Blue Sky thinking

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Drop by Blackpool Airport on a busy day – Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday from 7am – and check out the staff.

They smile. A lot. And sincerely. Not the fixed travel rep smile of one who’s seen it all and heard it all before.

They also muck in together. Customer service agents Alexa Taylor, of Thornton, and Alison Swallow, of South Shore, not only help at sales but assist with check-in and boarding for 148 passengers, excluding infants, for each of five or so flights a day, often helping parents struggling with prams by carrying babies up stairs to cabin crew.

Alexa, who used to work at a supermarket, and now hopes to join cabin crew, adds: “It’s part of being a team. I saw an engineer take his jacket off to protect a baby from rain the other day.”

Little things mean a lot here. It makes small very definitely beautiful for the UK’s oldest airport.

Right now Jet2’s pride and joy is the new sales office, which opens this month.

It’s a big improvement on what was little more than a glorified desk near check-in, and already people are dropping by to pick up brochures, and chat to staff.

But it is the people fronting the operation who make the greatest impact.

Much of that is down to Louise Chisholm, a veteran of 26 years with First Choice and Air 2000 cabin crew, who heads training for cabin and other crew.

Louise is station manager, leading ground operations, check-in, boarding, sales, and the paved area between terminal building and taxiways, used to park planes during loading and unloading. With a turn round time of 30 minutes and 11 minutes to board and disembark passengers the pressure is on. Jet2 does its own handling – and wins plaudits.

Louise has nine ramp and nine customer service agents, along with 25 cabin crew, but says: “We all muck in and that’s how we like it.”

That’s how managing director Ian Doubtfire likes it too – along with the fact the local Jet2 operation is locally staffed, and has such a commitment to the resort it serves, it has already invested in Blackpool Illuminations as a major sponsor.

“I love working around aeroplanes, always have, and fly into Blackpool regularly,” says Ian. “I think it’s a really friendly airport, from air traffic down. It’s got a good mix, helicopters, general aviation, scheduled flights, our cabin crew love the place, and it’s important to show we believe in Blackpool, hence our Lights sponsorship, as Blackpool believes in us.

“We’re here for the long term. We’re focusing on the big hitters, and selling lots of packages, that market has really come back because people want to know how much it all costs.

“The fact our own staff handle flights means we score high on customer experience. We carry 200,000 passengers a year from Blackpool.”

He sees the new sales office as testimony of faith in the airport’s future, potential for more passenger growth, and a growing catchment area which extends across Lancashire and Lakeland and into Scotland.

The airport is Jet2’s leading centre for group bookings – and Jet2 was named runner-up, second only to Virgin Atlantic, in the 2011 Group Travel Awards Best Airline for Groups category. Not bad for a self-styled “budget” airline. “We don’t cut quality,” says Ian.

The only fly in the ointment is the housing development proposed on the former Pontins site which, airport chiefs fear, could have a “considerable adverse impact” on future plans and noise issues for residents living so close to the end of the runway.

As Ian puts it: “I just hope those living in the housing development enjoy our Palma flight departing over their roof at 7am.”

Jet2 has eight destinations from Blackpool. New flights to Tenerife were full when they started last week, now an all-year hotspot with Alicante, the landladies’ favourite.

Additional flights to Jersey and Belfast are on sale, and offer two-way traffic, as visitors come here to shop and sightsee too. Other destinations include Faro, Malaga, Majorca and Murcia.

Alexa (favourite Jet2 destination Tenerife) and Alison (Palma) can’t wait to get the new sales office open. “We’re very proud to work at our local airport,” says Alison. “Passengers like the personal touch.” And Alexa concludes: “The experience starts from the moment they walk in – and we’re here to welcome them. That’s how it should be.”