The head of Glasgow Airport has revealed his ambitions to add at least another one million to annual passenger numbers this year, following a 14% increase to 7.4 million in 2023.

In an exclusive interview with The Herald, Andy Cliffe highlighted his belief that this could be achieved with the additional routes, services and capacity already won by the airport, while also flagging hopes of achieving the return of direct flights to and from North America.

He also highlighted potential to attract direct flights to and from China, noting students would be one key source of demand for such a service.

Mr Cliffe, who became chief executive of Glasgow, Aberdeen and Southampton airports owner AGS in January last year, underlined the important part the airport could play in driving economic growth in the Glasgow City Region.

He also highlighted the potential for the airport to capitalise on the Glasgow City Region’s successes in building innovation zones.

In terms of recent wins on the airlines front, Mr Cliffe flagged the decisions by Jet2, easyJet and TUI to add aircraft to their operations at Glasgow Airport this year, as well as the return of WizzAir, which moved back from Edinburgh in November.

TUI has decided to add two aircraft at Glasgow to take its total at the airport to eight. Jet2 has increased its total to eight with one additional plane, and easyJet has added one plane to take its number of aircraft at Glasgow to six.

Mr Cliffe said: “We are really pleased with 2023, and we ended about 14% or so growth in traffic over 2022 so you see a really strong post-Covid recovery coming through the business.”

He noted the start of last year had seen the collapse of Flybe, and that the airport’s strong growth in passenger numbers in 2023 had been achieved even with the loss of traffic arising from this airline’s failure.

Mr Cliffe said: “To produce that kind of growth we are really pleased with.”

Referring to the return of Emirates’ Airbus A380 for the airline’s daily service between Glasgow and Dubai from late March last year, he added: “It is not just the leisure stuff. It is the fact the A380 has come back - that has just continued to be super, super successful.

“It is consistently full, which gives you a sense of the strength both outbound and inbound into this region.”

The 20th anniversary of Emirates serving Scotland from Glasgow is in April.

Looking ahead to 2024, Mr Cliffe said: “We have increased aircraft coming through from Jet2, TUI, [and] easyJet have announced more.”

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“WizzAir returned their operation to Glasgow in the autumn of last year. We expect them to build from that position.”

Mr Cliffe said he was “pleased with last year and looking forward with optimism to the business going forward and probably the broader city region as well”.

Asked if he believed at least one million passengers could be added this year with the business wins that Glasgow Airport had already secured, Mr Cliffe replied: “Absolutely. Those aircraft we have just talked about - we absolutely see another opportunity for in excess of another one million of passengers added this year.”

And, asked if this was before other things that might be won, he replied: “Correct.”

He flagged the potential for even greater growth in passenger numbers with more route wins.

Commenting on potential for new business wins, Mr Cliffe said: “There are any number of other carrier conversations that are very much alive.

“There has been a lot of talk about what Turkish [Airlines] wants to do. Glasgow sits on their radar of intended opportunities.”

He added: “North America remains absolutely a target. We are very hopeful we will start to return those services to Glasgow as well.”

Asked if a North American service was likely to be seasonal or operated by a flag carrier, Mr Cliffe replied: “I think it is flag carrier. I don’t know if it is seasonal or not. We will have to see how that works.”

Citing investment bank JP Morgan, defence engineering company BAE Systems, and banking group Barclays, he added: “There is a huge amount of demand that [emanates] from this region to support those services.”

Mr Cliffe, when asked if the airport was currently in discussions with an airline about the launch of a North American route from Glasgow, replied: “We continue to talk to all airlines on any number of opportunities. There are certainly discussions in play at the moment.”

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

Asked about his perspective on pressures on consumers from inflation and the surge in interest rates, at a time when airlines and holiday companies continue to report strong demand, Mr Cliffe replied: “I would probably describe it as cautiously optimistic. Those headwinds you have described - that cost of living crisis absolutely has a bearing on consumers, individuals.

“We also see an opportunity to move things forward – how do we find an opportunity to support people through these things?

“If the airport can play a bigger role to support a cluster development, those are the kind of things that support opportunity, skills, employment.”

He added that he was “cautiously optimistic but recognising the definite challenges that exist”.

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Mr Cliffe highlighted the scale of the jobs supported by Glasgow Airport and its annual contribution to economic output, and the potential to increase both.

He declared that 30,000 jobs were supported directly and indirectly by the airport, which puts its contribution to gross value added (GVA) at about £1.4 billion.

Mr Cliffe, noting Glasgow Airport’s masterplan out to 2040, said: “We want to add 15,000 to that job number. We want to add at least £1 billion to that GVA number. That is the scale of the ambition we have got for the airport and the role it plays in the region.”

He added: “If you think of…GDP per capita, it has been pretty flat for the last couple of years. We really do need to kick-start the economy.”

Referring to joint efforts between the airport and Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and Glasgow City Council, Mr Cliffe declared: “These sort of partnership opportunities are super important to drive this forward.”

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He highlighted the “strength” of the Glasgow City Region, noting success in attracting investment to innovation zones.

Mr Cliffe also flagged as a positive the transfer of the Clyde Mission regeneration programme, which was administered by the Scottish Government, to the Glasgow City Region.

And he welcomed Glasgow City Council leader Susan Aitken’s announcement at the State of the City Economy Conference in November about the Clyde Metro transport project moving to the next stage - the preparation of a detailed business case.

Mr Cliffe said: “I would think about 2024 being a real opportunity to build that momentum and definitely a year for action.”

Asked if there was anything the Scottish Government could do to help, Mr Cliffe highlighted his view that the decision not to match the 75% business rates relief provided to the hospitality, leisure and retail sectors south of the Border was a “missed opportunity”.

He said: “Let’s just loiter on the tourism piece for a second. The inbound tourism part is a huge driver of the broader Scottish economy.”

Mr Cliffe also highlighted his view that a “regional focus” is crucial in policymaking.

Asked about a view in some quarters that Edinburgh might have a stronger inbound tourism proposition than Glasgow, Mr Cliffe replied: “I tend to see this as a broader opportunity right across Scotland. It is equally true that the west of Scotland and the Highlands and the tourism opportunity that exists around that is also a massive opportunity.”