Southend Airport: 2017 as a stepping stone
Southend Airport, London’s smallest air hub, is set to open twelve new European routes in May, introducing flights to Milan, Prague, Venice and other premier destinations on the continent.
London Southend Airport CEO Glyn Jones has been in the aviation business for many years, and, in his words, has managed airports “15 times” bigger than Southend. So, when he says that a project is important and has the ability to transform an airport, it’s safe to assume he knows what he’s talking about. “I came to do this job because I believe in it,” he says.
The mission – to turn Southend into an airport of choice in the capital – has been in the works for a few years. In 2008, Stobart Group acquired the airport and has since invested approximately £150m in a range of schemes: a new air traffic control tower, opened in 2011; Southend Airport Railway Station, linking passengers to central London in just under an hour; a new passenger terminal; and a £1m restaurant, among other things.
This wave of improvements saw more than 900,000 passengers pass through the doors last year. The target for 2018-2019 is 2.5 million, and there is, believes Jones, capacity for up to 5 million passengers.
Understanding your market
The latest piece of the puzzle is the introduction of twelve new routes, flying, in the Embraer 195 aircraft under Flybe colours, to Cologne, Budapest, Dubrovnik, Figari (Corsica), Lyon, Milan, Perpignan, Prague, Reus (Barcelona), Venice, Vienna and Zadar, with some tickets available for £29.99. This expansion will increase the route network by 75%.
“These are on sale now and are selling slightly better than we expected, although that is based more on industry experience than any hard data,” adds Jones, a former managing director at Luton and Bournemouth airports. “They will start operating in May.”
The reasons are two-fold, says Jones: external and internal. The external answer is “the UK is actually doing really very well from an aviation point of view”. He continues: “Last year, defined as the calendar year, it grew at about 6.7%. The current environment is good. It's a good place to be putting capacity in.
“There are always those who will give you reasons not to do this, but for us, we absolutely believe in it. We think now is a great time. We could have pushed it back, but no, we decided to go ahead now.”
As for the internal reasons, Jones is steadfast in his faith in Southend’s own market research into passenger demand. At the very end of 2015, the airport commissioned a piece of work to determine what the demand was for the majority of countries in mainland Europe. He explains: “We were able to say, from within our catchment area, how many are flying to where and when, and through which airport.
“We can say, with confidence, how many people who live in Basildon travelled to Alicante last year, and what airport they used. We are looking at what market share it is credible for us to get, on the basis of the share we have had in the past.
“We studied the demand, the competition, and what we think is a sensible market share. That enables us to decide how many seats to sell, and how often we should do it.” Decisions have been data-led, not personal whims, he insists.
Southend’s role in UK aviation
Jones is fighting hard to raise awareness of the airport, but is also realistic in his aims. He knows, for example, that Southend will not rival others in London in pure numbers because of size, proximity to the centre of the capital, and demand.
Heathrow and Gatwick lead the way by a considerable distance, while London Luton, Stansted and London City are also above Southend in the passenger league table.
Jones explains: “In context with other London airports, we’re clearly significantly smaller. So, in order for us to play a serious role as a material airport, we need to ramp up our traffic pretty rapidly, if for no other reason than for awareness. The more people we can expose to Southend… it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Southend’s relatively small scale can, in fact, be seen as a positive. “We cannot say that we give a great service and not give it,” he adds. “I don't want someone, ever, to queue for 15 minutes at security, or even 10, never.
“I can stand in the air traffic control tower, watch people get off the plane, and see them walk through the airport and get onto a train. How long do you think it takes them (without baggage reclaim)? It’s 2-3 minutes. It's only 100 paces. We need an advantage. The advantage is customer service.”
That’s to be expected, of course. Jones has every need to say his airport is better than competitors, but it’s a statement that’s backed up with hard evidence: awards. In 2015, Southend was named ‘Best in Britain’ in the Which? airport passenger survey for a third consecutive year, earning praise for short queues at bag drop, security, passport control and baggage reclaim. In November last year, it took the prize of best small airport in the UK for the second year in a row.
Building for the future
It should be questioned, then, whether short queues and speed will be maintained as Southend prepares for a sharp increase in passengers over the coming years. On this point, Jones is confident that a recruitment programme will ease pressure.
“There's extra capacity going into things like check in, security and baggage reclaim, and we've recruited people for that,” he says. “There's also been some work on the airfield, mostly related to efficiency, not capacity. Our departure/taxi time is about eight minutes, or even a couple minutes less than that. We want that to come down. We are ready for this level of change.”
Will this transformation and the twelve new routes prove profitable? On this point, Jones is putting faith in the market. “You do the best analysis you can, but the market decides. I'm very confident we've got a great product.”
And, while not wanting to undermine the significance of the increase in route network, he does admit “they are provers, just provers”. It’s a recurring theme with Jones; always eager to look at the whole picture, pitching Southend as an airport of choice, while maintaining the realism that comes when operating in an airport-heavy region, which, if the UK Government has its way, will only get heavier with a third runway at Heathrow.
Nonetheless, “we are ambitious”, says Jones. “Next year, 2017-18, is a stepping stone.”