Emirates’ UK vice-president Laurie Berryman talks to Tom Otley about his 23-year career with the carrier
TO MANY IN AVIATION, Laurie Berryman must have one of the best jobs in the business. Head of Emirates in the UK, over the last 20 years he has seen unrivalled expansion in long-haul traffic from the UK and the introduction of new aircraft to his routes, including the superjumbo A380. Ironic then, that one of the reasons he joined the airline back in 1990 was because he wanted to work for a small airline.
“I’d been working out in the Middle East, and having been a British Caledonian man before it was taken over by British Airways, Emirates was very attractive. I went up to Manchester with Emirates, where we had to do everything, from turning the aircraft round to answering the phones to going out and selling. We had only three flights a week to Dubai, with an A310 via Frankfurt.”
Since then, Emirates has continued expanding, and Berryman’s UK operation has mirrored this success story. It even sponsors features of our national life, such as the Emirates Air Line over the Thames from Greenwich to the Royal Docks, and the Arsenal (aka Emirates) stadium. Ironically, Berryman has been a Chelsea supporter for 40 years: “We sponsored Chelsea in 2001-5, so when we moved to Arsenal it was very hard for me,” he says. So did he have a part in the decision? “No”.
From a start-up in 1985 with a couple of leased aircraft, Emirates is now a major player. The airline likes to refer to itself as “fast-growing”, which - although true - rather disguises the fact that it is already one of the largest airlines in the world. It flies to 132 destinations in 77 countries, and has a fleet of 200-plus aircraft, the majority of them wide-body. In the last financial year it had its 25th consecutive year of profitability, took delivery of 34 aircraft, added ten destinations on six continents and saw a 16 per cent increase in passenger numbers taking the total in 2012-13 to 39 million. Cash in hand at the end of financial year was US$6.7 billion.
How things have changed
“When I started the world’s great airlines were the Americans,” Berryman says. “They effectively ruled the world, but the US industry had a terrible 20 years with very poor customer service, and though it’s coming back, the leading edge moved gradually east through the European airlines to the Middle East and Africa. Then in short-haul – it’s the rise of the low-cost airlines. No one foresaw that Ryanair would be carrying 70 million passengers.”
What about Emirates’ own prodigious rise – did he foresee that? “We knew it was going to expand, but no one could have ever predicted the rate of acceleration. Manchester took seven years to go to a daily service, but within another five years it would treble that. We knew we were carving a niche for ourselves, creating a new hub in Dubai, but I don’t think we had the vision that Tim [Clark, Emirates president] had.”
Emirates’ new partnership with Qantas
“Business travellers can look forward to a seamless service between the UK and Australia. There are great connections with all the major cities in Australia with only one stop. It also gives access to all the internal Australian routes – the 32 cities that Qantas serves internally – so business travellers will also have a seamless service through to the final destination in Australia.”
He is bullish about the tie-up, dismissing concerns about how it might result in less choice for travellers. In fact, he says that corporates “see it as offering more choice and a better way of getting there”. There’s no doubt there’s a new list of possible stopovers beyond Dubai: Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur even Colombo. “Going forward, the aim is to put our code, subject to government approval, on other Qantas flights out of the Far East, so you could go via Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong, and that’s what we’re working on at the moment, allowing a lot more flexibility on getting into Australia.”
Business travel showing “strong demand”
In the UK, Emirates continues to do well, including with corporates, with Berryman citing “positive growth” in the first two months of the financial year so far. “The business traveller does appear to be travelling. He might have downgraded a bit and be travelling a little bit more in economy, but our April and May figures show a strong demand.”
Of course, talk of downgrading does bring to mind the lack of premium economy (PE) seating at Emirates, particularly notable since Qantas has an impressive PE cabin. “It is where the two products don’t align, but we don’t see it as a problem. We’d like to think our economy class is not far off a premium economy class, because we have a lot of extras in our economy aircraft that other airlines don’t.”
More practically, he says, “we have 200 wide-bodied aircraft in our fleet, and the thought of reconfiguring all that fleet is impossible and we don’t want a mixed fleet where it’s on some of them and not on others”.
Having all these aircraft has allowed Emirates to make the most of its slots, placing five A380 superjumbos on its Heathrow routes. What is the airline’s position on UK airport capacity? “That the south east of England needs more airport capacity,” is Berryman’s answer. “But we are not throwing our weight behind any particular solution at the moment.”
APD is a “tax on business”
The other big issue is APD. Berryman points out that “it’s a tax on business. If the government is trying to encourage us to come out of the recession with SMEs exporting more, why would you tax them flying off to Indonesia and Vietnam? They are paying a big chunk of tax every time they visit those markets.”
The traffic restraints and congestion at Heathrow shouldn’t disguise the fact that Dubai International Airport has struggled to keep pace with the demands of Emirates. “Dubai is very busy, and back in February it overtook Heathrow from a passenger point of view, for that one month – most of the time it is a little behind Heathrow. Dubai International has two major advantages over most other airports. The first is that it is a 24-hour airport, so you can spread the demand over that, and second, they are working very hard to improve the traffic flows and being successful in doing so. It’s also a big airport – we opened concourse A with 20 dedicated Airbus A380 gates linked by an underground train, and there are good connections possible there.”
Back in the UK, Berryman feels optimistic about Gatwick, and not just because it’s where Emirates started in the UK 25 years ago. The airline operates three daily flights from Gatwick with a B777 in a three-class configuration: “We see the new [Gatwick] management improving the infrastructure all the time.” He says it is “savvy” business travellers using these flights. “Heathrow used to be the magnet but we’re seeing business people use Gatwick now. If you live in Sussex or Surrey, Gatwick can be an easier experience, and Gatwick load factors are strong and yields are improving because of that.”
UK regional strategy
On the subject of Manchester, it’s clear that Berryman is very proud of the city and its potential. Emirates employs a total of 700 people in the UK, including 300 in the Manchester call centre. “When we opened it about 13 years ago we did a study, and Manchester is very good for languages, so we’ve built it up. Manchester is beginning to amaze everyone. It is building itself as a strong international airport from which people realise you can fly long-haul. The business community doesn’t want to come to Heathrow. They would rather fly long-haul from their local airport.”
Perhaps one day, through fifth freedom flights (commercial aviation rights), Emirates could fly Dubai to New York via Manchester? “We do hold some rights out of the regions, so I would never say never. One of the things we are keen to say to the Davies Commission, to relieve pressure on the south-east, is why don’t we make all the regional airports completely open skies, so anyone can fly anywhere. Heathrow sits in the south of England, but Manchester has a bigger catchment area in terms of a two-hour drive.”
So does Berryman still enjoy the job? He does – and oddly enough, it’s the pace of change that is both the best thing and the worst.
“Day-to-day things can change so quickly. The worst was the ten days of the Icelandic volcano, because we just didn’t know when it was going to end.”
How does he deal with the pressure? “I play golf every Saturday, if my four ball is up to it, and I accept that when you’re on holiday the business doesn’t stop and you have to do something about the emails – maybe set aside an hour in a way that doesn’t wreck your holiday so that most things are cleared up while you’re away.
“I’ve been interested in aviation since I was a child. We lived eight miles from Gatwick and my father would take me up to the spectators’ area on the top of the pier to watch aircraft. When I left university I had two job offers – with BOAC or air traffic control. I’ve been very lucky and worked for some great airlines.”
Some might say the airlines have been the lucky ones.
Laurie Berryman has been UK vice-president for Emirates since 2010. He joined the airline in 1990 ahead of its inaugural Manchester-Dubai service, and has since overseen subsequent launches from Birmingham, Glasgow and Newcastle. Now operating from six gateways, including Heathrow and Gatwick, Emirates has become the country’s largest non-UK long-haul operator.
As well as managing the airline’s regional services from the UK, he has overseen the growth of Emirates’ European call centre in Wilmslow. He is now based at the airline’s UK head office in Cromwell Road, west London.
Prior to Emirates, he worked for British Airways and British Caledonian, and has a degree in economic history and politics from the University of Kent.