Glasgow is a “hugely powerful city” but is not currently punching its weight, the new head of Glasgow Airport has declared, citing “huge opportunities” if stakeholders combine forces to drive progress.

Andy Cliffe, who became chief executive of Glasgow, Aberdeen and Southampton airports owner AGS in January, highlighted the economic importance of securing better connectivity for Glasgow and Scotland as a whole, in an exclusive interview with The Herald. He believes Scotland has a “connectivity deficit”.

Manchester Airports Group veteran Mr Cliffe, who led the operator of the M6toll before his appointment to the top job at AGS, revealed he would like to see more targeted activity in promoting inbound tourism to Glasgow and the surrounding region, highlighting his belief that this should be done by tourism agency VisitScotland and at local authority level. He flagged his view that “we lose something in that aggregate”, pan-Scottish approach to tourism promotion.

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He has been holding top-level talks with Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, Renfrewshire Council, and Scottish Enterprise, and the airport has also been engaging with the city’s universities. Mr Cliffe believes it is crucial that there is a “cohesive” and “consistent” message about the strengths of the Glasgow City Region, highlighting the fact that Greater Manchester was successful on this front during his time at Manchester Airport.

He noted airlines were buying into a region when they launched flights from an airport.

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Mr Cliffe highlighted the importance of connections between Glasgow and key business centres in Europe, and his ambitions to build long-haul routes, including targeting the return of flights to the US and potential to add destinations such as China.

Asked for his view of the challenges facing Glasgow Airport in its attempts to recover from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Cliffe said: “I probably see them as much as opportunity, rather than challenges. Covid has generally hurt the industry, which is going to be no great surprise to anybody. Passenger volume loss, losses in profit terms. I just think [there is] a huge opportunity to recover the business and to take what I would describe as a bigger role right across the city region.

“There are a few things I would like to see happen to support that. It is from a positive standpoint, rather than anything critical. If I look at it from a general Scottish perspective, there is a connectivity deficit in this country. If I think about inward investment, inbound tourism, economic prosperity, getting better connectivity in Glasgow [and] right across Scotland is important.”

He added: “If I then look at Glasgow, I see a hugely powerful city that I just don’t think punches its weight. Its ingredients, in terms of economic performance per capita, the skills, the number of things happening around innovation and skills, the universities, are huge ingredients. It doesn’t feel as if we bind them together in a coherent way.

“It is not a criticism. We have a load of ingredients that are very strong. We need to bind them together more effectively and we need to bind them together from a city region perspective…It is a sense of momentum that I don’t feel, that I would like to see back in.”

He highlighted Glasgow Airport’s assessment that, while it employed about 350 people directly, it supported a total of around 30,000 jobs across the broader economy.

Laying out his vision, Mr Cliffe added: “I tend to see the airport as playing a much bigger role than it is today. I see it as an economic hub and an economic contributor and driver rather than just an airport…building on the 30,000 jobs we create, growing, expanding, creating skills.”

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Mr Cliffe said of Glasgow: “I think it is a fabulous city and I hadn’t visited enough before I arrived. I think there are just huge opportunities to grow that and develop it still further.”

Referring to his ambitions to build routes, he said: “North American connections we will target coming back, European paired destinations we will target coming back.”

He flagged potential for new services to Germany, the north of Italy, and Spanish cities such as Madrid, focused on “real business and trade” rather than the leisure market.

Noting recent successes for the airport with package holiday operator TUI, which is basing an additional two planes at the airport from summer next year, and Jet2, Mr Cliffe added: “We serve the leisure market extremely well. I think what I am describing…is our connectivity to support economic development and growth right across the region.”

He highlighted the importance of “connectivity, so we get the kind of economic growth we are looking for”.

Mr Cliffe added: “We need both parts of the jigsaw to work. We need to be connected into the real momentum in the city region [and] clarity and focus of where the most critical connectivity is for this region.”

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He noted Glasgow Airport and AGS are on track to be back in the black.

AGS Airports made pre-tax losses of about £131m in 2020 and £63m in 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Glasgow Airport is this year back to about 86% of its 2019, pre-pandemic capacity, in terms of the total number of seats on flights.

Its passenger numbers climbed to about 6.5 million in 2022, from 2.1 million in 2021. They had fallen to 1.9 million in 2020, from about 8.85 million in 2019. The airport achieved its record annual passenger numbers total of 9.9 million in 2017.

Asked if he believed Edinburgh Airport had an inherent advantage when it came to inbound tourism, Mr Cliffe replied: “I don’t think that is an inherent advantage at all. Glasgow, and its west of Scotland access, can certainly have its ambitions. The conversations I have had with regional city partners [have] that ambition.”

He highlighted the Glasgow City Region’s strengths in engineering, advanced manufacturing, and medical sciences, as well as in financial services.