T HEY’VE got the builders in at Newcastle Airport. Early January holidaymakers have been joined on the terminal floor by workmen.

The latter’s hard hats and high-visibility clothing, hiding a multitude of layers reflective of the chill outside, are incongruous against travellers dressed for sunnier climes.

Plastic tape fences off improvements to check-in desk areas, pillars and flooring, while a new, crisper-looking white departure board is already in use as flyers queue below to check in baggage.

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It’s a new year and with it comes a new look.

However, bosses say 2017 will consist of more than a few cosmetic tweaks.

Sitting at a small table in his office, John Irving, the airport’s business development director, reveals more about those grander plans.

Times are changing, he says, and he’s got to make sure the airport, in business parlance, stays ahead of the curve.

It’s made a solid start.

Last year, budget carriers Ryanair and Easyjet both strengthened their standing at Newcastle.

Ryanair, and their chipper head of communications, Robin Kiely, spoke to The Northern Echo on numerous occasions about its plans.

He had reason to be cheerful.

Every time he crossed the Irish Sea, he did so to unveil new itineraries.

The company will start running services to Madrid in the coming weeks, as well as Faro, in Portugal, and Girona and Palma, in Spain.

It will also serve Poland’s Gdansk, Warsaw and Wroclaw, as well as Lanzarote and Tenerife, and has added more flights to Dublin, Alicante and Malaga.

Easyjet, meanwhile, hasn’t rested on its laurels, launching two new routes to Berlin and Las Palmas, in Gran Canaria.

The former has left the company purring, with initial take-up showing strong demand from German travellers.

Ali Gayward, the business’ UK commercial manager, told the Echo they could provide a catalyst for further trips to destinations, such as Paris and Venice, as it seeks to further tap into the city break boom.

Both reflect what Mr Irving says is a conscious effort to “cherry-pick the right options”

for passengers and ultimately the airport.

Newcastle’s Emirates service to Dubai, which carried a record 22,745 people last August, remains its flagship route, and a British Airways connection with Heathrow takes hundreds of thousands of people between the two hubs every year.

It is quality over quantity, and Mr Irving says it will stay that way, adding the airport won’t add routes and carriers “for the sake of it”.

“Rather than just calling out 50 destinations, it is about being more strategic on what is needed”, he says.

The airport has solid foundations upon which to play out such aims.

Last week, bosses revealed more than 4.8m passengers used the base in 2016, with about 5.2 million expected this year.

Mr Irving said the rise would coincide with a concerted effort to get more people into the site from south of the region, County Durham and Teesside in the main, who may use Durham Tees Valley, Leeds/Bradford or Manchester airports.

That drive will be led by Newcastle’s Discover the World from Your Airport campaign, a website allowing travellers to tailor holiday requirements and secure their perfect getaway.

“We had a good year last year and for 2017 we think we will be on or around the 5.2 million mark, so it’s a significant step change”, said Mr Irving.

“There is a lot of good stuff going on here and we are now trying to get people who may not have flown from here for a while, or who have never flown from here, and show them what we are good at.

“There is a bit more confidence (from travellers after recent terror attacks) and people are now taking different types of holidays.

“We have got some routes and carriers that appeal to different demographics.

“For example, Ryanair is bringing competition into the market and bringing prices down to a competitive level.

“All of the airlines have stepped up to the plate, and will continue to do so, and people are also more aware of what is going on.

“We had a bit of a blip in the summer with Brexit but everything seems to be where it pretty much should be.

“Where we are really strong is in the Newcastle and Sunderland postcodes, but go further south in the region and people have a choice.

“It is probably equal distance to Leeds/Bradford as it is to here.

“But with the introduction of carriers such as Ryanair, we can compete on prices and networks and if we can get people here and provide a good service, we hope to see them come back again.

“We want to give people the chance to explore the world from this airport.”

Such expeditions could yet include new long-haul services, says Mr Irving, raising hopes a void caused by the loss of direct flights to New York could be filled again.

United Airlines last year ended its non-stop transatlantic service, saying weak demand and EU referendum worries had forced its hand.

About 33,000 people are understood to have used the Big Apple service during its twoyear stint in the region, including 18,000 passengers last summer.

Bob Schumacher, United’s UK and Ireland managing director for sales, told the Echo the carrier had no regrets, thanking the airport and the wider region for supporting its efforts.

But the decision was a blow for Newcastle bosses, who had spent years battling to secure the flights in the hope they would provide a gateway to increase North-East business trade across the Atlantic and bolster holiday connections.

M R IRVING is quick to acknowledge the setback, but says new long-haul routes could still play an intrinsic role in the airport’s future.

However, he said any future services would benefit from a drive locally to get passengers from foreign shores to this region, referring back to the reception given to Easyjet’s Berlin introduction.

Taking North-East holidaymakers out and bringing them back again, he says, simply won’t be enough; services must hook a wider section of flyers.

He said: “Long-haul was disappointing but we have moved on and it is not off the table.

“It won’t happen overnight but it is definitely still part of what we are trying to do.

John Irving We had a good year last year and for 2017 we think we will be on or around the 5.2 million mark, so it’s a significant step change “Can we get another carrier to serve New York or Boston?

“We are in conversations but it won’t happen that quickly.

“United actually stimulated the market and it got us on the map for different carriers; having it for two years was good.

“We were flying a good number of people out to New York but we also have to think about what is in this region.

“That is what glues a route together.

“We are the gateway to the North-East and we have to do (the promoting of the region) a bit better because we have got so much great stuff here.”

An area where that is working is on Newcastle’s Dubai service, which over its near ten-year stint, has built up a strong reputation for providing business and leisure travellers with what they want.

Mr Irving, drinking tea from a green mug, smiles when I describe Emirates, which carries around 250,000 people a year, as the “poster boy” for the airport.

The long-haul service has welcomed well in excess of one million travellers since its inception in 2007.

Airport chiefs say it has also bolstered freight work, with goods such as fishing equipment and oilfield and automotive parts being flown out to the Middle East.

So, could there be further movement with that carrier if it continues such progress?

“Could we get another service out of Newcastle?” responds Mr Irving “Well, if it continues to grow and continues to be strong, we are on the list.

“Having companies like Emirates, British Airways and KLM, which have been here for a long time, makes a huge difference for us.

“People see that and they recognise it and they recognise the strength of the airport, but you don’t just talk to someone and they send a plane the next week.

“There is a lot to go at.

“We had a great year in 2016 and will have a phenomenal one this year.

“Times are changing and there are a lot of places to visit.

“There’s still more to come.”