High hopes for airport's development : DOCKLANDS A SPECIAL REPORT

London City Airport has finally shed its white elephant image and has become a genuine part of London's transport infrastructure, rather than just a lost empty shed in far-off eastern Docklands.

Although the airport has still not reached its break-even point of around 550,000, its managing director, William Charnock, is confident that it will do so this year. The airport had seen steady growth since the runway was extended in April 1992, enabling it to take 85-seater BAe 146s, rather than the Dash 7s which were just over half that size, and extended the airport's potential range to European cities as far away as Madrid, Stockholm and Rome.

However, Mr Charnock reckons that the turning point in the airport's fortunes came in May 1993 with the opening of the Limehouse Link. The new road enabled drivers to avoid the dreaded A13 and made the City genuinely less than half-an-hour's taxi ride away which hitherto had been an optimistic advertising ploy which relied on light traffic.

By any standards, last year's growth of 96 per cent, giving a total of 479,889 passengers using the airport, was impressive. Despite this, there were still problems on some routes which led to changes, a constant difficulty for the airport since its opening in 1987.

Flights to Berlin, for example, ended when the carrier, Conti Flug, went out of business and the Rotterdam flights were also lost when the carrier stopped flying, but fortunately they are now being operated by the larger VLM airline The loss of Berlin was more than made up by the introduction of four new destinations, Humberside, Dublin, Geneva and Hamburg. Cardiff is also due to be added by the spring with four flights per day in little 18-seaters operated by City Air Bus, which also operates the Humberside service.

Mr Charnock reckons that half of last year's growth was a result of the new destinations but that the rest came from better usage of existing flights: "The message that we are a really convenient alternative for people in the City is finally getting through."

While the number of flights at 32 departures per day is not yet at the peak level before the runway was extended, the capacity is much bigger because of the use of large planes.

Current destinations include Brussels, Frankfurt, Lugano, Paris and Zurich, and carriers include airlines such as Virgin Atlantic (on a franchise basis to Dublin), Air France, Sabena and, through its Crossair subsidiary, Swissair. But the airport has still failed to attract a major British carrier.

Mr Charnock does not feel that this is the biggest obstacle to success. With the airport nowhere near capacity - estimated at 1.7m passengers per year if there were some terminal improvements - he feels it is more important to attract some new destinations and to get early morning flights out of the airport.

He says that the airport is currently negotiating with airlines over flights to Scotland and he hopes to see at least one new continental destination this year, which could be either Stockholm, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Munich or Milan. "With just one of those, we would reach 600,000 passengers per year", he said.

He recognises that the attractiveness of the airport to travellers from the UK is greatly reduced by the absence of early-morning departures since no airline leaves aircraft parked overnight at London City at present.

"If there were early departures to places such as Paris or Brussels that would make an enormous difference." Currently first flights are after 8am to all the European destinations which, with the clock change, means arrivals after 10am, not good enough for the early starter go-getters for which Docklands is famous.

The other slight fly in the ointment is the decision - "baffling" according to Mr Charnock - not to connect the airport with the Docklands Light Railway which was extended late last year to Beckton. Instead travellers must get off at Prince Regent station and take a shuttle bus.

While 80 per cent of travellers use a car or taxi, Mr Charnock recognises that "a rail link is a great advantage for any airport".