East Midlands Airport, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 14:28 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013

The airport's main entrance for departures

The airport's main entrance for departures

Pat Ashworth visits the fastest growing regional airport in the UK at Castle Donington.

The comedian Jasper Carrott once famously mocked the fledgling East Midlands Airport in his comedy show. It was the one with cow-catchers on the runway, he suggested, in a jibe at its rural location and largely domestic business.

He would have to eat his words now, gazing up at the 52.3 metre-high control tower that handles 85,000 runway movements a year. Nearly five million passengers pass through the regional airport every year, travelling to destinations as far distant as Goa, Cuba and Barbados and with new routes opening up all the time, the horizons get wider. Flights to European destinations were going out even on Christmas Day: something that would have been unheard of just a few years back. Scandinavia is now on the map, with flights to Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen. And who would have thought that Sharm El Sheikh would be within direct reach?

Air travel is something of a litmus test of what's going on in society. A social historian noting that regular flights now go to Krakow, Lodz, Poznan and Wroclaw wouldn't have to look far to connect that with the arrival and settlement in the East Midlands of workers from Poland. The popularity and affordability of second homes in Spain has contributed to the increase in winter traffic, as has the surge in winter sports that sees seasonal flights to the European ski resorts. The UK short break holiday market gives impetus to new routes like the Isle of Man, which opens in March from East Midlands.

This is the fastest growing regional airport in the UK, fuelled by a 10 million investment in infrastructure and facilities. Joined-up thinking has seen a massive improvement in public transport links from the three major cities of Derby, Nottingham, and Leicester, and from Loughborough. The number of people using the airport buses rose by 110 per cent last year. If you're catching a National Express coach to London or another of the country's major airports, you don't have to shiver in the open air any more while you wait: you can sit in the comfort and visibility of a designated glass-walled lounge - smoke-free, of course.

It's all designed to take the stress out of air travel, from the minute you arrive at the airport by whatever means. If you're meeting and greeting, the arrivals area now includes a handy 24-hour Spar shop land-side and if you're travelling, there's now the opportunity to shop and relax in a massively expanded facility air-side. Once you've gone through security - a quicker check-in that promises a five-minute wait even at peak periods - it's as good as any bigger airport, including a greatly extended duty-free shop.

They want travellers to feel that the holiday starts as soon as they set foot in the airport and not when they board the plane. Much research has gone into finding out what passengers really want, and having concluded that the arrivals area simply needed a good store, a good information point and a caf, they were able to reconfigure the existing space and transfer 70 per cent of the space to the departures area. It includes a prayer room, a quiet place where anyone can go for peace and reflection and where a 24-hour chaplaincy team is on hand if called for.

Final year students at Derby University contributed to one shining aspect of the terminal building: a designated passenger assistance lounge where anyone with a hearing or sight impairment or reduced mobility can take refuge. Bright pink seating and signage distinguishes it from the blue of the rest of the seating, there's a hearing loop, and plenty of space for wheelchairs and carers. Crew members will come and assist passengers to their flights, taking all the worry out of not hearing an announcement or struggling with a queue. This winning student concept may be replicated in the other airports in a consortium which includes Manchester, Bournemouth and Humberside.

It is all part of community liaison, and to the management's great credit, they heard loud and clear the message that the public did not want what they all thought of as their local airport to include the word 'Nottingham'. The reversion back to the familiar East Midlands Airport reflects the raised profile of the region generally, which local councils and tourist boards have worked hard to bring about and which is reflected in the impressive resource of tourist information at the airport. Robin Hood's arrow has gone and along with it, the implication that any one city has a monopoly. Everyone is in this together.

The airport has earned the accolade of being the world's leading eco-friendly airport. A key part of its Master Plan for future development, required of all civil airports, is for ground operations to be carbon-neutral by 2012. It is already doing well on energy efficiency: while passenger numbers increased by two per cent in 2006/7, energy consumption fell by 0.1 per cent, due largely to eco-friendly heating systems in the new terminal pier. Costing 6 million, it uses ground source heat pumps to save 80 per cent of energy and has wind catchers to avoid heat loss.

The proportion of energy from renewable sources is now 20 per cent, and the use of natural light, the use of 'grey' water for such things as flushing toilets, and a string emphasis on recycling (even the terminal building has colour coded bins) are all contributory measures.

But the biggest thing on the horizon - literally - is the commitment to wind turbines on the perimeter of the airport. The four turbines will generate 10 per cent of the airport's electricity - green energy that will greatly help reduce carbon emissions. 'The turbines will be a welcome addition to our suite of environmental measures and I hope this initiative is something which the community, and indeed the East Midlands region, can be proud of,' said Penny Coates, the airport's managing director. EMA is the first airport in the UK to propose wind turbines on site.

As the largest pure freight airport in the UK - bigger in this respect than Heathrow - it's busy. Good community relations are vital, and the airport works hard on liaison, with open surgeries for local residents, and representatives attending parish council meetings in Castle Donington, Diseworth, Kegworth and Melbourne. The airport published its first community investment report in 2007 and is proud of what it has achieved.

Living under a flight path is acknowledged not to be trouble-free. Noise accounts for 77 per cent of complaints, especially in summer with outdoor living and open windows, and there has been some protest from pressure groups to expansion plans. The airport continues to phase out older and noisier freight aircraft; to insist on Continuous Descent Approach (CDA) as the quietest way for aircraft to descend; to improve noise and radar track-monitoring systems and to offer mobile sound monitoring equipment to any community that requests it. Four permanent noise monitoring sites directly under air traffic routes capture and record the 'worst noise' data. Training flights are banned on weekends and Bank holidays.

Demand is such that the airport wants to double the number of flights by 2016 and double the number of routes in the next 10 years, increasing the number of long-haul flights. A new terminal building will be needed but not a new runway: a 150-metre extension to the existing runway would have the capacity to take the payload of both freight and passengers.

The projection is 10.5 million passengers a year in 25 years time. Cow-catchers on the runway? Not here.

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