Behind the scenes at Edinburgh Airport: Scotland’s busiest visitor hub

Edinburgh Airport has come a long way since opening in 1916, when it was known as Turnhouse, and used only by the Royal Flying Corps. The First World War base they knew would bear almost no resemblance to the metropolis of planes, passengers and duty-free perfume we know today.

Monday, 4th March 2019, 12:15 pm
Updated Monday, 4th March 2019, 12:17 pm
Edinburgh Airport, where 5000 people work to keep millions of passengers each year safely on the move. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Back then, there was no Wetherspoons for a pre-flight pint, no shop with a range of Harry Potter memorabilia or even taps with built-in hand dryers (these are a few of the Ingliston airport’s latest offerings).

Since 2012, when ownership changed hands, the airport has seen its biggest ever surge in new passengers, with a steady increase of one million new visitors each year. To accommodate the high volume of new passengers going through what is now Scotland’s busiest airport, it’s having to adapt and expand all the time.

Edinburgh Airport, which now generates £1 billion for Scotland’s economy each year, has spent the last seven years growing and planning for the future. When Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) took over running the airport from BAE Systems in 2012, this marked the beginning of a new era which saw dozens of new flight paths and destinations added.

In the years since, new car parking facilities, hotels, aircraft stands, departure lounges, gates, baggage halls, shops and bars have all popped up to accommodate the hoards of new passengers. With projections showing that a further two million visitors will pass through the airport by 2021, a masterplan, detailing developments between 2016 and 2040, has been drawn up, which includes extending the terminal building, increased aircraft space, improved road links and plans for a second runway.

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To process 14.3 million people, as Edinburgh Airport did last year, making it the busiest year for any Scottish airport ever, requires top of the range facilities and technology. More importantly, however, are the people operating and maintaining these facilities; that bartender who pours you a pint at a time outwith an airport would be deemed socially unacceptable, the airside officer guiding your plane towards the runway in freezing temperatures, or the air traffic controller sitting at the top of the airport’s iconic golf tee-shaped tower, ensuring a safe take-off.

The 5000 staff working at the airport work in tandem, with many departments relying on effective and regular communication from each other to ensure a smooth operation is maintained.

“Your biggest ally in this role is air traffic control, we speak to them all the time”, says Dan Maltby, one of the airside operations managers.

“I came from Glasgow Airport, which was busy, but this is just amazing to see this amount of growth passenger-wise, what they’re doing inside the terminal; I’ve never seen a Brewdog in an airport.

“Passenger numbers are absolutely mad, the work we’re doing with the new stands and everything, it’s just overwhelming, it’s a great place to work – there’s loads of opportunity.”

Behind all the moving parts are the people who make the airport tick, many of whom are on abnormal sleep patterns, as early mornings are the busiest time of day.

Rushing to check-in, then through the security hall where you impatiently wait for the attendant to dig out that bottle of water you forgot you left at the bottom then past the Toblerone and whisky in duty-free, it’s easy to forget the sheer size of the operation.

To get an insight into the individuals who spend their days at Edinburgh Airport working hard to ensure planes take off, luggage is handled, bags are checked and delays are avoided, the Evening News spoke to people all across the board about what their jobs entail and how they have adapted to the influx of new passengers and growth experienced in the last few years.

Baggage handler - Andy Ray

With more passengers comes more luggage, meaning Edinburgh Airport’s facilities for scanning, processing and transporting bags have had to develop. 1300 pieces of luggage are processed every hour, with this figure expected to rise to 1600 by next year, as the baggage hall prepares to implement it’s new system.

Asked if it’s been a busy month, Baggage Hall manager Andy Ray, opposite, replies: “Every month’s a busy month.

“The numbers we’re seeing at this time of year traditionally used to be a lot smaller. We’re now doing what we call our winter season, off peak which runs from the end of October to the end of March, and we’re doing numbers we used to do in peak summer five or six years ago.”

The equipment available for streamlining the whole process is always developing, with major adjustments to the baggage processing system in 2016 bringing in better results for Andy’s team and less waiting time for passengers.

“Last year, performance-wise it was a superb year for us, we had very little major failures in the baggage system. In the 12 years that I’ve been here the last couple have been the best.

“There was about a million and a half spent in 2016 on ‘re-lifing’ the system. This year we’ve tweaked everything up to full, so it’s going to be running as fast as it can, full capacity. When we hit these big numbers it’s all about having the staff in there.”

Andy spent 13 years working as an engineer at the Western General Hospital before joining the baggage team at Edinburgh Airport.

“I served my time as an apprentice, I’ve only had a few jobs but this is just a different type of role altogether; this environment, you come in, people are travelling and every day is different, it’s been brilliant working here.”

Pilot Robbie Cockburn - Loganair

Not technically working in the airport, yet arguably the most important role of all, is the pilot. Robbie Cockburn, a pilot with Scottish airline Loganair, flies passengers to the Highlands and Islands around four times a day from Edinburgh Airport.

“I’ve operated from Edinburgh for about two years. It’s the biggest i’ve been based at and probably the most advanced airport i’ve been based at, I much prefer it from the other airports”, he says.

“The facilities it has, not only for crew but for passengers is great compared to Glasgow, for example, I think there’s better choices in the airport for food, drink and shops. The security is phenomenal, I’ve never ever had a delay in security, time-wise it’s always been really efficient.”

Robbie says the airport’s rise in the number of passengers has been noticeable on-board his flights: “I can’t remember the last time I had a quiet flight. Every queue of passengers I go past that are going on the flight looks full, it’s great.”

Being used to flying to some of the UK’s smallest and most remote airports, the amount of aircraft passing through Edinburgh is a stark difference to what Robbie is used to, however he views being able to fly to some of Scotland’s most scenic areas as a perk of the job.

“My favourite part about working for Loganair is definitely the destinations we fly to. We fly to some of the most stunning airports in the world, really, and it’s all on our doorstep.”

Security: Mark McCallum - Duty Manager

Everyone dreads the security hall during a trip to the airport; full body scanners, bag searches, having to remove half your clothes until the metal detector ceases beeping, it’s tedious yet absolutely essential.

The responsibility of meticulously screening every passenger belongs to people such as Mark McCallum, a duty manager in Edinburgh Airport’s security hall. One of the toughest parts of the job, he says, are the constant early starts.

“The most challenging part for me is the times, our shifts start at three in the morning. An early start can be really challenging because you’re getting out your bed and your body’s telling you, ‘What are you doing to me here?’. I’ve done that for ten years, it’s not something that gets any easier

“The most rewarding part is the people. The people that work here are really fantastic at what they do.”

For travellers who forget to put that expensive bottle of Chanel in their hold luggage, the security hall now has a system in place to ensure they don’t have to throw it away. “Mail it on” allows passengers to hand their items over to security and have them mailed to their desired address.

“One of our supervisors, Agnes, came up with this concept. Basically, we offer a service to say, ‘You know what, we get that it’s your expensive perfume, we don’t want to have to take it off you’,” he says.

Mark says one of the most important aspects of working at Edinburgh Airport is the team spirit felt between the different departments: “We’ve got a really good team across campus. We try and push it out and say, ‘Come and speak to us, get to know us’.”

• History of Edinburgh Airport
1916: Opens as a Royal Naval Air base, called Turnhouse, functioning as a key military base during the First World War.

1947: First commercial flights fly from Edinburgh Airport.

1971: The airport is taken over by the British Airports Authority (BAA)

1977: The new airport terminal is opened by Queen Elizabeth II

2004: £20 million multi storey car park opens

2005: New £10 million air traffic control tower opens

2006: First Minister Jack McConnell opens the new terminal extension

2007: The airport celebrates its 60th Anniversary

2008: Work begins on major departure lounge extension

2009: The world’s largest commercial aircraft, the Airbus A380 makes its first ever appearance in Scotland as it flies over Edinburgh Airport

2012: BAE sells Edinburgh Airport to GIP for £807.2 million

2013: Edinburgh Airport named best European Airport for the third year running

2014: Edinburgh Airport exceeds 10 million passengers in a year for the first time