50 years of East Midlands Airport - looking at the past, present and future

PUBLISHED: 11:12 05 May 2015 | UPDATED: 11:12 05 May 2015

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East Midlands Airport

Fifty years on from its opening, East Midlands Airport is continuing to grow and is still looking to the future

The new terminal at East Midlands Airport in 1965The new terminal at East Midlands Airport in 1965

After 50 years as an important gateway for the region, East Midlands Airport is continuing to grow and is still looking to the future.

As it celebrates its golden anniversary this April, managing director Andy Cliffe believes that the airport can create more jobs, handle more cargo and fly ever more passengers to exciting destinations across the world.

He admits that there are challenges but he believes the airport is vital to the future prosperity of the East Midlands

He says: ‘We have just consulted on our sustainable investment plan which is where we see ourselves going, maybe not as far as 50 years but certainly a fair way forward. That role as a gateway to the region in terms of economic growth and investment is just as important today as it was in 1965.

The check-in hall in 1965The check-in hall in 1965

‘Several locations were considered back then, and they looked seriously at Melton Mowbray, but this site was chosen because of the emerging M1 and the foresight of seeing the airport as a gateway meant that a central location with great access was chosen to cement that role. That’s still important today.

‘Not only has the passenger side grown enormously in the last 50 years but the cargo operations make us nationally significant.’

The number employed on site is now approaching 7,000 and the airport contributes a quarter of a billion pounds annually to the local economy.

Andy says passenger figures have grown by another five per cent as we come to the end of the current financial year.

Recent work on the terminal has resulted in up-to-date restaurant facilitiesRecent work on the terminal has resulted in up-to-date restaurant facilities

‘Over the next two to five years I can see that still developing and that’s just the passenger side – 2014 was our busiest year (and we had the busiest single days) for our cargo operators with DHL being extremely busy even in January, when things traditionally dip a bit. I wouldn’t rest on my laurels about it as we continue to see austerity and not all families can afford a holiday, so we have to think about how to make ourselves relevant and to price ourselves in the right way going forward.’

Andy says one of the biggest challenges facing the airport is to ‘manage growth in a responsible way’.

‘We were the first airport to secure carbon trust status, we have been carbon neutral since 2012. We have to be completely mindful of the communities we operate in. The noise consequences of the airport aren’t to be underestimated and although we have seen enormous progress on this, we need to make sure we control that aspect of the business.

‘We are fortunate in that we see in our sustainable development plan a 25 per cent reduction in our noise envelope, that’s very pleasing.

Travellers can now take advantage of excellent shops and competitive pricesTravellers can now take advantage of excellent shops and competitive prices

‘We also want to build on what we do from an employment perspective. We have relatively recently opened an academy reaching 18-24 year olds. We want to reach into our less privileged communities and give them employment opportunities.

‘I sit right in the middle of all that. I don’t employ those 7,000 people myself but I am absolutely the facilitator of all of that.’

Andy says that the airport today exists in a much more competitive market than 50 years ago and can’t take its position for granted.

‘It’s more competitive even from the time I started in the airport sector in the late 90s. It is a very different world and we have to compete for growth alongside other airports. I think competition is good for customers but I also think we can provide a great service here that will encourage people to come back. It’s about continuing to innovate and improve our customer experience.

Waiting in comfort in 2015Waiting in comfort in 2015

‘There is the challenge of attracting enough customers to develop the routes we want going forward but there is a great local passion for flying out of East Midlands and across the region there’s a real willingness to drive that forward and strengthen the positon from which we operate.

‘Our plan is to grow the airport to ten million customers and cargo to about a million tonnes of freight. When you consider we have about 45 million customers and 350,000 tonnes of freight currently, you can broadly see a doubling of passengers and a tripling of cargo within the ambitious plans we have set out. It will take time and considerable investment. We are starting to see the early signs of that with DHL planning to expand its exciting facilities. It’s not wishful thinking, we are starting to see tangible things coming forward to fulfil those ambitions.’


Managing director Andy CliffeManaging director Andy Cliffe

BACK in 1965, air travel was beginning to catch on with the British public but there was a feeling that passengers in the East Midlands were missing out.

By the start of the 1950s changes in regulations for international civic aviation, the rise of package holidays companies and the desire of Britons to travel abroad, resulted in a surge in mass tourism. More than one million of us were holidaying outside the UK and that number was only going to grow as Britain recovered from the war.

That surge in demand was noticed by Derby Airways (later to be renamed British Midland) with its flights out of a pre-war grass airfield at Burnaston.

If the East Midlands wasn’t to miss out on the economic benefits of air travel then a new modern airport was needed. The councils representing three counties and two cities came together and formed a consortium to build a new facility and chose Castle Donington, where a decommissioned RAF base was conveniently sited alongside the expanding M1.

The site was purchased in 1964, and a year-long development was started. It was also creating a little bit of history as the first civil airport to be custom built in England after the war.

Given the name East Midlands Airport, it opened for passengers in April 1965, with modest ambitions by today’s standards.

Airport director Eric C Dyer was interviewed by Derbyshire Life half a century ago and set out his aims for the first year – 15 movements an hour at peak times, up to 850 a month and an anticipated 90,000 passengers.

Fifty years on and the airport handles more than four million passengers a year and is one of the busiest freight hubs in the UK. There are more than 75,000 aircraft movements annually.

Back in 1965, the airport was established with a 1,780-metre runway, an 18-metre taxiway, a purpose built hangar, a modern terminal building and parking for 850 cars.

Mr Dyer was excited to show off the facility. In 1965 he said: ‘We want the public to use it in every possible way. Far from discouraging non-flying visitors to the airport, we shall welcome them, and hope they will make use of it as sightseers.

‘We are giving them all the facilities for enjoying it as a pubic amenity. The better they are acquainted with modern air transport the more we will like it.

‘It isn’t difficult to see that the urge to travel by air will come from familiarity with the work of such an airport as East Midlands, and to get the pubic more air minded is just what we want.’

However, the airport did not prove to be the instant success the authorities had hoped for. It was only when it embraced cargo traffic that it began to expand with a new freight complex added in the early 1970s. The runway was extended and the terminal upgraded.

It still wasn’t until 1985 that the airport hit the one million passenger mark. With the airport growing it became a public limited company in 1987 and became the first major regional airport to be privatised in 1993. Owners National Express invested tens of millions into East Midlands with long haul flights arriving after another runway extension and the construction of a new air traffic control tower.

The five million mark for passengers was passed in 2007 as the airport reached its peak.

These days you can fly to New York, Mexico, Tunisia, and Latvia as well as dozens of destinations across Europe. The airport is a vital cog in the regional economy and employs thousands of people.

Earlier this year, the airport announced that it expects to fill 1,250 job vacancies across the 90 businesses on site over the course of the next 12 months.

Howard Ebison, head of customer service, said: ‘There is something about working at an airport that is exciting, with no two shifts the same. There are approximately 6,500 staff on site across 90 different businesses.

‘We are committed to two key objectives; firstly making East Midlands Airport a fantastic place to work and secondly delivering the best airport experience in the UK.’

Go to www.eastmidlandsairport.com



East Midlands Airport Joint Committee, which was formed to find a site to replace Burnaston Aerodrome, buys Castle Donington Airfield, a former RAF base, for £37,500.


Planning permission to build a new £1.37 million airport on the site is approved and work begins.


On April 2, East Midlands Airport is officially opened by the Duke of Edinburgh. Derby Airways, which had operated at Burnaston, moves to the new airport.


A second terminal, Cargo Terminal 2, opens allowing the airport to increase its freight operations.


Royal Mail comes to EMA


Princess Anne opens a £3 million passenger terminal extension.


The airport is privatised and bought by the National Express Group.


A new departures building opens as part of a £14.5 million project. The airport welcomes its 25 millionth passenger.


Cargo Terminal 4 opens.


DHL opens its hub at ‘Cargo West’. The runway is extended again, taking its length to 2,893 metres.


East Midlands Airport becomes part of the Manchester Airports Group. The new Aeropark aviation museum opens its gates.


BMI Baby, BMI’s low cost airline, is launched and begins operating from the airport.


Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, opens a new check-in hall extension.


Low cost airline Ryanair begin operations at the airport. Self-service check-in is launched.


The airport serves its 50 millionth passenger in 40 years.


The airport publishes its Master Plan, outlining plans for its future growth up to 2030 and commits to make its ground operations carbon neutral by 2012.


The airport applies for permission to install large wind turbines on site to generate 10% of its electricity, launches a green extension to the terminal, as well as being awarded five top travel awards.


Work is complete on the £10 million redevelopment programme.


The new dedicated education centre, ‘The Aerozone’ opens.

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