Once, travelling abroad meant travelling to one of just a few large airports around the UK. However, with the growth in low-cost travel, and now regional airports account for around 40% of passenger traffic in the UK, and this figure is increasing. In addition to the operational roles this has created, competition among all airports to attract low-cost and long-haul airlines is intense and there are increasing numbers of career opportunities for those with an interest in both airport operations and aviation business.
Airports offer a variety of hands-on and business roles for those not seeking the ‘9-5’ routine in areas such as passenger services and airport operations, and, behind-the-scenes, in marketing, business development, legal and HR. Airports are businesses in themselves, as well as host to hundreds of others, such as airlines, ground handling agents, retailers and official authorities, so there are likely to be many possible career paths which suit your interests. We've picked out below a 'front-line' role and a 'behind-the-scenes' role to give you an idea of just some of the work available.
Ground handling agents are usually contracted by airlines to carry out various duties required at the airport between a flight arrival and subsequent departure, such as check-in, baggage handling, passenger boarding and disembarkment and sometimes VIP services.
Dispatchers have overall responsibility for the aircraft from the moment that lands, until the time when the doors are closed and the jetty is finally detached. Dipatch provides the opportunity to meet and work with people from different parts of the world every day.
Much of what the dispatcher does goes entirely unnoticed by passengers but dispatchers can usually be identified by their high-visibilty jackets, walkie-talkie carrying paperwork.
The dispatcher will ensure that a flight is correctly loaded with not just passengers and their luggage, but also cargo, mail shipments and aircraft spares. Everything on an aircraft has its own priority, and must be unloaded in the right sequence at its destination. For example, first-class passengers’ baggage must be the first to appear on the collection belt.
Safety is another responsibility. Hazardous substances must be loaded according to safety rules. Many aircraft use large aluminum containers to hold the payload which come in different shapes and sizes and have to be slotted into place correctly. Crucial is ensuring that the aircraft’s overall weight and balance limits must be kept to, or there would be serious consequences.
Much of the load-planning is done in the operations room before the aircraft has even landed, and is then fine-tuned in the final phases before departure. Once the aircraft has arrived the dispatcher’s then checks and co-ordinates the many teams of people whose job it is to re-fuel, load, clean, supply catering and organise passenger boarding and dispatchers will deal with everyone from airport security to the pilots themselves.
Many dispatchers come from check-in and ticketing backgrounds, and some are qualified pilots hoping to get aviation experience and make airline contacts.
There is a lot of pressure to work quickly and accurately, and key skills include communication, flexibility, thinking on your feet, ability to remain calm under pressure and multi-task and enjoy experiencing new challenges every day.
Airport marketing has several key aspects. One is ‘account management’ looking after existing airline clients that use the airport, For example, this could be assisting in their day-to-day activities at the airport and also the marketing of their services with local media. Secondly airports will try and attract new airlines to use their airport – this could be trying to increase log-haul business for example, or introduce passenger flights at a traditionally cargo-based airport. new long-haul airlines to the airport and come up with special incentive packages.
The CAA produce survey data which looks at passenger demand in airports’ local catchment areas which can be used to help decide which routes would be suitable to market to potential airports. Other factors will include local transport links and how they compare with competitor airports.
In order to ‘woo’ new airline customers, you may have to travel to trade events around the world, take them out or plan memorable, fun events which can be very enjoyable. You would also work with travel agencies and tour operators to develop business opportunities. However, when things go wrong, you will also have to placate the client, help resolve the problem and also feed back airline problems and needs to other airport executives, particularly in areas such as potential airport developments.
There is no direct career path to airport marketing. Often people will start work with an airline or airport and work their way up. They may also come from other transport sectors such as logistics or distribution, gaining excellent understanding of the planning and logistics of flight operations. Some may also transfer from marketing roles outside of aviation. Working with international airlines means an understanding of different cultures and business practices is also helpful.
Some universities offer undergraduate or postgraduate aviation management or air transport management degrees which look at some of the complex business issues facing airports in detail and often have good links to the industry.
It is worth trying to get all the airport experience you can, working your way up from the bottom and understanding how the airport works, passenger and airline needs etc. Work experience is very important, to gain a genuine feel for the airport environment, which operates seven days a week and all year round, and the kind of challenges that present themselves daily and may have an impact on the airport’s attractiveness to airlines. As well as airports consider the ground handling agents and airlines; passenger services experience is useful preparation.