The UEFA Champions League final is an annual event guaranteed to attract a global audience.
Around 350 million people around the world watched the 2017 final in which Spain’s Real Madrid beat the Italian team Juventus 4-1 at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium in Wales.
But they were not the only two teams that found themselves in the spotlight thanks to the event. With Cardiff Airport handling 21,000 fans from Italy and Bristol Airport taking care of a further 15,000 Spanish fans, they also knew they would be under intense international scrutiny. The only difference between them and the teams on the pitch, was knowing they would have to work together to ensure the event’s success.
And with only three weeks between the semi-finals and the final to find out which two football teams would be facing each other on the pitch, there was little time for the two airports to fine-tune their carefully laid plans.
Cardiff Airport director of operations Ceri Mashlan says while work had begun more than 12 months out, it was the 2016 Champions League final game that really allowed them to start focusing their minds on the challenge ahead.
She adds: “We were working very closely with the UK’s Football Association (FA) and all the other stakeholders. We also went to San Siro Stadium in Milan to see the Champions League final being hosted there. That allowed us to see first hand the airport side of things and the operation and the scale of it all.
“Also, regardless of what teams got to the final, we knew it would bring a lot of general aviation and private flying in. We knew what our capability was and what our capacity was and so now we were planning for 24,000 travelling fans as well as lots of VIPs, including both of the competing teams.”
Bristol Airport operations director Paul Davies agrees that with only three weeks to sort out any last details, his airport faced a tough challenge. But he adds that by starting the planning process 18 months in advance, they were able to ensure the broad structures were in place.
He says: “The interesting thing was, obviously we knew we were going to get one team from the outset and Cardiff the other. As the results came through, first from the quarter-finals and then the semi-finals, both airports were looking to see who was in the final and the teams they would be hosting.”
Once they did know which fans they would be hosting, Mashlan says the process was fairly straightforward. She adds: “When we knew who was in the final, it was very much a case of allocating flights, putting in the reservations for the aircraft and ensuring the passengers could get in safely.
“We also agreed that we would have 10 contingency flights to ensure that at the last minute, in the day or night before, we would have a chance to change the plan or handle any technical issues.”
It turned out that this was a wise thing to do. One of the last-minute problems encountered by Cardiff was when Spain’s royal family, who had originally planned to travel to the match via London, instead flew directly in and out of the Welsh airport.
Bristol Airport head of airline relations Shaun Browne agrees that while the event had long been planned, the final three weeks saw considerable activity. He says: “We had routes into that area [around Madrid], but the vast majority of flights we handled were charters. So while we had an increase in scheduled traffic, the real challenge was the charters.”
As intense as the preparations had been in the run up to the event, Mashlan says the June weekend, when the event was held, was at another level entirely. Although kick-off wasn’t until 7.45pm, the airport opened at 2am with the first flights carrying some of the 21,000 fans that ultimately travelled, arriving at 4am.
When they did arrive, they were processed in Cardiff’s temporary Terminal 2, a marquee hosting all the required facilities to handle the arrivals seamlessly.
Mashlan (pictured) says: “Terminal 2 ensures we can maximise capacity and it allows us to deliver all the facilities we would need to bring in a lot more passengers. The intention was to have them all in the city by 3pm at the latest. Once the terminal had handled the arrivals, we flipped it and it became the departure hall to maximise the amount of passengers we could have departing straight after the game.”
By 6am on the Saturday morning, the airport had already handled 2,300 Juventus fans and in total the airport handled 380 arrivals and departures, a 300% uplift on an average day with about 190 aircraft involved. Mashlan added that the operation was made more successful by 250 of the airport’s staff, many of whom normally work in the back offices pitching in to help.
Meanwhile Bristol Airport, which handles around eight million passengers a year and 250 movements a day, found itself handling a further 15,000 passengers on top of the daily average of 25,000. Again, it was a case of all hands on deck, with around two-thirds of the airport’s 260 direct employees putting in the extra hours to help out.
Davies says: “It was very intense for a very short period. Over the last three weeks, there was a lot of planning but the event for the airports was an absolute success. It was a big team effort – a lot of collaborative working staff were coming out of their offices and working in different roles and really ensuring it worked perfectly.”
Of course, the other main issue was where to park all the aircraft. Mashlan says in Cardiff about 70 private aircraft were parked on the airport’s south side while there was also space for up to 20 charter aircraft. Other aircraft had to move further afield to find parking spaces, with both Birmingham and Manchester airports providing capacity.
Meanwhile, Bristol Airport had to deal with an additional 40 charter aircraft as well as about 60 executive jets. Davies says: “In terms of infrastructure, we made use of what we had. The biggest challenge was the parking as our existing overnight flights were already there.
We were bringing in aircraft and parking them up on aprons behind other aircraft.”
Browne adds: “The vast majority of aircraft had to leave then and come back in the evening. It was basically a drop-and-go operation. Dropping off fans, Birmingham had about four flights from us that we couldn’t handle and there were a few going to East Midlands
He says while staff on the ground may have made the process smooth for the fans, having a shared event management control centre ensured the operation was expertly led from the top. With staff from both airports and other agencies ranging from the police to the local government in a single room, communication was swift and any problems could be dealt with.
Browne says: “We had all the agencies in a room and all the decision-making was done in one area and everyone was kept up to date. We could be alert to any issues at any point and we could get messages to the fan zones in the city centre.”
It was only once the last fans had boarded their departing aircraft and the operation was successfully completed that staff from both airports could breathe a sigh of relief.
Davies says: “There were no nasty surprises; the only surprise was that everything went quite as well as it did.”
While Browne is doubtful that new routes will spring up as a result of the single event, it still provided an excellent opportunity for the airport to showcase its strength to airlines ranging from Iberia to Vuelling.
He adds: “I would like to think all the airlines saw the hard work put in here; they would have found the operation here very efficient.”
Mashlan has similar feelings on route development from the event, but points out that on a day-to-day basis they are rival airports competing to win new routes. However, she adds that in cases like this, by putting aside their differences and working together, as they have done previously on events ranging from Nato’s 2014 Wales Summit to the Ryder Cup in 2010, they can achieve something greater.
“With the big economic questions for the region, it makes sense to work together,” she says. “It is for the greater good and we have to look at the state of aviation here as a whole and how the regions can work together – whether it is attracting inbound tourism or moving capacity from the London region.”
Which is a testament to the two airports’ teamwork indeed.