Avoiding Pandemic Hardships

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The current fleet consists of 7 Optare MetroCitys and 3 Caetano Levantes, all in full livery. JONATHAN WELCH

Rather than stand still as flights were cancelled, airport parking operator APH diversified to keep the wheels turning during the pandemic. Jonathan Welch finds out more

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[/wlm_nonmember] [wlm_ismember] The coach and bus industry is full of family-owned companies, some small, some large, but whilst some are well-known and easily-recognised names, others slip easily under the radar, going about their vital but perhaps unglamorous business, simply getting on with it day after day.
Earlier this year, strike action by Unite at Go North West’s Queens Road depot in Manchester led to services being operated under contract by other operators. A photograph of one of APH’s Optare MetroCitys on GNW’s route 135 led to a chance conversation, which led to me arriving at family-owned APH’s Manchester premises to find out more about the company. Founded in 1980, APH specialises in airport parking, operating its own car parks at sites in Manchester and Gatwick, where the firm is based and has a 6,000-space facility, in addition to other parking options at locations across the UK.

Unless you are a hermit, the fact that air travel had all but ceased for a significant part of 2020 will be no surprise, and it doesn’t take much reflection to realise that alongside the airlines and airports themselves, a whole host of other connected industries will have suffered. The airport parking sector is among them and as with many others, has had to fight to survive, which is just what the team at APH’s Manchester base did.


I spoke to Manchester’s Site Manager Mark Hannan to find out more about how the firm’s operations in the city had changed over the last 18 months, and how the pandemic has affected the business. Mark’s own background is in coaching, so it is maybe little surprise that he had the insight and know-how to develop the business in the way he has, having worked previously for local firm Bullocks and Andrews of Tideswell.

“January and February 2020 were the busiest we’d ever had at this site,” Mark recounted, “but then it all just stopped. We went from 200-300 cars arriving per day to averaging around 50 cars on site per day, and maybe 3 arrivals and returns every day. We have around 2,000 spaces here in Manchester, and were regularly at or close to capacity for most of the year. Pre-covid, we had 45 staff, now we have just 18. It was a very hard time, we have always had great staff here, and we had to make compulsory redundancies. We had no funding to help us through. It’s a nice place to work, with facilities for staff – including a kitchen and shower. We spoke to the staff who stayed, and they said they will do whatever it takes to get through and get back behind the wheel. We set up a staff WhatsApp group to keep in touch with everyone. Some were a bit lost on furlough. Some have worked here for years, it’s the least we could do to keep them informed of what is happening. Even if there is nothing happening, then we let them know there is nothing to report.”

Parking priority

“We are primarily a parking company, not a bus company. The buses are a necessity for what we do,” continued Mark. The mainstay of the fleet is the Optare Metrocity, which Mark said was chosen because of Optare’s willingness to tailor the product for their market, with features such as extra luggage racks. Manchester’s own fleet of five was augmented by those previously based in Birmingham, when that operation closed as a result of the downturn. Mark explained that in ‘normal’ times, the fleet of five allowed for three in service, once spare, and one undergoing maintenance. It is not uncommon for four to be in service on busy days in the summer, he added.

“When the first lockdown came, we had to think on our feet. We asked ourselves, ‘what can we do?’ We explored different avenues. We had first registered for rail replacement back in 2008. The first port of call was to get on TfGM’s books. We signed up to the rail operators too, and then things really kicked off when the school duplicates were started. It was a big advantage to us that the site here is manned 24/7, and there is always someone on site with a licence, so we could respond quickly. We started doing emergency rail replacement work, and were going all over: Chester, Sheffield, Ellesmere Port,…”

The Levantes carry a ‘toned down’ version of the bright orange and blue colours, which Mark said might have been ‘a bit too much’ on a large coach. JONATHAN WELCH


“The Optares are fine for schools and duplication work, but because of social distancing they weren’t ideal for rail and we started looking at something bigger. Caetano Levantes were available, and although there’s a bit of a stigma about them, they were clean and tidy with a good interior. They’re a bit of a Swiss army knife. They give the effect of an executive vehicle, with leather seats and big windows. We took three on Volvo chassis, and also had the peace of mind that they’d been main dealer serviced. They’re ideal for the pre-planned rail work, we found they worked really well. The rail replacement works well for us too: we already have staff on site, so if we cover a rail replacement job, that pays his wages for the day.”

The coaches carry cherished APH registrations, and Y5 APH, new in 2010, was previously National Express’ gold-liveried coach to mark the Commonwealth Games. Mark explained that the influx of extra Optares from the Birmingham operation meant that he was able to switch to coaches with minimal outlay, by selling on some of the Optares which weren’t needed to pay for the coaches without having to rely on finance. Besides the Levantes, the Manchester fleet now consists of five 10.1m Metrocitys and two 10.8-metre versions. The 68-plate buses are Euro VI, whilst the older ones are Euro V.

“This is the first time APH has ever had a coach with a toilet, and the first time buying second hand. They had all been in service, not laid up, which doesn’t do them any good. The lifts are operated daily too to keep them in good condition. One came from Llew Jones where it was being used on rail work, one was still in service in service on National Express routes, and the third came from Glen Valley Tours. We’re now at the stage where we’re looking to upgrade to Euro VI for the Clean Air Zone in Manchester. I like the idea of getting some Tourismos, but we’re not convinced by the side lifts, and there’s not as much luggage capacity. The floor-mounted toilet on the Levante helps with that. We anticipate flights to start increasing in summer, but I can’t see us stopping this. It’s a good insurance policy for us. We’re also lucky that APH has a dedicated sales and marketing team, which means we can tell them what we need and they are able to sort advertising and publicity for us.”

Mark explained that he foresees a lot of coaching work coming from ‘business to business’ operations, such as subcontracting or feeder work for other local operators who might be doing staycation tours. APH has good relationships with a number of other operators, he said, including Go Goodwins and Eavesway, who have been using APH’s secure site to park coaches during the pandemic. “I expect we will be well placed to offer feeders, and we hope to pick up work that others can’t cover. We’re not trying to steal work from anyone. I know from my days at Bullocks that operators often need extra coaches,” he continued.

APH’s staff were keen to get behind the new venture too, Mark said. “We’ve always been very active in multi-skilling. All our staff drive the buses, and now they all want to go out on the coaches! We’re also looking at doing our own day trips now. People would be able to use our car park, then go to places like Blackpool, York, or Llandudno.”

APH has won numerous awards for its parking facilities. JONATHAN WELCH

Normal times

In what we have come to call ‘normal’ times, APH’s operation is a simple but effective one. Car drivers arrive at the site, on an industrial estate a short drive from Manchester Airport, and enter via a short ‘tunnel’ which provides an undercover area for unloading luggage near the bus stop and waiting room, before the car is parked by APH staff. The waiting room and reception area were clean and tidy, with staff on hand and vending machines and toilets available. “Our MD is very pro-active, Mark added, “with a lot of attention to detail. If a sign is faded, it is replaced. The coaches have received branding as well as WiFi, tracking etc and are maintained by Volvo in Trafford Park.”

The bus stops right outside the automatic doors, meaning an easy and dry journey to the airport. Buses run as required rather than to a set frequency, and Mark said that in normal times there was sufficient demand that people were rarely waiting more than five minutes for one. The journey to the airport takes less than ten minutes, APH paying a ‘forecourt fee’ per vehicle per year to Manchester Airport for access. When customers return, cars are ready and waiting in the departure area close to the reception and waiting room.

Looking to the future, APH in Manchester is looking at other ways it can expand its offering. Besides the coaching operations, it has recently started working with Indicampers, which rents out camper vans to holidaymakers. Mark said that he thought it could make an ideal partnership, as inbound tourists will be able to arrive at the airport, catch a bus to APH’s facility and pick up their camper from there. Likewise, domestic travellers can park their car and drive away in their Indicamper rental, knowing their car is safe.

In terms of technology, Mark explained that the operation was not yet looking at electric buses. “Our buses are in service 24/7,” he said. “We’d have no time to charge them between journeys. We’d need six buses instead of the five diesels. I like the Yutong product, but we’ll probably stick with diesel unless there is a suitable product for our operation. Hydrogen is another option which could help us reduce our carbon footprint in future.”


Building custom

Mark said that although APH had a good reputation, he also saw the private hire and coach side of the business as a useful marketing tool, venturing away from the firm’s normal area and acting as mobile billboards across the north. “We’re lucky to have a loyal customer base,” he said, “and we have targets to be 98-99% positive on TrustPilot and TripAdvisor. We’re an eleven-time winner at the British Travel Awards for parking. Our drivers always load luggage for customers, and are not hidden behind screens, which makes the service more personal. We’ve taken the cab doors off most of the Optares which makes it easier. Our drivers are also in radio contact which makes it easier to manage demand. The friendly and welcoming attitude of our drivers has carried across well to the coaching work too.

The Go North West work finished in April, as the operator wanted to use its own vehicles on services which were still being outsourced. “We didn’t want to operate their vehicles on our licence,” said Mark, “but we gave them the option of us painting one of our own in their colours. They said no to that. We’re happy with what we’ve done, though. That was the first time our buses were in public service, which meant they were popular with enthusiasts too as they will never have travelled on our buses unless they were flying from the airport. Because they’ve never been used in public service, the interiors are all still in good condition too. We sold some to Centrebus, and they commented on it.”

Although coaching is not the core activity for APH, and no-one would have wished for the circumstances which brought it about, Mark was obviously enjoying the opportunity to run coaches and buses again. “We’re looking to build on the coach hire side through our customer base. There will be a market for domestic trips while its so difficult to go abroad. The flight might only be £20 but the costs of covid tests and potential isolation is high. We’ve set up a dedicated [email protected] email address, and we’ve already had emails enquiring about coach hire and cruise transfers. In three months we went from being an unknown to being the 4th most used operator on Arriva’s rail support contact list.”

Manchester Site Manager Mark Hannan (left) and Regional Manager Richard Walsh. JONATHAN WELCH
A line up of some of APH’s multi-skilled drivers, including (from left): Peter Birch, Paul Bentley, Cav Bentley, Trevor Flynn and Gary Simpson. JONATHAN WELCH