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ommercial director of Peel Holdings, Neil Pakey played a pivotal role in the turnaround of Liverpool John Lennon Airport. These days he's running the show. Rachel Bristowe takes a trip into the mind of the Scotsman who has spent more than 20 years in the aviation industry and asks what's next for Europe's fastest growing airport.

Our epic journey begins in Troon, a picturesque coastal village south west of Glasgow, famous for its harbour, sawmill, lobster sheds and breathtaking views of the Isle of Arran.

It's also the birthplace of former Liverpool midfielder Stevie Nichol, ex-800 metre runner Brian Whittle and our interviewee Neil Pakey - a celebrity himself in regional circles for the part he has played in facilitating the growth of air travel at the region's two airports.


I'm not entirely convinced Pakey, who two months ago took the reins from Rod Hill as managing director of the ingeniously re-branded Liverpool John Lennon Airport (a deal he says was one of the easiest he's ever done), will turn up.

There appears to have been a communication bypass between him and his PA over dates, timings and venues, so I am perfectly poised to sprint across the car park of the Marriott South Hotel, heels and all, in search of a man who himself used to run with ease along the wind-beaten, pebbled beaches of Troon with his then training partner Whittle before being "bitten by the aviation bug" at the tender age of 16.


In 1981, Pakey became a fully-fledged member of British Caledonian Airway's "flying squad" at Prestwick Airport where changing 456 pillowcases on a 747 carrier became a regular occurrence.


Since then he's worked in most capacities at a handful of international airports arriving at Manchester in 1984 after answering an advert in the Guardian for a job as trainee planner on a modest annual wage of £35,500.


I'm waiting on the site of the old northern airfield, in a grade II listed building that was once the Liverpool terminal departure lounge.


Now transformed into a flamboyant and stylish restaurant and conference venue, the Marriott Hotel caters for the 1.99m travellers who fly from the airport each year. The place is deserted - much like it used to be 16 years ago before the terminal was moved to its current location. I'm almost ready to announce that he has missed his slot when a rather wired-looking individual approaches our table and politely asks if he can be excused to "freshen up".


Five minutes later he returns looking alert, enthusiastic and dapper in a smart grey suit. I realize I'm witnessing a true professional at work, a man seemingly used to turning on the charm.


Pakey is an interviewer's dream. He prompts practically every question, is equally articulate in his answers, and effortlessly throws in humorous anecdotes - the type of colour journalists are desperate to extract from their subjects. In short - to coin his own phrase - he "talks for Scotland".


So I listen. "At Manchester we were really going places. We were growing, winning awards, really going for it. We were also the first airport to start thinking about marketing and the influence it can have over the decision-making process for airlines and where they fly to.


"Traditionally airports were just run as authorities and they were looked upon as the landlord and had no real commercialism, especially on the aviation side."


Commercialism is what Pakey does best. When the opportunity came up at Liverpool he grasped it with both hands.


He'd spent six years away from Manchester - two years working for Air Seychelles, three years on secondment in Brussels, where he worked under what he terms the "pretentious" title of national expert (I get the feeling he relished it) and a year in Australia.


In that time he married his half-French, half-Danish wife and saw the birth of his first son Calum. He also grew in a professional capacity.


"I came back and things had moved on - I'd moved on. People will remember you for who you were at that stage in your career. I was looking for new opportunities within Manchester Airport Group but they weren't forthcoming - I was too impatient," he confesses.


After encouraging meetings with John Whittaker and Robert Hough he joined Peel Holdings, the property development company responsible for Sheffield Airport, the development of the RAF Finningley site near Doncaster and Liverpool.


Pakey was instrumental in renegotiating the latest contract with Peel's anchor tenant, Easyjet, a contract he believes has been the catalyst for Liverpool's explosion on to the scene as the number one low cost airport in the UK.


"Our strategy was simply to build on the success of Easyjet, who spend more on marketing per passenger than anyone, probably twice as much as the traditional scheduled carrier.


"When they're marketing Easyjet, they're marketing the airport. Nobody believed that we were going to invest because there had been so many false promises in the past not delivered upon by previous owners. Our repeat business is now much higher."


Pakey says he is comfortable with the low-cost label attached to Liverpool but admits to getting frustrated when reading about the "parochial" views written by certain sections of the regional media.


The relationship between Manchester and Liverpool is a burning issue, particularly in light of the recent government report which talks about the complementary roles regional airports must fulfil.


He's a man who's sat on both sides of the fence so I try to probe for any hint of bitterness between the two. There is none.


Pakey regularly takes colleagues over to play football with his old Manchester Airport mates and insists that they mix up the teams to avoid any confrontation. "We don't go there to kick lumps out of each other," he laughs.


I don't think Pakey can be truly angry about anything. That's not to say he isn't passionate about what he does but he's so laid back, he's almost horizontal.


His James Bond quip at the start of the interview is now springing to mind. Pakey does in fact have a Bond-like character.


The comparison may well be obvious - he's Scottish for a start. But he is debonair, exudes a calmness that belies his jet-set lifestyle and, most strikingly, displays an air of arrogance you can't help but admire.


As far as he's concerned, Liverpool is the North West's second airport. "The low cost market is our core business but that doesn't stop other sides of our business developing. We secured an attractive programme with Thomson Holidays last year and went from nothing to having a full based 757 creating 12 times the number of passengers.


"Liverpool is big enough to have more charter flights but we have looked at the situation strategically - we're never going to be the leading airport in the North West," he admits.


Although he is reluctant to divulge too much information about new operators coming on board, he is happy to share his ultimate professional ambition, which is to secure flights to every major European city - a plan he says will take five years to come to fruition.


I said Pakey never gets annoyed about anything. I was wrong. We've struck gold with some initials - APD to be precise - short for air passenger duty.


He's talking about Ryanair's imminent announcement of the whereabouts of its next base. "We're potentially a competitor but there are things that go against us. They will probably opt for Italy or Spain.


"I get frustrated when there isn't a level playing field and the huge handicap we have in this country is APD."


Introduced a few years ago, APD is the duty airlines pay for each passenger in order to operate out of a UK airport - a system not used in any other European country.


His rant continues. "If any low cost carrier were to put in a couple of base units, that's equivalent of a fixed asset of $150m. But it's not seen in that perspective. It's a huge job generator. We haven't got our heads round prioritising that as inward investment in this country and they have in Europe."


Pakey believes the £35 APD charge is also responsible for the absence of a Liverpool to London link. "We're basically £35 short of achieving profitability on that route. A lot comes back to yield. If an airline thinks they can get more money out of another route, they'll go for that one.


His other bugbear is the proposed development of RAF Finningley, near Doncaster. Manchester Airport Group vehemently opposes the metamorphosis, something Pakey is not happy about.


"Manchester has always been a champion of local areas. There's an old Sir Gil Thomson expression [former chief executive of Manchester Airport], 'local people deserve to fly from local airports'. What are they going to do? Put brackets saying 'except for South Yorkshire,'" he jokes.


While a public enquiry is deciding the fate of the airfield, Pakey is concentrating on the further expansion of Liverpool, already blessed with a magnificent £332.5m terminal, which was officially opened by the Queen this summer. The investment, he is quick to highlight, has been entirely funded by private sector money.


He is convinced the future £326m expansion will further enhance the gravitation of tour operators towards Liverpool.


"Peel has learnt to respond to the changing market so we're looking at a different terminal to the previous one. We need to get more apron down to accommodate more aircraft and supply appropriate gate access. Environmental responsibilities are also high on the agenda."


He is referring to the National Trust's objection to the development. Fears that Speke Hall will suffer irreparable damage if the plans go ahead have tainted the community's optimism.


Other improvements include the Allerton Interchange, which will facilitate access to and from the airport in all areas of the region, and a couple of new hotels.


"Growing an airport is about balance - you're not going to please everybody. We keep very involved with the Education Action Zone, the Partnership for Learning and all the initiatives of the Speke Garston Development Company.


"People understand then we're not all about greed. If you stop growth at one airport you just take it somewhere else."


We started our journey in the port of Troon and that's where we'll end. Marr College, attended by Pakey and Chris Brown, chief executive of the Mersey Partnership - another Scotsman championing the regeneration of Liverpool - has a saying. "Strong in our youth, with life all before us." I'm positive that remains Pakey's motto today

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