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East Midlands Chamber News

Meet Clare James MBE - the new MD at East Midlands Airport

It's fair to say Clare James MBE has faced a baptism of fire since taking over as managing director at East Midlands Airport in the summer. From firefighting the local impact of the aviation industry's global collapse to promoting the airport's rapidly growing cargo operation, she has plenty to keep her busy, as she explains to Dan Robinson.

“If anyone said I could be as busy as I am with no passengers, I’d have challenged them,” says Clare James. “But I don’t seem to have enough hours in the day or days in the week at the moment.”

The coronavirus pandemic has struck a dagger through the heart of an aviation industry that, less than 12 months ago, had been enjoying unbridled growth in an era of expanding globalisation and cheaper travel.

Travel quarantines, safety fears and job losses have emptied planes, leading two-thirds of the world’s aircraft to be placed into storage in April and the International Air Transport Association forecasting revenues to fall by $419bn this year – half of what airlines earned in 2019.

For East Midlands Airport (EMA), the impact of the global travel collapse is clear, with this year’s projected 800,000 passengers just 17% of last year’s tally of 4.7 million.

Read this article in Business Network magazine

From lobbying Government for financial support and rapid testing at the border, to preserving jobs and the very future of the airport – sandwiched by a thriving cargo operation – Clare was greeted by a stacked in-tray as she walked through the terminal doors at Castle Donington to take up her managing director post in July.

“It’s an absolute privilege to be here and I’m absolutely committed to getting the best for the airport, but it’s quite a challenge as it’s not something the aviation industry has had to deal with before,” she says.

“There’s an awful lot to deal with in terms of how we build back from the unprecedented times we find ourselves in right now.

“But it doesn’t take away from the fact that we have a really good regional asset here in the East Midlands that has a lot to offer, both as a gateway for people to go on holiday and the vital role it plays in supplying the UK with its cargo operation.”

Clare James' career path - from RAF to EMA

Aviation has been the predominant thread throughout Clare’s career. Starting in the Royal Air Force as an air traffic controller, which involved deployments to warzones including Kosovo and the Falklands, she enjoyed an accelerated progression through the ranks to run the air traffic control (ATC) training school and then the entire ATC division at RAF Brize Norton.

More strategic planning roles would follow, reporting to the commander-in-chief of the RAF and finishing her military career as a group captain who led the team that set up the Military Aviation Authority (MAA).

The MAA was established in 2010 on the recommendation of The Nimrod Review, which followed an inquiry into the 2006 RAF Nimrod crash that killed all 14 crew members on board the plane in Afghanistan. It mirrors the air safety regulations of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for the RAF, Army and Royal Navy.

“It was quite a bold move for the military and we did in a year what it took the CAA 20 years to do in terms of standing up a regulatory framework to offer independent assurance and regulation for military aviation,” says Clare.

Since leaving the RAF in 2013, she has climbed the private sector ladder, working in civil aviation at defence and transport contractor Serco and NATS, the air navigation service provider for most of the UK’s major airports. In January 2019, she joined Manchester Airports Group (MAG), the parent company of Manchester, Stansted and East Midlands airports, as director of operational excellence.

Her role involved implementing standardised policies for issues such as drones and security across the three airports, before coronavirus struck and her military reflexes in dealing with disaster were mobilised as she was asked to head up MAG’s crisis response and recovery plans.

She clearly made an impression as, four months into the pandemic, she was appointed in the top job at EMA, replacing Karen Smart, who moved into the same role at Manchester Airport.

Summer was a strange period as the Government attempted to get the economy moving again following lockdown by opening travel corridors with other countries – but with a significant amount of restraint as it added and removed nations from a travel quarantine list on a weekly basis.

Being demand-led, EMA’s airlines, which include Jet2.com, Ryanair and Tui, reduced their schedules as they operated on passenger loads ranging between 30% and 50%.

Clare, who lives in Berkshire but is based at a hotel next to the airport through the week, says: “We were just starting to see the green shoots of recovery when they were quickly quashed with the quarantine regime imposed on us.

“By making announcements on the Friday that said ‘as of midnight on Saturday, you have to quarantine for two weeks’, it’s created so much uncertainty and taken all confidence out of the market.”

Record year for East Midlands Airport's cargo operation

While the daytime passenger side of EMA has been crippled by the pandemic, the opposite is true of its cargo operation, which processes about a million individual packages and letters every night and handles more than 370,000 tonnes of flown cargo every year.

This makes it the UK’s busiest pure freight airport and second only to Heathrow for annual tonnage of all cargo. It acts as the UK logistics hub for both DHL and UPS, which have invested tens of millions on new sites there in recent years.

The exponential growth of online shopping has contributed heavily to a 20% increase in volume over the past year.

It recorded its highest ever monthly cargo volume in September 2020, when 40,636 tonnes of goods passed through the airport. This marked a 32% increase on a year earlier and eclipsed the previous record of 34,107 tonnes handled in November 2018.

“It’s a tale of two halves,” says Clare. “With the lockdowns and changing consumer habits that they’ve brought about, e-commerce has seen a real boom and our cargo operation, as a result, has really benefitted.

“But it’s a dual role airport and cargo alone doesn’t sustain the asset base and operating model – it’s a combination of cargo and passengers.”

Clare admits any plans for passenger growth have been “kicked into the long grass” for the moment, with passenger surveys suggesting it could be up to 12 months before people think about travelling again.

But she remains optimistic about the future – one that will have a greener tint, with sustainability high on the agenda as MAG explores alternative fuels and hydrogen fuel cells.

“EMA is well known as the local friendly airport and it’s important we continue that offering,” Clare adds.

“The big-little airport is what I call it. It’s a strategic hub with a global role, but it’s also got that regional feel from a passenger perspective. That’s what makes EMA work and what makes it unique.”

Freeport opportunity for East Midlands

East Midlands Airport could play a central role in achieving freeport status for the region, believes Clare.

It is working with councils and local enterprise partnerships to put together a proposal to Government for the East Midlands to be designated as one of the UK’s 10 freeports, which will create national hubs for trade, innovation and commerce.

Designed to attract major domestic and international investment post-Brexit, freeports will benefit from a wide range of tax reliefs, simplified customs procedures, a streamlined planning process to boost redevelopment and Government support to promote regeneration and innovation.

Clare says: “The concept of a freeport presents a massive opportunity, and a multi-modal inland freeport in the East Midlands positions us really well as a unique proposition.

“It really capitalises on the contribution of the airport, our region’s very strong manufacturing and technology base, and the innovation coming out of our universities to do something quite special, and add some real value to both the UK and regional economy.

“We are the port of entry but EMA also sits across the three counties, so we’re the glue that holds them together. We’re working with the LEPs and councils to put a plan together that recognises the value a freeport brings to the region through investment and jobs.

“Making the sum of the parts greater than the whole is what the freeport really does.”

She believes the airport will have a huge role to play in the post-Brexit economy, not only in the short term to mitigate any delays in the months after the transition period ends, but more broadly in a world where people order things online and expect next-day delivery.

“That’s the bread and butter for our express freight team and the only way to service that demand so quickly,” she adds.

“While we’re in a society based on those wants and needs, then the future is bright for us.”

East Midlands Chamber backs region's freeport bid

Chamber chief executive Scott Knowles has written to East Midlands MPs and council leaders to offer the organisation’s support in making the case for the establishment of a freeport in the region.

The Chamber previously called on Government to designate a free trade zone linked to the airport in the 2018 Delivering a Great Future manifesto.

In the letter, Scott says both the need and scale of the opportunity for the vision outlined two years ago has only grown, as exemplified by changing consumer habits, the need to reimagine supply chains post-Brexit and the growing emphasis on low-carbon products and processes.

He says: “While for many, these changes bring challenges, for the East Midlands, if responded to appropriately, we believe they bring a massive opportunity.

“Obtaining a freeport with a focus on innovation, low carbon and trade is central to us realising that opportunity to its full extent. We have the expertise, the land, much of the necessary infrastructure and, of course, the land.” Bids for freeport status must be submitted by 5 February 2021.

Airport testing key to regaining passenger confidence

Lobbying Government for more financial support is one of the key challenges for Clare.

With the aviation industry not expected to return to pre-Covid passenger levels until 2024-25, airports and airlines have called for help to prevent huge job losses.

In October, it was announced 51 frontline service roles could be cut at EMA as part of wide-ranging redundancies by parent group MAG, which put 892 jobs at risk after a 90% drop in passengers across its three airports between April and August.

Clare says: “As well as the operational side of minimising costs, preserving the jobs we have and planning for the future in how we build back, my priority is to lobby Government because we’ve not had great support as a sector.

“We’ve used the Job Retention Scheme, which has been available to all businesses, but aviation has been absolutely decimated by this. We have a very high fixed-cost base so the challenge for me is how do we mitigate the losses and secure the future of the airport?

“We need Government to recognise the role of the industry in the broader economy. It’s not just about holidays and passenger flying, but the vital role we play in cargo through bringing in PPE and supporting the online boom we’re experiencing.

“There’s also a huge supply chain and it’s hundreds of jobs that are at risk – everyone from airport retailers to road hauliers.”

Summer travel strategy needed in 2021

Regaining passenger confidence to get back in the air is also important. Clare believes rapid testing at departure and arrival, and a more “risk-based” approach to travel, is the way forward.

She adds: “At the moment, all the evidence points to the fact that quarantining doesn’t work as people aren’t complying with it.

“A far more nuanced approach would be to get a testing regime in so we’re catching 75% of the people with a positive or negative test.

“What we really need is a strategy for next summer. This virus isn’t going to go away in 12 months, even though there’s positivity about the vaccine, so it’s going to be a combination of travel corridors, a testing regime that allows people to not have to quarantine and vaccination.

“We’re resigned to the fact we’ve lost the summer and winter this year, but what we really need from Government is a policy that will help people book with confidence next summer.”

Clare’s three priorities for East Midlands Airport

  1. Restore passenger confidence and get EMA flying again
  2. Continue to grow the cargo operation so it remains a key UK and global asset
  3. Put EMA “on the map” post-Covid by tapping into what it offers the region and country


This article appears in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of the Chamber's Business Network magazine. To read the online edition, click here.