Southend airport: Could it become London's most convenient transport hub?

Plane Talk: The longest wait ever for security at the Essex airport was six minutes

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 22 September 2017 20:15 BST
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London Southend Airport in Essex
London Southend Airport in Essex (PA)

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On the last day before the autumn equinox, the Mediterranean sun blazed down in a final flourish of summer on Perpignan airport in France. But as everyone settled aboard Flybe 6111 on Thursday afternoon, the captain’s welcoming announcement was, well, unwelcome.

Striking air traffic controllers meant that the pilots had been given a take-off slot one hour after the scheduled departure time.

It was the last of the summer flights to Southend (on Thursdays at least; Sunday operations continue). With a collective sigh, we passengers reached for our phones as we recalculated our plans for the afternoon: rather than landing at 4.45pm, it would be a 5.45pm arrival in Essex.

So it was something of a surprise to pull up to the gate in Southend airport on the dot of half past four. Minutes after the first announcement, the captain said that his wish for an earlier slot had been granted, and we were leaving now.

While Southend presents itself as a London gateway, the airport stresses it is “outside the increasingly congested airspace” over the capital. With no conflicting traffic, the flight from the Franco-Spanish border took just 80 minutes. Such is the scale and simplicity of Southend that leaving the plane, passing through the UK border and walking to the railway station takes five minutes.

But I went no further than the café, to meet Glyn Jones – chief executive of Stobart Air, which owns Southend airport. He wanted to update me on the remarkable resurgence of the second-most popular airport in Essex (after Stansted).

Implausibly, Southend once had the highest-frequency air route in the world: in the 1960s, an aviation pioneer named Freddie Laker was one of the people behind the car-carrying planes that shuttled frenetically to and from Ostend in Belgium. At the time, roll-on-roll-off ferries were rare, fuel was cheap and anyone who could afford a nice car could probably also afford to fly it from Southend to Ostend – or even as far as Basel in Switzerland.

The Sixties comprised the golden age for the Essex airport; it was third-busiest in Britain (after Heathrow and Manchester).

But as package holidays took off, Gatwick and Luton grabbed the market and Southend went into decline – not least because its runway was too short for jets flying full to Mediterranean destinations.

A decade ago, though, the Eddie Stobart trucking firm saw potential in reviving Southend as a component in the capital’s airport system.

In airport terms, London is unlike all other cities. Most have one main airport; some have two; and a few (Moscow, New York) have three. But the UK capital has long had four “proper” airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton) as well as London City, with its short runway.

With no apparent seriousness about addressing the woeful lack of runway capacity in South East England, surely Southend has a part to play?

With a £100m roll of the dice, the airport was dramatically transformed, and a brand-new railway station planted opposite the new terminal, with a thrice-hourly connection to London. The annual survey of airport links in The Independent places it in last place because of the time (53 minutes) and fare (£16.20). Yet the extra time and money invested on a longish train journey to or from Essex could be very well spent.

“Six minutes,” said Mr Jones with pride as we surveyed the security checkpoint. That is the longest amount of time that anyone has ever waited in line for security at Southend: not an average, or a target, but the actual longest. Since travellers always need to build in time for uncertainties such as queuing time, that is a valuable figure.

Given the proximity of the station to the departure zone, if the train from London is on time you can guarantee being at the front of the queue within an hour. And as the airport prepares to launch new services to Manchester, Glasgow and Dublin from the start of the winter schedules on 29 October, time-pressed travellers might want to try keeping up with Mr Jones.

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