The TTG Interview: Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson
The middle-aged pilot in the England rugby shirt and baseball cap sitting opposite me in a cafe at Gatwick is not exactly how I pictured the lead singer of a world famous rock band.
Gone is the bandana and long hair, and in its place is a man who appears as comfortable discussing Atols as he is performing on stage in front of thousands of people.
As the front man for Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson has headlined concerts around the world for more than 20 years. But this week he will take to a different stage, as the keynote speaker at the Advantage Conference in Malta, discussing the issues affecting the travel industry – a sector that is close to his heart.
” I had a Boeing 757 manual on my lap, reading up, when a little old lady walked up to the pool attendant and asked if it was true that a plane had flown into the twin towers”
Dickinson wanted to be a pilot from the age of five (until his “fascination with guitars took over”) and has flown aircraft for a number of airlines, from British World Airlines to Astraeus Airlines until it folded last November. But his career in aviation began at one of the darkest times in the sector’s history.
“I’d just completed my line training and was all signed off to fly, and was in New York with the band,” he says. “It was a really sunny day, and I was sitting on the roof of the hotel by the pool. I had a Boeing 757 manual on my lap, reading up, when a little old lady walked up to the pool attendant and asked if it was true that a plane had flown into the twin towers. I thought it must have been a small private plane, and went back to my reading. Then more people arrived, and someone said it was some sort of airliner, and
I thought, ‘Oh boy…’”
Three weeks after September 11, British World Airlines, which had sponsored Dickinson’s training and promised him a job at the end, went bust. “The staff went two ways - half went to Channel Express, now Jet2, and the others, like me to Astraeus,” he says.
“There is a place for travel agents on the high street, but they need to reinvent themselves and stop looking like DHSS offices”
In his subsequent years at Astraeus, Dickinson flew several football teams, holidaymakers stranded by the collapse of XL Airways, his own band for its world tours, as well as countless fans as part of special gig “packages”.
“I’m my own tour operator,” he grins. “I charter a flight and then advertise the packages for around £500, which includes hotels, me flying them there, an onboard goody-bag, and a backstage tour.” Dickinson also brings another pilot to fly them home, so he can sit with the fans on the return leg and sign autographs.
But does he have an Atol? “No I don’t need one at the moment, but I might need to recheck that when the new reforms come in,” he concedes.
Dickinson stayed with the airline, flying and working as marketing director, until its demise last November, which he attributes to “certain management decisions”. He remains tight-lipped about what these were, but says: “It was an inevitable consequence. The manager wasn’t being allowed to manage. I had a bet it would go in November, and I was right, almost to the day.”
Thoughts on the industry
The rocker-turned-pilot is clearly passionate about his industry, and is angry that the government, which he brands a “basket case”, is ignoring the sector’s concerns.
Air Passenger Duty, he claims, “is just theft” which should be extended to shipping, including cruises, “if the tax really is about the environment”.
Dickinson is also frustrated the government is not addressing the issue of airport capacity in the UK. “Aviation is a massive driver of so much in the UK, especially in terms of employment. We need to develop our regional capacity - it’s crazy that people have to drive from Cardiff to Heathrow to get a flight to the US. They should be able to fly direct.”
Dickinson admits he is also a fan, albeit a reluctant one, of the Boris Island airport concept.
“I couldn’t really see it at first, but looking at the design, it’s really quite innovative. It would provide a new Thames barrier - and the airport would be self-sustaining - able to generate its own power by tidal flow. For the money the government is spending on HS2 to get to Birmingham 10 minutes quicker, they could have a massive project in the estuary. With Crossrail there could even be a link between Heathrow and Boris Island, so people could transfer in no time.”
He also believes the Heathrow expansion should be considered, and that the airport should focus solely on long-haul. “There is already a good runway at Northolt which short-haul traffic could be diverted to. Heathrow needs to be long-haul effectively, but there needs to be a good connection for short-haul as well,” he says.
High street hopes
Dickinson’s gripes are not limited to aviation. He believes high street travel agents should be doing more to lure customers away from the internet. “There is a place for travel agents on the high street, but they need to reinvent themselves and stop looking like DHSS offices. They should look at the way estate agents have reinvented themselves - Foxtons for example is like a cafe, where you can go and look at houses on a slideshow. It would be great to see that in travel agencies.
“Travel agents can be wonderful,” he adds, “but they need to be 24/7 so you can pick up a phone and get a human being, no matter where you are in the world.”
And does Dickinson use a travel agent? “Absolutely,” he says. “We use a company called Travel by Appointment, which sorts out all the arrangements for the band, and I use them for personal holidays too.”
He has travelled around the world, both as a pilot and on the many world tours with Iron Maiden, but Dickinson admits there are still places he wants to visit, in particular Egypt.
“I flew there to pick up the stranded holidaymakers, but I’ve never actually spent time there. I’d love to do a Death on the Nile type cruise,” he says.
But this holiday may be difficult to fit in - Dickinson is now working with the Welsh government to create an aircraft maintenance company, and will continue to fly planes for his business partner who leases aircraft in south-east Asia. He is also spending the summer on an Iron Maiden tour in the US, and the band plans to continue touring every year for the foreseeable future - flown to each destination by Dickinson himself. Minus the bandana and leathers, of course.
Bruce Dickinson is available for corporate speaking engagements through Dave Daniel at Celebrity Speakers on 01628 601411 or firstname.lastname@example.org