WITH three new routes starting last week and another three next month, a terminal extension and a new target of carrying five million passengers a year, Southend Airport is really taking off.
But the airport, back to its Seventies heyday after £120million investment by the Stobart Group, has to balance its growth against environmental concerns, complaints of noise and disturbance and serving amateur aviators. Airport managing director ROGER CLEMENTS discusses the challenges ahead.
•Three-quarters of passengers on last week’s new flights were inbound from Europe and most were heading straight to London. How can that benefit the local economy?
We are London Southend Airport. The local economy and local area is important to us – 95 per cent of our staff are from Southend.
We work with the council and the tourist people in Southend and south-east Essex to highlight attractions in this area to inbound customers.
We have just produced a new brochure. As well as including highlights in London, we have highlighted attractions in Southend and Essex. It’s about getting the right balance.
Not everyone will want to spend two weeks in Southend, but we are hopeful a large proportion will. If they don’t spend their whole trip in Southend, hopefully they will spend one or two nights in Southend.
•Are any new airlines going to start flights from Southend?
We have had considerable growth over the past two years.
We have been the fastest growing airport in Europe for each of the past two years.
We are continually talking to airlines across Europe, promoting Southend and London as destinations.
Those negotiations are ongoing with numerous airlines.
That’s one of the reasons I couldn’t be at the official opening of the new terminal extension. I was at an air industry conference in Marseilles, talking to two-dozen airlines.
•How much do you expect new routes to come from new airlines and how much from existing airlines, or those flown by Stobart Air?
It’s going to be a balance, a mixture. We have existing airlines – easyJet and now Flybe.
It’s important to develop those.
Customer experience is paramount. It’s up to us the make sure the passenger experience is first class each time.
That’s why we have made things ‘simply easier’.
•Have any of the airlines you have spoken to recently expressed strong interest in starting flights from Southend?
There will be a number of them that have an interest and it will develop over time.
It’s very usual in the airline industry for discussions to take place over a long time. We have to promote the benefits to the airlines.
It’s massive for Flybe to come here. It can take time, but we have to be positive about it. It will continue to grow and develop. We are encouraged by the responses from the airlines.
•A light aircraft crashed at Southend Airport recently, although thankfully no one was seriously hurt. What can you say about that?
Safety both at the approach to the airport and at the airport itself is paramount.
There is an ongoing application for controlled air space for London Southend Airport.
That will help us manage safety andamixture of aircraft.
•But now the airport is serving so many commercial flights, is it possible to accommodate amateur pilots?
We are very aware Southend has a long tradition of local aviators using the airport.
We have to try to find the right balance between airlines developing bigger jets and the local amateur industry.
There are two flying schools attached to the airport. They are valued customers of the airport.
We are conscious we are part of the local community and we have to notice of their views.
The planning permission for the airport’s expansion limits the number of aircraft movements.
•Do you need to reduce the number of light aircraft movements to allow the number of commercial flights necessary to meet your target of serving five million passengers a year by 2020?
The limit is about 55,000 aircraft movements and we are nowhere near that. In 2013, we had 22,057 movements. It is well below the limit.
It’s not a case where we have to cull local aviators to keep within the limit, or to get even five million passengers. It’s very important for the airport and why we call ourselves London Southend Airport.
We want to be an airport for London, but we want to maintain that regional feel.
•Some readers are concerned about the airport’s application to discharge run-off from the airport’s runway and taxi way, containing de-icer, into Prittle Brook and Eastwood Brook. What assurances can you give them the process is safe?
Safety and environmental issues are important before we look at airline development.
We have been working very closely with the Environment Agency for the past two years on effective management from run-off from the taxi ways. We have proactively adhered to their advice and continue to do so.
•There has been considerable redevelopment of the airport over the past few years. Is it all finished?
The Stobart Group invested £120million in infrastructure and it’s in place for the expansion over the next six or seven years to 2020, to achieve our target of passenger numbers.
Now it is the time to deliver returns for the investment. We have done that in collaboration with local councils, the tourist board and the local CBI.
•What effect would an estuary airport have on Southend Airport?
An estuary airport would close Southend Airport.
•How do you think airport capacity in south-east England should be increased?
We could help provide extra capacity in south-east England.
We wouldn’t be the only answer, but we could be part of the solution. I don’t feel an estuary airport is the solution, but I feel Southend could be part of the solution. We are at one million capacity over this last 12 months.
The chief executive of Stobart Air said we have the infrastructure for five million passengers. The bigger airports, like Heathrow and Gatwick, could take the bigger aircraft and there is room for the for the smaller aircraft in Southend.