Travel: A flying start from the Thames: London City Airport offers a taste of journeys from a bygone age. Frank Barrett indulges in a spot of time travel, keeping his feet firmly on the ground

When I tried to buy a ticket to London City Airport at my local tube station, the clerk was perplexed: 'London Airport: you want Heathrow or Gatwick?' he demanded. His ignorance was understandable: would anybody on the Clapham Omnibus, given a map of London, be able to put their finger on the City's airport?

Even those who could guess that it is somewhere near the City, would probably be very surprised to know that the airport lies in wildest Docklands within the vicinity of the Woolwich Ferry, far from the shadow of Tower Bridge.

Since its opening seven years ago, London City Airport has failed to make much of an impact on ordinary travel patterns. After all, isn't the place only designed to serve executives jetting off to Paris and Frankfurt on expenses-paid trips?

Well, up to a point: the airport is certainly a business traveller's airport. Many of the destinations it serves are heavy with the smell of trade and dealings in serious money: Zurich, Antwerp, Brussels, Berlin, Rotterdam and, of course, Paris and Frankfurt.

However, the airlines fly seven days a week and even the most frequent travelling executive tries to rest on weekends, leaving the airlines to find ways of filling otherwise empty aircraft.

Their answer is the cut-price off-peak fare and the weekend break package. Tour operators are taking advantage of the airline deals to come up with attractively priced holidays from London City Aiport.

For example, Crystal Premier has two-night packages to Antwerp from pounds 189; if you want to organise your own package, VLM offers weekend break return fares to Antwerp from pounds 120.

On its new route to Dublin, for example, Virgin's City Break fare costs pounds 84 return.

But price is not necessarily the airport's main attraction. Despite its relative remoteness it is still much easier to reach than Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted.

Above all, City Airport is quiet. When I called in at midday on a Thursday, the check-in area was entirely deserted. My footsteps echoed in an empty hall.

Flying from City Airport is a reminder of what air travel was like in bygone days before it went mass-market.

It is an airport on a human scale: the check-in desk is a few minutes walk from the car park - and it is a few minutes walk from the check-in desk to the plane. No car park shuttle buses here, no endless Travelators, no human scrum at the duty free shop.

Unlike Gatwick or Heathrow, where you are encouraged to check-in at least 60 minutes before the scheduled departure time, at City Airport the check-in process takes just 10 minutes. This means that you could be working in the City until 4.45pm - you jump into a taxi and get to the City airport well in time for the Paris flight at 5.35pm.

On all the European routes, with the exception of Lugano, there are late afternoon or early evening services returning to the airport on a Sunday.

Of course, you could take a trip to the airport and fly nowhere: simply enjoy the view.

The upstairs restaurant and cafeteria have fine plane-spotters views over the runway. A full breakfast in the restaurant will set you back pounds 5, a beef burger at the counter service bar costs pounds 5.25.

Look at the small aircraft, marvel at the absence of crowds and you could almost imagine you were in Heathrow circa 1955. London City Airport is the nearest thing to time travel, and all for the price of a Docklands Light Railway ticket.

GETTING THERE

By tube and bus:

From the centre of London, the most efficient route from Monday to Friday (there is presently no weekend service) is via the Docklands Light Railway from Bank Underground station. To Canary Wharf takes about 10 minutes - a bus shuttle (which runs about every 15 minutes from a stop in the North Colonnade) takes 15 minutes from Canary Wharf and costs pounds 1 one way.

There is a daily bus shuttle service from Liverpool Street station: the journey takes about 25 minutes and costs pounds 3 one way.

By car: The airport is about six miles from the City and about eight miles from the West End. From Tower Bridge, via The Highway, normally takes around 15 minutes. Parking is a couple of minutes walk from the terminal building and short-term parking costs from pounds 1 for the first hour up to pounds 15 for 24 hours; long-term parking costs pounds 5 per day.

Cities served: Seven airlines operate from the airport to 10 European cities: Paris (Air France); Frankfurt (Business Air); Berlin Tempelhof (Conti-Flug); Zurich and Lugano (Crossair); Brussels (Sabena); Dublin (Virgin Atlantic); Antwerp, Rotterdam and Liverpool (VLM).

City breaks: Crystal Premier Cities (081-390 9900) to Antwerp and Dublin; Sovereign Cities (0293 599900) to Berlin and Brussels; Time Off (071-235 8070) to Berne, Bruges, Brussels, Lucerne and Zurich; Travelscene (081-427 4445) to Berlin, Bruges, Brussels, Dublin and Lucerne.

Further information: General airport and flight enquiries (071-474 5555).

(Photograph omitted)

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