned with noise and air pollution and traffic congestion.

The forecast shows that development can be accommodated within the airport’s current boundaries, there will be no scheduled night flights and only one runway.

It is predicted that 4,000 people will be employed by 2030.

Last year there was a £7m investment in the airport. New developments included energy efficiency moves such as the replacement of old air conditioning units, new roof glazing to reflect sunlight and reduce the need for air cooling and lighting controls in the short stay car park. The World Duty Free shopping area is being extended.

The eating areas have been refurbished and the new restaurants have been named after Spitfire designer R J Mitchell, honouring the site’s impressive past.