With the UK Government still ruling out Heathrow expansion, SE England airport capacity gets a boost with opening of a new Southend Airport terminal. [caption id="attachment_6526" align="alignnone" width="403" caption="Outside of the new terminal."][/caption] On 5 March a new dedicated passenger terminal was opened at the rebranded ‘London Southend’ Airport by the Secretary of State for Transport, Justine Greening MP. She was joined at the opening by airport owner Stobart Group CEO Andrew Tinkler,  COO William Stobart, airport MD Alastair Welch and easyJet CEO Carolyn McCall. The new terminal, dubbed a ‘Fly Through’ terminal is less than 100 steps from the new railways station, which connects it to London Liverpool Street (50mins) and, crucially, for the Olympics, Stratford (40mins). The airport promises expedited arrival for passengers – saying it will be 15mins from ‘plane to train’. Attention has been also paid to the departing passengers too, with the owners saying that thanks to the latest technology security machines (and obviously smaller passenger numbers) there will be no more than four minutes queuing for security. Free WiFi fr passengers is also available throughout the terminal. [caption id="attachment_6535" align="alignnone" width="403" caption="The opening also saw a visit by a (non-revenue) easyJet Airbus A319. (London Southend Airport)."][/caption] easyJet itself has made a significant commitment to this Essex airport with 70 flights a week starting from the airport from April. Destinations include Amsterdam, Alicante, Barcelona, Belfast, Faro, Ibiza, Jersey, Malaga and Mallorca. In addition, the airport also hosts daily flights to Ireland with Aer Arann Regional. The airport expects passenger numbers to reach one million in the next year.  

Future growth

[caption id="attachment_6527" align="alignnone" width="403" caption="New Business lounge at Southend Airport."][/caption] There is also room for future growth, notes airport MD Alastair Welch. In particular, he points out the terminal has been designed for easy expansion. And while flights are expected to rise to 18-19,000 movements annually in the next couple of years, the airport is capped at 53,000 – giving additional room for growth. Indeed 20 million passengers are predicted by 2020. As well as the new terminal, the Stobart Group also has invested £100m in a new control tower and extending the runway and the latest development will see a dedicated airport hotel built for overnight travellers and for conferences. [caption id="attachment_6536" align="alignnone" width="403" caption="The departure lounge features free WiFi for passengers."][/caption] While there is no dedicated ‘Southend Express’ train yet (there are seven stops between Liverpool Street station and the airport) the airport is hopeful that both first and last train times can be extended to accommodate the first and last flights. Welch also sees increased potential in the growth of business aviation flights – especially during the Olympics – given the airport’s direct connection to Stratford.  

What about the Heathrow impasse?

[caption id="attachment_6528" align="alignnone" width="403" caption="Transport Secretary Justine Greening MP poses with easyJet CEO Carolyn McCall."][/caption] Despite this the 'elephant in the control tower' for many remains the logjam over SE England airport capacity issues and the Government ruling out any further expansion at Heathrow. In the context of Southend, airport MD Alastair Welch is quick to note that: “We are never going to be Heathrow and we don't want to be.” He sees the smaller, more agile Southend being able to offer a higher level of service and customer satisfaction than a busy London hub. Meanwhile, in a media roundtable to reporters, the Transport Secretary Justine Greening was positive about Southend’s prospects, saying: “Southend has been an incredibly successful airport in the past and I think it’s going to be very successful for the future.” She pointed out one unique benefit of its location was that Southend’s airspace, lying underneath Heathrow’s zone meant “you are far less likely to experience issues related to congestion, therefore if you are flying from Southend, you should be pretty confident you’ll go when you expect to go”. She was also at pains to flag up the benefit of regional airports, arguing that they had been neglected by the media, saying: “Regional airports have an important role to play in this country's national infrastructure.” On the topic of Heathrow’s decline, she maintained that London was still the best connected city in the world “if you look at our aviation network, the World Economic Forum ranked us third, only behind US and China”. However she did admit that the challenge was for “us to maintain that going forward”. Asked whether any UK airport expansion now was a case of ‘too little, too late’ with regard to Heathrow’s decline against continental rivals, the Transport Secretary refuted that view saying: “I don’t think that is really the right way to look at it. We are doing what any sensible government would do, which is to look ahead to what we think our needs are, as a country, not just in the next 5, 10, 15 years but longer than that.” She added: “That is exactly why we are kicking off this call for evidence as we are not going to get to a solution unless we get all the facts and data to really start analysing what are options are.” However this despite this call for ‘fact-based’ evidence of potential airport options (which could include a proposed Thames Estuary Airport), the Secretary still ruled out a third runway at Heathrow, saying “there is cross-party consensus now that a third runway at Heathrow is not an option for anybody in government whether you are Conservative, Liberal Democrat or indeed Labour.” Asked if there could be synergies in a ‘big Victorian-style infrastructure project’ for a new hub airport that could simultaneously solve the capacity crunch and stimulate construction, creating jobs, Greening said that: “this Government has seen transport and investment in transport infrastructure as a driver for growth with £18bn just in this spending review going into railways.” such as HS2 and Crossrail. She also hinted that she thought Heathrow may have been built in the wrong location: “You’d have to ask whether if we’d been flying around the place in Victorian times, if they’d have built their main hub airport in the west of town. I suspect the answer would have been is they would have looked at wind direction, thought a bit more strategically and in their eyes that probably wasn’t the ideal place”. However, she emphasised: “Heathrow is an incredibly successful airport, and London is incredibly well connected with its total five airports”, adding “The challenge for government is how we keep that competitive advantage, not just for passengers, but for business too.”  

Summary

[caption id="attachment_6534" align="alignnone" width="403" caption="New control tower at Southend. (yes that is an Avro Vulcan in the background)."][/caption] It is obvious that that this new terminal will not solve the air travel capacity crunch now facing SE England – but it is not intended to. Those in Whitehall who think that this may give them extra breathing space to ponder a new hub may be sadly let down. However, it does show four things. The first is that airport expansion, with the vital support of the majority of the local community, can happen in the UK. Secondly, it puts notice out to Stansted and London City of increased competition for both business and tourist passengers. Thirdly, though some may raise eyebrows as it described as a 'London Airport', it does give those on the east of the capital more choice in where to fly from. Fourth, is that it shows that decline of airports is reversible. For example Southend used to be the third-busiest UK airport after Manchester and Heathrow. Although tiny Southend is a much different prospect than LHR or 'Boris Island', its quick and quiet regeneration should give hope to those who believe that a decline of the UK's airports is not inevitable. While the debate rages over a world-class hub for London, the UK also needs regional airports as well. And while Southend’s new terminal may not make a huge difference in the wider issue of SE England traffic crisis, every little helps.  

Tim Robinson
9 March 2012