CEO interview: How to fix Heathrow

Mark Bullock remembers a couple of horrendous flying experiences. On a holiday, he was stuck in Geneva airport for eight hours – “nowhere to sit, nowhere to shop, nothing to do apart from sit on the floor, being bored and wishing I wasn’t there”. On another holiday flight to the US, his young children were faced with an in-flight choice of curry or nothing.

As the new chief executive of Heathrow airport, Mark Bullock does very little flying these days. He prefers to send others to taste-test the experience of other airports. Unless he is ever-present in the airport hub, attending meetings, or talking to staff and customers, he believes the job would be impossible.

“I do spend a lot of time walking around this place, seeing what’s going on,” he says.

Mr Bullock’s role, and his team, have not really changed since he became Heathrow’s managing director 10 months ago, after a career in utilities, logistics and manufacturing.

Tony Douglas, his predecessor, left in July, one of a series of events – job losses, sustained criticism, delays, public calls for a BAA break-up – to plague the airport over the summer. Mr Bullock is in effect doing the same job but with a different boss, Stephen Nelson, BAA’s chief executive. But the pressure on him has intensified.

Today should make Mr Bullock feel a little more relaxed about his job. September 17 is the day the keys to the £4.3bn Terminal 5 complex are handed over to BAA, marking the start of six months of trials before its scheduled opening on March 30.

Heathrow’s capacity, designed for 45m passengers a year but now servicing 68m, is expected to be transformed from that date. T5 alone is capable of taking 35m a year. “It’s the golden key that unlocks the opportunities for the rest of our passengers and the rest of the airport. It enables us to redevelop terminals 1, 3 and 4, demolish terminal 2 and build a T5-equivalent building,” says Mr Bullock.

T5 will be “fantastic”, he promises – 80 per cent self-service check-in, fast bag drops, fast-track security, business lounges and wireless facilities. Yet he adds that it is only one step on Heathrow’s journey.

BAA, he points out, is not responsible for check-in, immigration and baggage handling, but at least he acknowledges the need to champion the performances of other agencies in the wider interests of the airport.

“I can’t deliver a reduction in check-in queues, I can’t make baggage-handlers handle bags quicker, I can’t make immigration change their processes or their manning levels. What I can do is champion a need to work together. But it’s a very complex environment.”

For evidence, he lists the airport’s 72,000 staff (BAA’s share is 4,500), 90 airlines, multiple control authorities, statutory obligations, rules and regulations. “It’s not a straightforward proposition.”

Mr Bullock says he can sit down with airlines, ground-handlers, the Department for Transport and the Home Office individually to discuss problems, but bringing them all together in a “summit” is logistically impossible. He wants performance at the airport to be viewed “in its entirety”, and penalty mechanisms to go hand-in-hand with incentives.

What he can do is to effect practical changes among other agencies, such as proposing a different regime for charging for baggage handling, and trialling technology with the Department for Transport in the flight connection centre.

Mr Bullock argues Heathrow is more resilient than a year ago, when changes to the security regime up to and including the August 2006 security alert created what he calls “a new paradigm for the industry”. The volume of work increased sharply, so more staff were needed. All that and more requires a large investment programme, an argument, Mr Bullock suggests, against opening BAA to competition. “You are providing a service that is essential to society and the economy and it’s of huge strategic importance to the nation. It’s not something that can be left to chance.”

He despairs at suggestions that BAA is more focused on retail than anything else. Mark Bullock reads the criticism, which bothers his staff, but not him. “Of course it’s not perfect, but we’ve made a lot of progress. I feel their pain. It just strengthens my resolve to fix this place and build a new Heathrow for London.”

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