Matt Thomas – CEO, Ports of Jersey
Chamber of Commerce speech
13th October 2021
Thank you for inviting me to join you today and thank you Jennifer for the kind introduction.
I was due to speak at the Chamber lunch in April last year, but Covid-19 had other ideas! The pandemic then managed something that the global financial crisis, 9/11, SARS, two Gulf wars and every other geo-political event of the last 50 years failed to do… turn the travel sector completely upside down.
I thought I’d use my time today to share some experiences from the last 18 months before turning to the future, and the sizeable opportunities and challenges ahead of us as we work out what a post-pandemic world will be like.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens described the year 1775 as “the best of times and the worst of times, the season of light and the season of darkness, the spring of hope and the winter of despair.”
I think this is a great description of the last 18 months – a time of one of the most exciting, exhilarating, energising, heart-warming and heart-wrenching, exhausting and difficult periods of my career!
The moment things changed...
I can actually pin-point the moment the rollercoaster ride began - 6pm on 2nd March 2020 - when I received a call from the Civil Aviation Authority to say that Flybe was going into administration.
At moments like that, there’s a crazy game of cat and mouse. Airlines desperately try to ensure that none of their aircraft are on the ground, while we airports desperately try to put a fire engine, snow plough or any other inanimate object that we can find to block aircraft moving until our bills have been paid!
Credit to Flybe, they timed their run, and we were left with a bad debt and 30% of the island’s air connectivity gone in a heartbeat. The first airline casualty of the pandemic.
In normal times, the demise of Flybe would have dominated our life at Ports of Jersey for months, if not years. In reality, it was overtaken by events within a week.
As the pandemic took hold, I gathered our management team together. An eclectic mix of air traffic controllers, coastguards, retailers, accountants, engineers, fire fighters, port operations and security specialists. Tremendously conscientious people whose pride in serving their island strikes you within minutes of meeting them.
We discussed the importance of remaining calm when making decisions in the “eye of the storm” and I shared my abiding memory of other emergency situations I have experienced – that I can remember, as clear as day, the way that people around me behaved. Those who rose to the occasion, those who shrank, those who couldn’t hide their feelings and those who emanated a sense of calm.
I remember one of the team asking what would happen if the ferries carrying food couldn’t operate or if lifeline air services couldn’t fly. I’d describe that as our “looking into the abyss” moment! Collectively, we quickly surmised that it really wouldn’t be good - it was one of those career defining moments when you realise quite how important our jobs are and that our island was really depending on us.
Eighteen months on, I could not be prouder of the resilience and adaptability that the Ports of Jersey team and our emergency services showed throughout the pandemic.
“We’re in this together” truly summed up our approach. We were going to ensure that we did everything we could to best serve our island. We would ensure the resilience of the island’s lifeline air and sea connectivity; we would use our skills and assets to help others on the island; and we would always have in our minds how we would build back better.
The defining moment for me, that Covid-19 had truly arrived, was on 15th March. By this time, it was clear that the pandemic was going to change the world forever.
The airport was operating as normal, but we had a flight coming in, bringing islanders home from Tenerife. There had been a Covid outbreak at a hotel on the island and the Public Health team in Jersey were worried. The flight had already been delayed six hours in Tenerife as the Spanish authorities tried to work out whether they should allow flights to leave.
The flight did take off, but mid-air we heard from someone called Dr Ivan Muscat, who I hadn’t met at this point. He instructed that the passengers needed to be quarantined, could not mix with anyone on the island and that anywhere the passengers went would need to be deep-cleaned and taken out of action.
It became one of those business school challenges. How do you unload a plane full of passengers, reunite them with their bags and get them home safely without them coming into contact with anyone or anything… and it was a cold and wet evening in March!
What followed was surreal. New operational procedures were developed while the plane was in the air, and relayed to the pilot, through the Air Traffic team, in real time. We disembarked passengers into a sealed room - no-one was allowed to enter and everyone in the airport had to wear full PPE. I can only imagine how unsettling it was for those islanders who were simply returning from their holiday.
I spoke to the passengers over a microphone, to explain what was happening and provide reassurance. The average age must have been 70 years old, and I was met with the full spectrum of responses – from the confused to the scared, the angry to the grateful.
Remember, we didn’t know what Covid-19 really was or what we were dealing with at this point. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our airport firefighters, operations team, Customs Officers, Handling Agents, the Police and Ambulance drivers, I was incredibly proud that colleagues did not question their roles for a moment. They were solely motivated by serving their community and caring for disoriented and vulnerable passengers.
Covid-19 then started to impact the entire travel sector as restrictions were imposed and demand collapsed.
First easyJet and then British Airways grounded their fleets, and then the Emergencies Council and emergency response quickly moved into gear. The scale of commitment that I saw from across the key agencies, government officials and Ministers was impressive and humbling.
The days merged into each other, and our understanding of Covid-19 and its potential impact became clearer. Paul Martin in his speech to Chamber last month spoke of an island of 108,000 heroes. I couldn’t agree more. As the scenarios we began to model became ever more sobering, and their implications ever starker, the selflessness and flexibility of those around me was incredible.
During the crisis, Ports of Jersey redeployed up to a third of our employees to help the emergency response:
- we had firefighters driving ambulances, when the ambulance service team became depleted
- security officers helped protect and provide additional customer care at the General Hospital
- our Project Management team coordinated the Nightingale Hospital build
- we gave engineering support to the Prison, and
- our customer service team supported the Covid Customer Helpline.
Every single redeployment was on a voluntary basis, without any form of arm twisting. I couldn’t have been prouder.
We worked incredibly closely with business partners across the aviation and maritime community to ensure the resilience of the island’s supply chains, every link of which was in distress.
Lifeline air connectivity was provided for the repatriation of islanders stuck overseas, for the movement of essential workers, to quickly move air freight such as PPE and blood samples for testing, and to ensure islanders could access medical treatment only available on the mainland.
We arranged for the island to provide a £10 million loan facility for Blue Islands, a business case which is projected to have an economic benefit in excess of £600m for the island over the next ten years. I am incredibly excited at the potential for this unique partnership and how it will deliver for the island in the months and years ahead. And by the way, winter flights to Prague and Barcelona are on sale, so fill your boots!
We added resilience to our operations by finding on-island solutions: working with colleagues in the Health Department to secure Medical Evacuation services after the incumbent “handed back the keys” and engaging with the brilliant JP Restaurants following the collapse of the Casual Dining Group.
In those weeks and months, I was able build relationships that would have taken years in normal times, relationships which endure now, and I hope into the future.
By the time we got to June, with Government, we had explored how to reopen connectivity using a testing regime that would keep the island safe.
The same teamwork that built the Nightingale hospital enabled us to build arrivals testing facilities at the Airport and Harbour in two weeks, create an amazing testing process and reconfigure the way that passengers arrived at the Airport and Harbour.
I must admit, I was really nervous on the day flights resumed. Was the system going to work? Were the inevitable queues going to lead to public disorder and would it be scalable as demand increased?
The reality was again humbling. We had volunteers from across the Ports of Jersey team, who never normally worked in public facing roles, welcoming passengers at both the Airport and Harbour. The teamwork with Ally Mills and her brilliant testing team was awesome, but the thing that hit you the most in those first few weeks was the role that we play reconnecting people to their loved ones. The sheer joy as families were reunited - children seeing grandparents; parents who’d been working away and unable to get home, and young couples seeing each other again. Every day felt like a scene from Love Actually!
August came and to begin with there was a naïve feeling that maybe things were returning to normal. We began to see tourists returning to the island, but COVID wasn’t done yet and the second wave arrived.
Since then, it has been like living in dog years, where each month feels like six. The pandemic has been the gift that kept giving and we’ve also navigated our way through the first wave of impacts from Brexit; got to know French fishermen much better; helped Durrell in a small way save three species of small reptile and welcomed the British Lions. All topics with their own anecdotes for another time.
And the rest, as they say, is history. They also say that what’s past is prologue.
Reflections on the last 18 months…
Before I look to the future, I would like to share a few reflections on the last 18 months and observations that give me confidence looking ahead.
- Firstly, I really can’t imagine a better place to see out a pandemic. My wife, Nancy, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been living in Jersey with our young son, among such a warm community and thank our lucky stars that we weren’t still living in a high-rise in Manhattan or Vancouver.
- As an island, I think we have dealt pretty well with all that has been thrown at our community. The humanity, courage, dedication and compassion shown so clearly makes me feel very proud to live here.
- We have shown that when the chips are down, we can collaborate and achieve things we perhaps didn’t believe possible – the Nightingale Hospital, the Arrivals testing facilities, the vaccination rollout being just a few examples
- I’ll go further: this is also the best place to innovate that I have ever been. The foundations are all here: the ability to get stakeholders together at the drop of hat, internet speed to die for, an awesome quality of life, a low tax environment and a worldclass finance industry.
- We also have so many inspirational people on our island, many of whom I have been lucky enough to meet and get to know.
So, fast forward eighteen months to today and how is the world different? To be honest, I kind of like the way the world feels right now. Yes, it’s crazy and the lack of certainty is unsettling for all of us at times, but it also feels incredibly human, as though there has been a reset on our lives, the things we value and the way we prioritise what’s important.
And as I look at the opportunities and challenges facing us, we have some really big questions to answer:
- How would we like our post-pandemic world to be?
- What will we carry forward to build back better?
- Should we work to get back to how things were, or pivot to a new and bolder future?
- Do we have the confidence to collaborate and innovate? To break down barriers and work together in the island’s interests?
- And, as the amazing Brene Brown says, do we have the courage and trust in each other to show up and do the right things, even if we can’t control the outcome?
For us at Ports of Jersey, like many of you, COVID was not an asteroid that hit and can now be seen in the rear-view mirror. COVID will fundamentally change our business forever.
The pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the travel sector. More than fifty airlines have entered liquidation since the pandemic began, while those that survive have accumulated unprecedented levels of debt.
I have just spent three days in Milan with the world’s airlines, airports, investors and governments. The takeaways were clear. No airline has been immune, including those that serve Jersey. Further rationalisation in the sector is coming and further collapses inevitable. There is simply no room for complacency regarding our connectivity.
That said, I believe that we should continue to tackle the challenge head on and with confidence. While the pandemic has had an enormous impact on Jersey’s connectivity, the recovery in our passenger numbers is well-ahead of other UK airports. We’re now almost 70% of the way back to the same time in 2019, way ahead of the UK who are at 45%.
We have genuinely led the world, in the way that our small island has combined our responsibility to protect our citizens with maintaining connectivity to the outside world.
We have worked incredibly hard, in close partnership with our carriers, to seize opportunities and to manage risk. We have introduced new airlines, such as Jet2, BA CityFlyer, Loganair and Eastern Airways and new routes to the likes of Stansted, Corsica and Ibiza. We are also benefitting from direct connectivity to much more of the rest of the world as British Airways has temporarily transferred its operation to Heathrow.
But we need to do more. As an island, we need to be agile, decisive and as competitive as possible. Airlines are reassessing their networks, approaching their businesses from a ‘startup’ perspective, with a clear focus on profitability and sustainability, rather than market share.
Amid the uncertainty, there are opportunities. Our task with our stakeholders is to leverage that opportunity, to accelerate our recovery and do what’s necessary to safeguard our strategic connectivity.
And to the future…
At the same time, we are evolving and maturing at Ports. We have a key role to play, not just in future proofing our gateways but also our island.
Our agenda is rightly ambitious. Our aspirations for our island are high. Islanders deserve nothing less.
We are on schedule for this year to be the biggest capital investment since our incorporation, with the beginning of our plans to regenerate and transform the Harbour. Plans which will continue to be built with our stakeholders and the community in the coming months.
We need to modernise and replace ageing infrastructure, while unlocking the potential of our harbour estate for all its stakeholders, creating a vibrant waterfront we can all be proud of.
We need the flexibility to handle different modes of freight transport, to encourage and incentivise the use of more environmentally friendly vessels.
We need to enable the growth of our maritime industries. They need our support now more than ever before. We will work with the sector to play our part in developing a thriving Blue Economy, built on foundations that will ensure a sustainable future.
We will link with Government’s regeneration plans, bringing St Helier and the harbour together, investing significantly in our public realm, providing opportunities for the development of cultural destinations and complementing key projects, such as JDC’s exciting Waterfront development.
And we want to deliver all these plans while being entirely self-financing and without creating a burden on taxpayers.
At the same time, we are developing a new master plan for the Airport for its short, intermediate and long-term goals and needs.
We will cater for all passenger types and their future needs, harnessing new digital technologies that improve efficiency and enhance the travel experience, underpinned by a culture of care for every one of our passengers. A modern airport that captures the spirit and identity of our island.
And we need to adapt our facilities and infrastructure to be ready for the next disruptor and it’s coming fast. Due to our geography, our route network, our regulatory framework and having the shortest commercially viable flight I can think of anywhere in the world, Jersey Airport is ideally suited to the early introduction of new aircraft types, technologies and fuels. We’re working now to position Jersey as an incubator for next generation aviation and maritime technologies.
Connectivity is what islanders' lives are built upon and upon which our economy depends – we need to deliver the outcomes that current and future generations of islanders need and deserve. All while being financially self-sufficient to be able to reinvest any profits straight back into the island’s future.
I’m frequently asked, what does the future look like for the travel sector? Will people want to travel in the same way in the future?
I am very confident that the future is bright - people will always want to travel, people like to travel, and people need to travel - especially to and from an island. Travel expands our understanding of the world and breaks down barriers and preconceptions. Our aspirations to live in an inclusive and diverse society depend on connectivity. Exploration is in our DNA.
And connectivity is critical to Jersey’s economy and islanders’ quality of life, whether to visit friends and relatives, to access specialist medical care and education, as well as to travel on holiday and business. And we depend on our lifeline freight links to be fed. We all suffer on the thankfully very rare occasions that the weather means that the supermarket shelves aren’t fully stocked, and you can’t find an avocado for love nor money!
And while we navigate recovery waters, we also want to truly build back better. We will meet head on the greatest challenge facing the travel sector: sustainability. It’s arguably the toughest nut to crack but the one with the greatest potential gain. Climate change and biodiversity loss are the most important battles of our time. For anyone in the travel industry, a conversation about the subject is never going to be an easy one. Heathrow call it the Elephant in the Airport – very accurate!
Every airport and harbour have a hugely important role to play. And we will play ours. We’re finalising an ambitious and authentic sustainability plan, to not only offset the emissions the links to Jersey create but to go much further. We’re looking at initiatives that will truly make an impact, to our island and our planet. While also making a difference to our community.
The way we tackle sustainability will define the way in which we at Ports interact with the world in the future. From decarbonising travel to enhancing biodiversity; from the way we undertake construction to the way we champion a sustainable future for our Visitor and Blue Economies; from the way we strive to create a sense of belonging, where our teams and partners feel safe to be the best versions of themselves, to the way we push ourselves each day to better serve our community.
I could not be more excited by the challenge and the scale of innovation that will be required from all of us.
So, I’ll leave you waiting and hopefully wanting to hear more on that soon, and also more on how we can all play our part – so, be ready.
Thank you for your time and thank you for listening
Matt Thomas, CEO, Ports of Jersey