Runaway growth at Stansted airport

NEWS ANALYSIS Boosted by the popularity of budget airlines, Stansted has finally established itself as London's third airport. But as its passenger growth overtakes that of Heathrow and Gatwick combined, is it about to become a victim of its own success?
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The Independent Online
IF ANY further proof were needed that Stansted is now very firmly London's third airport, it came yesterday when BAA revealed that its passenger growth last month exceeded that of Heathrow and Gatwick put together.

Stansted handled 1.14 million passengers in August - a 42 per cent increase on the same month last year. Put another way, that means an additional 390,000 people passed through the airport compared with a combined increase of 262,000 at its two bigger brothers.

The phenomenal expansion of the Essex airport, located just off junction 8 on the M11, is being driven by the explosion in low-cost air travel and the fact that Heathrow and Gatwick are both at bursting point.

This year Stansted will handle an estimated 9 million passengers compared with 5.5 million just two years ago. In the last 18 months, the number of destinations served from Stansted has grown from 23 to 65 and the number of scheduled airlines to 25.

It will not stop there. By the time the latest pounds 200m expansion of the airport is complete in 2002, passenger numbers are forecast to have grown to 11 million. The capacity of Stansted will then be 15 million - half that of Gatwick's at present.

It all seems a far cry from 1991 when Stansted's new pounds 400m Sir Norman Foster-designed terminal was opened by the Queen. The building was like a temple to air travel, and, appropriately enough for a building with religious pretensions, half-deserted for most of the time. If you could find Stansted in the first place, then transiting through its airy, marbled and largely empty departure halls was a solitary delight - quite the antithesis of modern day air travel.

The impact on BAA's balance sheet was not quite so pleasant. At that point Stansted was the biggest single investment project it had undertaken and the pay-back was becoming ever more distant. The airport finally broke even in 1996 - two years later than BAA had budgeted for - and this year is expected to contribute profits of more than pounds 20m.

Tim Jeans, marketing director of the low-cost airline Ryanair, Stansted's biggest operator serving more than 100 destinations, says: "The biggest change is that Stansted is now genuinely accepted as a London airport. People no longer turn their noses up at it."

The catalyst for growth has been the low-fare airlines - Ryanair and the BA subsidiary Go which began operations from Stansted in May last year - account for one-third of the airport's passengers.

They are also redefining its catchment area. This currently stands at 11 million people in an area arcing from the east Anglia coast up as far as Peterborough and down to north London.

But low fares are increasing people's propensity to travel further to an airport - meaning that Stansted is attracting passengers from south of the Thames and even the Midlands and the North-west, where neither Birmingham nor Manchester airports have made the same play to attract budget airlines.

With success, however, come problems and Mr Jeans senses that Stansted is just beginning to be the victim of its own galloping growth. "We are just starting to see some of the problems of the big airports being manifested at Stansted like congested ramps and air traffic delays," he says. "The pinchpoint in the system over the next two to three years will be runway capacity but then again Gatwick has shown it is possible to get 25 million passengers through a single runway.

John Stent, Stansted's managing director, is only too well aware that it could become the victim of its own success. "Our growth in the last 18 months has been the fastest any airport anywhere has experienced," he says. "As we grow we will have to keep every aspect of service up to scratch or there will come a point when our good name will be at risk."

Being the newest and most modern airport terminal in Britain, Stansted has some inherent advantages. It is built on one level, car parking is adjacent to the terminal and both the rail line which serves the airport and the monorail which ferries passengers out to the satellites come directly into the terminal building. Mr Stent is proud of the fact that a third of Stansted's passengers arrive by public transport. The figure is likely to rise further at the end of this month when the "Skytrain" service from Liverpool Street station is renamed the Stansted Express and frequency increases to every 15 minutes.

Part of the pounds 200m investment currently taking place will be spent on improving road access by building flyover slip roads into the airport terminal from the M11 to avoid the delays and congestion that can occur when junction 8 is blocked by an accident or sheer weight of traffic. The A120 is also being upgraded, improving road access from the east.

Shortage of runway capacity is not, he says, something which worries him. When Stansted was turned into an airport in 1942 to service US Army air-force bombers, it was built with what was then the longest runway in Britain. When approval was given for the expansion of Stansted in 1985 after a long-running public inquiry, it was envisaged that it would develop as an airport primarily for long-haul and charter flights.

That has not happened because most of the world's flag carriers voted with their feet and opted to make Heathrow their UK hub. In the early days of Stansted's expansion, this was a major setback for Stansted, the presence of a major trans-continental airline being seen as essential to help draw in feeder services and provide the airport with critical mass.

As it turns out Stansted has prospered without a British Airways or a big US carrier."Quite frankly, we could fill the 15 million passenger capacity with our present mix of short-haul operators and still get a satisfactory financial return," says Mr Stent.

Nevertheless, Stansted still hankers after a long-haul carrier and Mr Stent reckons it could land one if not next year then the year after. "There is no desperation about this and we will not prostitute ourselves to attract one, but there is a genuine need for it within this catchment area."

He says Stansted has polled 3,000 local businesses and the overwhelming response was that Stansted both needed and justified a transatlantic service. Mr Stent says one possibility is to attract either Continental or North West, both of which have an alliance with KLM, Stansted's second biggest operator.

Ryanair's Mr Jeans thinks Stansted should concentrate on serving its existing carriers. "The desire to attract long-haul routes rests mainly with the airport's marketing department which would love to stick more pins on the map. But in my view it is unimportant to the overall growth of Stansted. The pace of expansion is not going to be affected one way or another."

It would, nevertheless, be the icing on the cake.