Southend Airport: London’s Sixth Airport

In April, easyJet began flying in and out of Southend Airport, located to the east of London in Essex. With the arrival of easyJet, London regained a long-dormant airport. (In the 1960s, Southend was London’s third biggest airport.) In its new incarnation, Southend becomes London’s sixth airport. The new kid on the block joins Heathrow, Gatwick, the low-cost hubs of Stansted and Luton, and London City, the most central and most user-friendly of them all.

Until easyJet introduced flights in April, Southend Airport was barely tapped. It was purchased in 2008 by Stobart Group, a logistics company, who obtained approval for lengthening the runway and then constructed a new control tower, which opened in March 2011. Shortly thereafter, Aer Arann, which has since been folded into Aer Lingus Regional, began flying a limited timetable in and out of Southend.

Another key development in the second coming of Southend Airport was the construction of a train station just outside the airport in July 2011, which made it easier for Londoners to reach the airport quickly. The icing on the cake was the inauguration of a new Southend terminal in April 2012.

The terminal is shiny and attractive – a glassy structure that still smells new. There are cafes on both sides of security machines, free Wi-Fi Internet access and a nice “business lounge” with a range of children’s interactive games on wall-mounted screens. I passed through security on Monday in two minutes. In short, flying out of Southend was a notably pleasant experience.

I have but two concerns for the future. First, Southend Airport is inadequately served by public transportation from London. The earliest weekday train from London’s Liverpool Street Station arrives at 6:32 a.m., which is too late for anyone coming from London to catch flights before 8:30 a.m., assuming that the airport’s two-hour check-in request is honored. (I can’t imagine how security would take more than a few minutes even in heavy traffic; nonetheless, the airport suggests very strongly that passengers arrive a full two hours before their flights depart.)

This needs to be sorted out. An earlier train service should be scheduled or easyJet could fill the gap with the operation of an early easyBus link from central London. (Taxis are most definitely not an affordable option. Traveller, easyJet’s inflight magazine, estimates a fare of £130 [$202] for travel by taxi between the airport and central London.)

My second and bigger concern is passenger volume. There are some airports out there that manage to do a very good job with enormous passenger volume, sure, but these airports are the exception. Most high-traffic airports are unpleasant places. Southend plans to build a terminal extension and has a stated goal of bringing in two million passengers a year.

Can this tiny, tidy, pleasant airport serve two million passengers a year, even with its planned expansion? Maybe, but it surely will run the risk of forsaking its tidy and pleasant nature in the process.

easyJet plans routes from London Southend Airport

London Southend Airport doesn’t look like much. Compared to major London airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick and Stansted, it isn’t much, yet starting next spring this little airport will be a new easyJet destination. EasyJet will be running 70 flights a week from there to Alicante, Barcelona, Ibiza, Malaga and Majorca, Belfast, Amsterdam, and Faro.

It’s a 50-minute train ride to Liverpool Street station, which makes it just as convenient as the Big Three airports and more convenient than Luton. City Airport also serves London but is mostly for business travelers rather than holidaymakers.

A new train station and control tower have recently been completed and Southend’s runway will be lengthened by 300 meters to accommodate bigger planes.

Being one of the smallest airports in the UK is an advantage, Southend’s managers say. They claim that check-in and security run much faster than the crowded major airports.

Have you used Southend airport? Tell us how it compares to London’s other airports in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy Terry Joyce]