Airline celebrates the 15th anniversary of its first flight today, so commercial director Steve Lee (pictured bottom left) – a company stalwart since day one – looks back on its journey so far.

It all started in a portable cabin at Leeds Bradford airport.

To go even further back, Leeds-based sprouted out of Channel Express, which operated cargo services out of Bournemouth. It’s come a long way since then.

Commercial director Steve Lee, who has been at the company (in the same role) since its inception as a low-cost carrier, remembers the events to the month.

He told Travel Weekly: “Back then it was the low-cost airline revolution. Every regional airport in the country thought that it should have at least one low cost airline. Now, they think they should have six, which shows how much it has grown.”

To put that into perspective, what was then an airline of two aircraft flying to nine destinations has since grown to 90 aircraft operating to 50 destinations. And Peter Andre was there for its 15th birthday celebrations.

Lee recalls the inception of in October 2002, when flights went on sale in December 2002 and the maiden voyage – February 12, 2003, exactly fifteen years ago.

“We were looking at what opportunities there were to launch a low-cost programme,” he said. “Leeds Bradford was somewhere we could launch with a relatively low number of aircraft – and had a large catchment area (of around 7 million people living within 90-minutes’ drive).

“At the time, British Midland [now more commonly known as BMI] was the only airline that flew out of Leeds Bradford, easyJet was in Liverpool and had just announced Newcastle and there was no low cost from Manchester, so there was a bit of a void in the north. It was an obvious gap in the market.”

So was formed and, when it first moved to the Yorkshire airport, set up operations from an office Lee describes as “a series of portable cabins”. Low Fare Finder House is still the company’s registered address today.

“It had room for about 25 people,” Lee remembers. “There was no airline brand loyalty at the time. People wanted to explore Europe and beyond as cheaply as possible. That was our opportunity to come into the market.”

Nowadays, the company, owned by the Dart Group plc and encompassing tour operation Jet2holidays as well as airline, employs around 9,000 people, with around 700 of them at its HQ in Leeds city centre.

Jet2holidays was launched in 2007 when the group spotted another gap in the market. Lee said: “We saw there was a gap in the market, particularly in the north of England, for a tour operator offering great value package holidays. There were already low-cost airlines around but we felt we had to find something different to offer.”

The decision seems vindicated in the subsequent launch of easyJet Holidays and more recently Ryanair Rooms, although Lee pointed out that Jet2holidays’ fully-packaged holidays offer complete Atol protection rather than creating dynamic packaging options.

Without mentioning any names, he said: “There are a lot of airlines and online travel agents offering pseudo package holidays.”

The development has sat Jet2holidays somewhere in the middle of the low-cost airline sector and the traditional package holiday market. It seems comfortable there, with Lee reiterating the message that there are no plans for high street shops.

“Our brand on the high street is in the likes of Althams Travel, Hays Travel and Dawson and Sanderson, and all our independent travel agent partners,” he said.

So has the company changed much in the last fifteen years?

Lee says the mentality of the staff and the values of the company have stuck throughout its rapid growth.

“The values are pretty much the same now as they were then,” he said. “It’s about taking people on holiday and offering them friendly and attentive service.

“We’ve evolved, of course, but we’ve always tried to think big and act small. So we still have that intimacy about what we do.”

For example, Lee said he or another director will always still personally hand out wings to newly-trained cabin crew, but what was a once-a-year activity has become 29 times a year.

“We haven’t got a stuffy, corporate mentality despite growing into a big business,” he said. “Of course, we have professional corporate governance, but we will certainly try not to change our ethos.

“We can train our staff in being consistent, but we want their personalities to shine through. Our customers like the fact that they are going on holiday with people just like them.”

So what about the next 15 years?

“Looking back, I would pinch myself if I thought we would be where we are now in 15 years,” Lee said. “We have long-term plans but we don’t like to look too far ahead.”

He said the airline, and its holidays business, will “continue to grow” but focus on doing that incrementally rather than looking for new markets.

That follows a rapid recent expansion which saw the airline and package holiday division move further south last year with new routes from Stansted and Birmingham airports. It flies as far as New York in the winter when aircraft are available.

Lee ruled out a fully-fledged long-haul programme “for now” and said the airline would focus on growing capacity where it’s needed in the western and eastern Mediterranean.

“We’ve had a pretty rapid expansion, especially in the last five years,” he said. “But as always we take each year as it comes.”

Perhaps the northern-headquartered airline will venture as far south as Bournemouth, where its history can be traced back to, one day.

But with further regional expansion ruled out for now, the airline’s commercial director, looking back at its first 15 years, can certainly say time has “flown by”.