High-flier believes sky’s the limit at London City Airport
The former chief executive of Dublin Airport Authority has an ambitious plan to double passenger numbers at the docklands hub
Declan Collier: “By the time that my contract [with the DAA] was coming to an end I had reached the point where I had achieved what I wanted to achieve.”
Declan Collier sounds like he’s on first-name terms with London’s lord mayor Boris Johnson. Several times he refers to him as “Boris” – so are they mates? The London City Airport chief executive laughs. “Everybody calls him that,” he says. “What would you prefer, ‘Boris Johnson, lord mayor’, or ‘lord mayor Johnson’,?” He’s right, “Boris” sounds much better.
There is a good chance that Johnson will be hearing a bit more about the Irishman who runs the airport at the Royal Docks in the city’s east end over the coming months. It has just applied Newham Borough Council for planning permission for a £200 million expansion that will enable it to double passenger numbers to six million over the next 10 years.
The application comes on the back of approval, given in 2009, for the airport’s plans to accommodate the actual number of flights – 120,000 a year – that will bring in the extra passengers in the first place. The facilities include a new taxiway, a terminal extension, a new arrivals hall and aircraft stands. Collier says that if the proposals get the green light, the business will be able to create 1,500 new jobs on top of the 2,100 it already employs and it will boost links with the rest of Europe and the US.
Creating jobs, strengthening transport connections and enhancing London’s reputation as a financial and business hub are all close to its lord mayor’s heart, and, as it is possible that he will have a role to play in deciding if the airport’s plans get to fly or not, Collier is hopeful that he will see the likely benefits that they can deliver.
Johnson may wield political power, but he is not Collier’s direct boss. Two funds, Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) and Highstar Capital, own London City Airport. It’s a direct contrast to Dublin Airport Authority (DAA), the State-owned company where he was chief executive for seven years until April 2012.
When it emerged late in 2011 that he was leaving and would not be renewing his contract, one of the theories ran at the time that politics had everything to do with his move. The DAA was under fire, it had spent large sums on Terminal 2, but the recession had put paid to passenger growth, throwing a question mark over the project in the first place.
At the same time, there was a strong focus on State company executives’ pay. The Government was seeking to impose a limit of €250,000 a year. Collier’s entire package was worth €612,500 in 2010 and he received €445,400 in 2011, after forgoing a €77,000 bonus. Meanwhile, Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary was firing various salvoes from the sidelines.
There was a feeling that the Government, and particularly the Minister for Transport and Tourism Leo Varadkar, wanted to be seen to be taking a hard line and Collier fell victim to all of this.
“It’s the first time I’ve heard that theory,” says Collier. “I don’t know what the Minister’s thoughts were. I was head hunted to come into the DAA from the oil industry. There was a very particular challenge presented to me by the board and by the owner, the Government.
“By the time that my contract was coming to an end I had reached the point where I had achieved what I wanted to achieve. I was presented with the chance to renew my contract, but at the same time, I was presented with a really interesting challenge by Global Infrastructure Partners to go to London City Airport.”
He stresses that GIP knocked on his door, there was no question of him approaching the London airport’s owners. Whatever the background, he says left the DAA feeling “very proud” of what he achieved. He restructured the company, helped make it profitable and then, of course, there was T2.
Dublin’s second terminal remains controversial. Most recently, the Commission for Aviation Regulation said that its cost was 20 per cent higher than allowed at €923 million. During its planning and construction, it became a flashpoint between the DAA, the Government and O’Leary, who gleefully seized on it as an example of unrestrained State-company wastefulness, for which passengers would ultimately be forced to pay.
The row still rankles a bit with Collier, who repeats three times in several minutes that it did not, in fact, cost €1.2 billion. “Michael [O’Leary] always maintained that it was going to cost €1.2 billion, so a lot of people are coming out and saying it was €1.2 billion,” he says.