BEHIND the brightly coloured check-in desks and the vigilant security, Leeds Bradford International Airport is working to unite the needs of a demanding and fast-paced business with the needs of the community around it.

The biggest source of employment in the area, one of the largest businesses, as well as being literally the first port of call for many Wharfedale and Aireborough people heading off on holiday, the airport has a great impact on the area in more ways than one.

Bosses are keen to promote how important an asset Leeds Bradford is to the region, and to the Leeds area, as well as to its surrounding towns and villages.

For some of those living within a few miles of the airport there are concerns that the business is an inconvenience to its neighbours.

The traffic generated by the many passengers and staff coming and going, is a frequent cause for comment. The age-old question of aircraft noise is something which has gained much attention in recent months.

News of the airport’s intended expansion, and the decision by budget airline Ryanair to make Leeds-Bradford one of its bases, has left more people wondering just how much more effect the multi-million pound operation on their doorstep will have on their lives.

The airport employs 2,000 staff and the airport bosses are anxious to let local people see behind the corporate image, and learn just what a complex everyday operation they run.

Catering, cleaning, baggage handling, passenger hospitality and security aside, the task of managing flights and keeping the whole operation safe, punctual and efficient is a major task that needs to be carried out with near military precision.

While residents may feel aggrieved by a particularly loud jet airliner seemingly taking a route of its choice directly over their homes, they can be assured that there is absolutely nothing left to chance in commercial aviation.

In answer to concerns about jets flying ‘off track’ – that is, not sticking to the designated noise preferential route when taking off over Wharfedale – the airport is in regular contact with members of the community and the airlines, and records the take-off routes of every aircraft.

“I have a simple view that if it’s not right, it has to be put right,” says Head of Engineering, Facilities and Projects, Carl Lapworth, whose office has an extra-wide window, giving a perfect view of jets roaring down the runway.

Officials regularly keep in touch with Menston Community Association, to monitor any issues with aircraft noise, and have created a special noise complaints form on the airport’s website, so any concerns are channelled straight through to the people monitoring the sensitive situation.

The Airport Consultative Committee offers a further liaison opportunity for the local community.

Critics of noisy jets flying over their homes were sceptical when the airport announced this summer that only around a tenth of flights taking off over Wharfedale were flying off track, compared to 50 per cent a year ago.

Carl showed maps of the area, with the prescribed takeoff ‘swathe’ over Wharfedale cleared marked. This swathe is a lot smaller than the routes generally allowed by airports, just 1.5 kilometres at its widest point, and requires two turns by the aircraft taking off to keep them within the zone.

“It’s quite difficult, when your aircraft is ascending, to do that,” says Carl.

Data is kept by the airport on the track flown by aircraft, and two printouts, one showing a period two weeks ago and another showing a period the previous year, clearly shows great improvement in the number of airliners sticking within the swathe when they take off.

It is normal for airliners at most airports to stick to the takeoff swathe until they reach 3,000ft and peel off onto their pre-arranged flight path.

When taking off from Yeadon in the direction of Burley-in-Wharfedale and Menston, planes actually aim to stick within the swathe until they reach 5,000 feet, and are hopefully over Rombalds Moor by that point.

Mr Lapworth says safety considerations, such as maintaining the correct separation distance between aircraft, may mean deviation from the swathe is necessary. Turbulence and flying conditions also means aircraft are rarely flying in a perfectly straight line.

There are two aircraft noise monitors on the ground, one in Menston, one close to Burley, to help assess noise disturbance.

Perception of aircraft disturbance is not always about noise, it is believed. Many of the complaints to the airport speak of someone seeing an aircraft fly over their home, rather than saying they have heard a very loud aircraft.

Mr Lapworth also pointed out how difficult it is for residents on the ground to pinpoint where the aircraft is – they may appear to be flying over the centre of Burley, but are actually flying closer to Burley Woodhead.

As airlines have done more to stop aircraft wandering off track over Menston, they have probably moved nearer to Burley, too, but remain within the swathe.

The peculiarities of taking off and landing at the highest international airport in the UK present their own issues for aviation management.

Leeds-Bradford Airport is famed for its south-westerly crosswinds and ground-scraping low cloud, plus a close-up look reveals the undulating gradient of the actual runway.

The decision to close the runway, if it becomes necessary, falls to Head of Airside Operations and Safety, David Smillie. Drainage of the runway, which gets its fair share of traditional Yorkshire weather, is an issue the airport is working on, as well as birds. Both can cause serious problems for aircraft.

Flocks of birds commonly appear around the nearby Yeadon Tarn, and it is the job of airport airside staff to constantly keep them away, and alert the control tower if there are large flocks around.

A drive along the 1.4 mile runway, thankfully during a quiet day outside of the main holiday season, reveals the battering that the runway comes in for from the wheels of large jets going in the region of 150 miles per hour.

The runway has grooves in its concrete surface to help rainwater drain away. Mr Smillie explains that from time to time maintenance staff actually have to scrape the rubber left by aircraft tyres out of these small channels.

A vehicle known as the Checker is constantly seen out about on airside, making sure the runway is in good order, and utterly free of any debris, wind-blown or otherwise.

Relatively small metal parts dropped from an aircraft is enough to cause disaster, as the Charles De Gaulle airport Concorde tragedy proved in July 2000. A titanium strip which had fallen from another aircraft burst ones of the Concorde’s tyres, which ruptured a fuel tank, causing the plane to crash and killing 109 people.

“There is a minimum number of inspections which have to be done,” said Mr Smillie. “We are out there probably about eight to ten times a day, there is also a high-management maintenance regime.”

The positioning of the runway, pointing to Horsforth and Leeds to one side, and Wharfedale to the other, is a legacy of the old military aerodrome days. There was once a triangle of three runways.

Now, the longest of those has been extended to make a runway capable of carrying modern airlines, with the other two serving as the taxiing route connecting the runway to the apron in front of the airport terminal.

The many airport vehicles scurrying to service planes, decant passengers and move baggage, are also very carefully organised, both in terms of safety, and getting an efficient turnaround time to each airliner can hit its tight flying schedule.

“It’s all well-arranged, a bit like a ballet,” said Mr Smillie.

Activity around the runway and apron, and aircraft several miles from the airport, is controlled by the visual control room staff at the top of the control tower, with their excellent panoramic view of the whole area.

The more long-range air traffic control, is done in a separate radar room – a darkened control room where staff constantly listen in to aircraft transmissions and watch the green radar signals moving across round circular screens.

The task is assisted by extensive electronic systems, of course. Mr Smillie explains that commercial airliners carry transponders, that effectively talk to air traffic control computers, feeding information back to the ground computers about the plane’s identity, altitude and flight plan.

Small, light aircraft, however, are a bit more elusive, not having a transponder, and can simply appear as moving green specks. Radar is also capable of picking up other objects, be they tall buildings, hill tops – which air traffic control computers can filter out – as well as mysterious ‘angels’, which can be flocks of birds or even dust clouds.

Experienced controllers are quickly able to tell if a radar return is from an aircraft.

Mr Smillie says the disturbances in the air generated by a large aircraft, side-effects of the force of lift more so than the actual jet thrust from the engines, necessitate a separation distance between aircraft of several miles. In the case of something as large as a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, the following aircraft would need to be ten miles behind.

Maybe last thing that anyone scared of flying wants to think about, another important part of the team at Leeds Bradford is its firefighters.

Equipped with some of the most state-of-the-art firefighting equipment and engines in the country, the airport’s own fire crew are intensively trained to be at the scene of a crash, fully equipped with protective suits, within two minutes.

“We operate 24/7. We have four shifts, which work two days, two nights and get four days off, in 12 hour shifts. Each watch has 11 staff,” says Fire and Rescue manager, Ray Booth. “We are on standby all the time but have other duties.”

As well as constantly being ready in case of an emergency on board an aircraft, or an aviation fuel fire, the airport fire crews go through rigorous training, check fire alarms at the airport, and need to constantly check their breathing apparatus and other specialist equipment.

The airport’s fire service is justifiably proud of its latest acquisition, the Rosenbauer Panther fire appliance, a fire engine with more gadgets on board than any of the Thunderbirds sci-fi vehicles.

Ray was pleased to demonstrate some of the vehicle’s stunning features. With a special air-filtering system, roof-mounted fire monitor capable of shooting foam and water the full length of a jumbo jet, huge all-terrain tyres and a sprinkler system in case of aviation fuel spills, the engine is capable of getting very close to a fierce blaze without endangering firefighters by sending them out individuals with hose reels.

The monitor is controlled by a joystick, the crew can alter the mix of foam and water with a touch-screen computer system, and the engine also has infra-red and conventional cameras on board, for recording rescue and training operations.

An airport fire engine carries many times more water, plus the foam essential for smothering aviation fuel fires, than the average fire engine.

The airport firefighters have also taken delivery of specialist hydraulic cutting gear, putting them ahead of many other airports.

The gear could be used to quickly cut into an aircraft if passengers were trapped inside.

As well as tackling any emergency at the airport, the LBIA fire crews could also be called into action in the area surrounding the airport.

They are by far the best equipped if an aircraft crash-landed short of the runway, or if one of the tankers carrying aviation fuel was involved in an accident on a local road.

Traffic movements around the airport are another key concern of people living nearby, and these have been studied by Mr Lapworth.

Far from the airport being the sole reason for packed roads at rush hour, according to the research, airport traffic is actually in a minority. And more traffic in the evening rush hour would be generated by the average medium-sized supermarket than the airport, the statistics show.

The airport is keen to stress that as well as improving facilities for passengers, the planned development of the terminal could create thousands more jobs, including the construction work.

“People don’t realise we’re like a kind of small town. We have over 2,000 members of staff working here,” said commercial director, Tony Hallwood, “We’re touching every single part of the local community, when you consider that 70 per cent of our people working here live within ten miles of the airport.”

He already feels that Leeds Bradford has plenty of local character, but says there are plans to promote the airport’s local identify further, right down to putting up images of the region’s landmarks and landscape inside the terminal.

He says plenty of work is also being done to promote the region – and the local attractions – abroad.

As well as being the departure point for holidaymakers who want to get away, the airport has the vision of being the gateway for tourists coming to the area, in turn helping the local tourism industry.