Forget the ordeals of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, Simon Calder explores passenger-friendly airports just 90 minutes from London
The hole with a hole was the incident that made me despise big airports. One day last autumn, the tunnel for the new Heathrow Express line sprang a leak during construction and began to devour the airport. Thousands of us were trying to leave the country, but found our routes to the check-in desks closed.

Amid the chaos, I managed to reach the check-in at Terminal 3 before the flight left, but the airline was disinclined to let me wade through passport and security checks and past endless "retailing opportunities'' to try to catch the plane. Heathrow is now so big that travelling through it is an ordeal.

The capital's other two large airports are victims of scale, too. Gatwick was originally built astride the London-Brighton mainline, and in the early years taking the train to the plane was a simple and cheap operation. These days, though, the Gatwick Express costs 33p a mile and stops well short of the plane. Stansted's new terminal building is a superb piece of architecture, but I would trade it any day for the unaesthetic old shack it replaced. No longer can you park within 50 yards of your plane; you have to battle with endless escalators and take shuttle trains seemingly halfway across Essex.

Yet it is possible to escape the Big Three. Half a dozen alternative airports are within 90 minutes of the capital. Your dream departure lounge could be found in the one-route simplicity of Biggin Hill or the high- chrome, hi-tech surroundings of Birmingham.

BHQ - Biggin Hill

To find Biggin Hill International Airport amid the leafy downland south- east of London, just look out for Keston Cattery; the airport is next on the left. The terminal, the size of a large bungalow, gains some transport cred by having a row of baggage trolleys lined up outside. But closer inspection reveals them to be purloined from Gatwick and Stansted.

Approach path: the advertised "easy train connection" is stretching a point. The nearest main-line station is Bromley South, which has a fast 20-minute service from Victoria, but then you have to catch an ordinary London Country bus which meanders through the countryside for a further 40 minutes. My journey came in at over an hour but under £5. (There is a direct bus link to Victoria, on Green Line 705, but this runs only twice a day.)

Door-to-plane distance: 20 yards. This includes a side trip to the duty- free shop ("kiosk" would be more accurate), which has an implausibly wide selection, from Old Holborn tobacco to Jack Daniels bourbon.

The next departure is ... for Le Touquet. The only scheduled airline at Biggin Hill is Love Air (01279 681434), and its sole route is to the French resort. Nor does the £99 hop to France open up a whole world of connection possibilities, because the only destination you can reach by air from Le Touquet is ... Biggin Hill.

BHX - Birmingham

If there were an award for the most ambitious airport transportation system, then Elmdon (as Birmingham International Airport is more prosaically known) would win it. Its magnetic levitation shuttle hovers passengers between the terminal and Birmingham International rail station. Visually, the ensemble is unattractive; pragmatic, not pretty, is the West Midlands airport's motto.

The Birmingham Eurohub is 100 miles from London yet can take only 90 minutes by train - not much longer than the tubetrip out to Heathrow on a bad day. Thanks to shorter check-in times, switching airport allegiance can actually save time. Go to New York by way of the Midlands, and economy passengers cut more than an hour from the journey time compared with using Heathrow.

Approach path: 84 minutes on an Inter-City train from Euston, price £14 return on an Apex ticket; you might as well book this at the same time as your advance-purchase plane ticket. The shuttle to the airport takes two minutes, but you may have to queue.

Door-to-plane distance: up to 400 yards. Alone of the airports in this survey, Birmingham has jetways which allow an under-cover journey to the aircraft.

The next departure is ... to New York, on British Airways' daily non-stop. Check-in at Birmingham is a mere 30 minutes compared with two hours for economy passengers at Heathrow, so you save 70 minutes on the trip via Heathrow. That, at least, is the theory. On the morning I tested the timings, the flight had been cancelled for technical reasons and after some delay the Manchester-New York flight was diverted to pick up the delayed passengers.

LCY - London City

As a scale model of what a real airport should look like, London City is excellent. And if you want to get from Canary Wharf or the City of London to nearby European capitals, the Docklands airport is far closer than Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted. Yet it has never taken off since its completion in 1987. At times, the choice of destinations has been positively exotic, but now services to Gloucester, Riga and Verona have been consigned to the great departure board in the sky.

London City does not offer the high frequencies that business travellers demand, and leisure passengers are deterred by high fares. After eight years of loss-making, the airport is slowly moving towards the break-even target of 500,000 passengers - but not on the day I was there. Load factors on mid-morning flights are normally low, but I had never before encountered a passenger count of zero.

Approach path: to be kind to the airport, let us assume your journey begins at Bank or Tower Hill. Take the Docklands Light Railway to Canary Wharf (supposedly 10 minutes, often more) and locate the South Colonnade, whence the airport shuttle departs. With good connections and no hold- ups, a City-to-City journey should take 30 minutes and cost £2.30. The direct bus from Liverpool Street station is scheduled to take five minutes less, but heavy traffic leaving central London can delay it.

Door-to-plane distance: 100 yards of uncrowded (and unprofitable) open space.

The next departure is ... not for Amsterdam, Berlin or Stockholm, since services to these destinations have disappeared from the departure boards. Try Berne, Brussels, Dublin or Paris instead.

LTN - Luton

The Cinzano advertisement featuring Lorraine Chase did more for vermouth sales than it did for the status of Bedfordshire's airport. The naff image of Luton's municipal airport is undeserved, since it is smart and efficient. But flights are so few that by lunchtime the information screens start listing the following day's departures. Emerald European, one of the handful of scheduled operators at Luton, is bravely trying to make it into a hub airport; but the patience of most travellers could be tested by a four- hours-plus stopover, connecting from Belfast to Malaga.

Door-to-plane distance: 200 yards, with a big duty-free shop on the way. Hang on to your hat, because Luton's hilltop location makes boarding breezy.

Approach path: 45 minutes and £9.60 from King's Cross, taking the train to Luton and a shuttle bus from there; the five-minute wait for the bus to leave was enlivened by a drunk urinating in front of the assembled passengers. The bus meanders through suburban Luton, reaching what appears to be a trading estate after 10 minutes. This turns out to be an international airport.

The next departure is ... to a Mediterranean resort, or one of five airports in Ireland. Suckling Airways (01223 293393) is starting a service to Sydney, with a change at Amsterdam, in two weeks.

SOU - Southampton

In the Thirties, when flying boats splashed down into Southampton Water from all corners of the Empire, Southampton was the nation's premier air hub: you could take off for anywhere, from the Isle of Wight to India. Nowadays, Hampshire's aeronautical aspirations are reduced to three of the Channel Islands and a handful of short-haul cities. These are served from Eastleigh airport, four miles north of Southampton city centre. A new terminal opened four months ago, resembling a stainless steel barn plonked next to the runway.

Approach path: the train from Waterloo whizzes through Basingstoke, arriving at Southampton Parkway in an hour flat. The terminal is a five- minute walk away.

Door-to-plane distance: 100 yards.

The next departure is ... for Alderney, Guernsey or Jersey. Channel Islands flights are where Southampton really scores. Flights are quicker, simply because of the shorter distance, and runway congestion is unheard-of: the flight time is less than you sometimes have to spend waiting for a take-off slot at Heathrow or Gatwick. And for people travelling from Belfast intending to transfer to Eurostar trains at Waterloo, Southampton is definitely the best connection.

SEN - Southend

"Cute" is not a term readily applied to airports, but it could attach itself to Essex's diminutive second airport. If you amble through the modest suburbs spreading north from Southend, you suddenly stumble upon a place calling itself an international airport, although the plain brickwork of the terminal building makes it look as if someone has built a slightly extravagant extension to their garage.

Approach path: a train from Liverpool Street to Rochford, and a two- mile taxi ride, takes less than an hour and costs about £9.

Door-to-plane distance: 50 yards, assuming you can find a plane (see below).

The next departure is ... starting today. For the winter months, Southend airport has been devoid of passengers, but as from this morning you can travel, on Saturdays and Wednesdays, to Jersey and Guernsey. Travelsmith of Maldon (01621 784666) runs the Channel Islands charters, costing £119 return (£10 more on Saturdays).