Simon Calder: Air travellers may find the only way is Essex

The man who pays his way

"We used to have the busiest air route in the world," laments Alastair Welch. He is managing director of Southend airport, which the Transport Secretary will officially open on Monday – or re-open, given the high-frequency car-carrying planes that shuttled to Ostend in Belgium in the 1960s.

The Essex airport was once the third-busiest in Britain (after Heathrow and Manchester). But soon Southend lost traffic to the car ferries, and the county's other airport, at Stansted. It became an aeronautical outpost on the tricky side of Billericay.

Today, you can fly anywhere you like from "London Southend Airport", so long as it is Waterford in southern Ireland. But Mr Welch has resuscitated the aerodrome where Freddie Laker founded his aviation empire.

The task was not without its challenges. The runway was too short to handle modern jets flying full to Mediterranean destinations. It was constricted at one end by a railway line, yet there was no airport train station. The passenger terminal was about the size of the Gents' at Gatwick. And a hangar impeded the view of the runway from the control tower.

Three years and £100m later, these snags have been fixed and Britain's biggest low-cost airline, easyJet, has shifted some capacity from Stansted in north-west Essex to the south-east of the county. From 2 April, Southend will be connected to Amsterdam, Belfast, Barcelona and another half-dozen destinations.

A risky venture? Probably not. The airline knows where its passengers live, and a postcode analysis has no doubt revealed demand to each of the new destinations from Southend's catchment, which nibbles beyond Basildon, Billericay and Brentwood well into east London.

You might think that the last thing Essex needs is another airport. Plenty of people would agree – starting with the bosses of the other airports serving London. Heathrow is the world's most constricted airport, and London City is squeezed at peak times. But Gatwick, Stansted and Luton have plenty of room. Moving a few planes from one Essex airport to another might look like shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic-scale planning disaster that some say characterises the UK's aviation policy.

Furthermore, Southend airport is owned and operated by the trucking company Eddie Stobart, which might strike you as no guarantee of customer care for human transportation. But Mr Welch believes that the attention to detail that helped build the haulage empire will indulge Southend's passengers.

"We've built a brand-new railway station which offers the shortest train-to-check-in walk anywhere – 100 paces," says Mr Welch. When I tested the system, baggage reclaim to platform took three minutes flat. Add a 53-minute rail connection to London Liverpool Street station, and the business traveller can be in the City within an hour of his or her plane reaching the gate.

Flights could be quicker, too. Southend airport squeezes under the radar: its approaches are below the congested aerial traffic lanes of the London Terminal Manoeuvring Area serving the capital's other airports. From central London to Amsterdam, Southend may prove fastest – and most serene. The airport's three-letter code is as close as Essex gets to Zen: it's SEN.

Southend: gateway to the East

After the car-carrying aircraft flew off into the sunset, some eager entrepreneurs believed there was still money to be made from what is one of the shortest possible international journeys from the UK. The Southend-Ostend link is a journey of just 60 miles.

In the days when the only low-cost flights permitted were between obscure airports, one opportunity was to take a bus from Aldgate in London to Southend airport. A prop-jet Viscount belonging to the late, lamented British Island Airways hopped over to Ostend, where another bus was waiting (you hoped) for the drive into Brussels.

On a good day you could cover the ground in six hours, for a fare of around £40 return. If you were prepared to forego the bit to Brussels, it was even cheaper – and Ostend became the starting point for many a hitch-hiking trip to Antwerp, Athens or Afghanistan and back.

The air hop could, on its own, comprise an exciting trip – before the runway was extended, arriving aircraft almost touched the traffic on a now-diverted country lane.

travel@independent.co.uk

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