BOSSES at Glasgow Airport could be forgiven for thinking that its long-running campaign to establish a direct rail link with the city centre is never going to take flight.

The airport has thrown its weight behind proposals for a £144 million “tram train” – a scheme it says will connect it with Central Station in just 16 minutes and, in doing so, have a transformational effect on the Glasgow economy.

This proposal was worked up after an initial project to develop a Glasgow Airport Rail Link (GARL) hit the buffers in 2010, amid public funding concerns.

This time funding has been secured, under the Glasgow City Deal. But yet another spanner has been thrown in the works.

Early last month it emerged that alternative proposals, this time for a rapid transit system linking the airport with Paisley Gilmour Street train station, will be considered. That followed talks between Glasgow and Renfrewshire councils, Transport Secretary Michael Matheson and airport bosses on the executive steering group. One critic slammed the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system, which would require travellers to change at Paisley connect to Glasgow Central, as a “toy town solution”, and there was no hiding the frustration felt by Glasgow Airport bosses at this latest setback.

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But, according to Glasgow Airport managing director Mark Johnston, his employer is not about to walk away from the fight any time soon.

“We’re obviously frustrated, because this is the best part of a decade of planning,” said Mr Johnston, who joined the airport 15 years ago after beginning his career at Motorola. “We went to the steering group meeting, and at that point a case was presented to say there wasn’t any capacity at Central Station to facilitate the tram train, which makes it a problem, and a secondary option was presented in PRT.

“We remain to be convinced that the PRT is as good an option as the tram train, but that is the process that will be followed now, to review that business case.”

Asked whether the tram train proposal was now dead, Mr Johnston replied: “Not as we understand it. The business case for the PRT will be pulled together. There was language that was used to say it was the favoured option, but the two options will need to be compared alongside each other.”

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While frustrated that there is now a rival to the tram train option, and with that the potential for yet more inertia, there is some comfort in the fact that the wheels are now moving towards a solution for an issue that many feel is holding the city back.

And that is not least because projections for traffic congestion suggest things are only going to get worse on the M8, the motorway which links the airport to the city, by 2025 – the target year for which it is hoped a new link will be in operation.

“I think the positive thing is there is now a recognition from the councils and the Government that something has to happen,” said Mr Johnston, observing that no other airport of comparable size in Europe is accessed only by road. “We need to do something. We need to make sure it is deliverable, and we need to make sure it is the right product.”

Glasgow, which with Aberdeen and Southampton is part of AGS Airports, recently produced its latest economic impact report, which suggested that it generates more than £1.44 billion a year for the Scottish economy and supports over 30,000 jobs. It prefaced the publication later this year of its next masterplan, which will set out its growth targets for the next two decades. And there can be little doubt it sees the creation of a direct rail link as being crucial to its ambitions.

“What the masterplan says is we intend to grow to 17 million passengers by 2040,” Mr Johnston said. “It also looks to identify the economic contribution that we make now and that we could make in the future.

“It [economic impact report] was [launched] more in line with the launch of the masterplan but I think it is pertinent, at a time when you are looking at national infrastructure, to see how the airport contributes, and how when we succeed everyone succeeds. I is all about us working together.”

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Glasgow Airport, Mr Johnston said, is forecasting that nine million passengers will pass through its gates this year. Last year passenger numbers hit 9.7 million, however it has subsequently lost several Ryanair routes, with the Irish airline also closing its base at the airport.

The downsizing of Ryanair’s presence was equivalent to a 10 per cent fall in passenger numbers as the airline slashed the number of routes it flies from Glasgow from 23 to three.

But the airport has moved to mitigate the loss. A new daily flight to Frankfurt was introduced, seen as a boost to Scottish exporters and the tourism sector amid the continuing Brexit uncertainty, and Ryanair is now back to flying five routes from Glasgow. The airport is also hopeful that Ryanair, which cited the current level of Air Passenger Duty (APD) as a reason for its retrenchment, will re-establish a base in Glasgow.

Mr Johnston, meanwhile, said the airport will soon create aviation history when Emirates introduces Scotland’s first-ever scheduled A380 service to Dubai in a few weeks’ time. The aircraft can carry up to 520 passengers, and Glasgow has spent millions on installing the necessary infrastructure to accommodate an aeroplane of its size.

“I’m always keen to not have the negatives drown out the positives, and we have got a lot of positives this year,” Mr Johnston said. “We have got the A380 coming [in a few weeks’ time] with Emirates. That’s a Scottish aviation first, which is great. We have got our daily service to Frankfurt with Lufthansa, we have got easyJet [to] Venice, we have got extended seasons on the American routes, so there is a lot of good stuff going on. But the Ryanair [loss of routes] was a blow.”

Mr Johnston highlighted the importance of unlocking the current stalemate on APD to boost the competitiveness of Scottish airports. The power to vary APD resides with the Scottish Government as a consequence of the Smith Commission. But Holyrood has so far been unable to follow through on its commitment to scrapping the tax because of an ongoing dispute with Westminster, which centres on ensuring the Highlands and Islands retains its exemption.

Mr Johnston urged politicians to knock their heads to together to come up with a solution for the benefit of the country, given that UK APD is currently the highest in Europe.

“We need to find a way of unlocking it,” he said. “APD in the UK is twice as expensive as the next, which is Germany, but it is three times as expensive as other cities.

“We need to take a wider view and look at some of the studies which demonstrate the larger economic benefit. I think the pledge was initially to reduce it by half, then scrap it altogether. We need to see some movement on that.”

One positive development for the airport has been the easing of fears that a no-deal Brexit could lead to flights being ground.

Mr Johnston said assurances have been received from the European Commission and the UK Government that this will not happen, but he admitted the uncertainty around the form of Brexit remains a concern.

“We, like any business and industry, would like to see some clarity and certainty, because we don’t want that erosion in consumer confidence continuing,” he said.

Asked whether he feels commercial activity will pick up once the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU are known, he said: “Once you know the world you are operating in, you can make big decisions.

“The day-to-day is probably going on as normal, but there is probably some hesitation in the aviation industry at the moment.

“To counter that, look at Emirates [which] have committed the A380 to Glasgow.

“We have committed £8m of investment to bring it to Glasgow, so you see areas where there are still big commitments happening.

“But the uncertainty is not good for anyone in general.”

Six Questions:

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?
Our honeymoon consisted of a three-week tour of America which always stands out as my best-ever holiday. The contrast of beach life to city was fantastic throughout.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?
I wanted to be an inventor and run my
own company. I patented a product to stop ATM crime when I was 20 that didn’t take off. I have always had a problem-solving mindset. 

What was your biggest break in business?
Moving from the electronics industry into aviation. I’ve been very lucky with the opportunities and experiences I’ve had ever since.

What was your worst moment in business?
When we dropped from 8.5m to 6.5m passengers during the last economic crisis. It was bad at the time but you learn a hell of a lot when the chips are down.

Who do you most admire and why?
Sir Alex Ferguson for the way he continually adapted to the changing world of football whilst keeping to his core principles.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to? What was the last film you saw?
Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed –
it is about changing our attitude to failure and recognising it as a key element to success. I’m going back through a rock music phase again. Ant Man and the Wasp – my kids love anything Marvel at the moment.