SOUTHEND Airport could take more than five million passengers in just a few years.

The staggering figure was revealed as its £10million terminal extension was officially opened by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin on Monday.

The airport is already preparing to hit the two-million passenger mark four years ahead of schedule. It will take 1.3million this year, rising to 2.5million in two to three years and 5.5million in future.

Originally, the terminal was estimated to handle two million by 2020.

Stobart Air chief executive Andrew Tinkler, whose firm has invested £120million in the airport since taking over in 2008, said: “Our target was to get two million passengers by 2020, but that has accelerated.

“In two to three years, we are looking to get two to 2.5million.

"After that, we will have to see, but the facility is there to handle 5.5million.”

The extension has quadrupled the size of the departure lounge and trebled retail floor space, leading to new airlines moving in, including Flybe, which last week announced six new routes to northern Europe from Southend.

Mr Tinkler said: “It’s about having passengers and operators to fly to destinations that will drive that.”

The new flights are expected to carry 200,000 in the first year, rising to 700,000 within three years.

Mr McLoughlin said: “The extension is fantastic. It’s bright, light and roomy. They have designed it for five million passengers and there is plenty of room for expansion.”

Concerns have been raised about the impact on people living under the flight path of more than doubling passenger numbers, with more than 1,200 households already attempting to claim compensation for the alleged loss of property values.

But Southend Council has capped flights at 53,300 a year – about half the number using the airport in the Eighties.

The authority is seeking £44.25million of Government cash to ensure the A127 can cope with increased demand, but also hopes more people will use the train.

James Duddridge, ToryMP for Rochford and Southend East, praised the airport for creating 1,500 jobs and boosting the town’s profile. He said: “It has changed the way we think about ourselves and present ourselves.

“When I introduced myself when first elected, people would speak fondly of their time on the pier and eating Rossi ice cream.

“Now they mention visiting London Southend Airport.”