London City Airport: City high flyer

29 Apr 2005 by Alex McWhirter
Imagine an airport close to where you work that caters for business travellers, is well connected to European long-haul hubs and has convenient transport links, making it easy to reach for early morning and late evening flights. It might sound too good to be true, but for workers in London's financial district, London City Airport might be on its way to becoming that place – though the final piece of the jigsaw will have to wait until December this year, when transport links will be improved by the opening of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). The airport is forecasting nearly two million passengers in 2005 – not bad after its slow start in 1987. Back then, only two small airlines used the airport: Brymon and Euro City Express. Both operated slow turbo-prop planes on two of the most popular business routes at that time, Paris and Brussels. London City was originally conceived as a specialist facility for short-range flights to major business cities in the UK and mainland Europe. It was built within the former King George V docks at Silvertown in the Borough of Newham and its location was immediately both an advantage and disadvantage. Because of nearby housing, the airport was given planning permission on the condition that it operated only at certain times, with weekend flights cut to a minimum. That restriction still stands, so first flights don't get under way much earlier than 7.20am with the last service landing around 8pm. In addition, its short 1,200m runway meant that only certain plane types could use it. And since the airlines fancied that executives would be happy to pay a premium for the convenience factor, the launch airlines initially charged business class fares for every seat. With so many restrictions, it wasn't surprising that it had such a slow start. On one flight I took in the late 1980s – a midweek Brymon service to Paris – I was the only customer. The problem was twofold. Brymon and Euro City Express offered an inferior product when compared to larger airlines flying out of Heathrow or Gatwick, and the airport also had a very limited market. By rights, City Airport's convenience should have made it an immediate success, but no one knew how to get there. The roads were poorly signposted, and public transport was inconvenient. What's more, the surrounding area didn't generate many passengers, since Canary Wharf and the Excel exhibition centre had yet to be built and much of the airport's surrounding area was an impoverished wasteland. Fast forward 18 years and the difference is like comparing night with day. London City is thriving. Served by 13 airlines operating to 23 destinations, many flights are with modern 100-seater jets. In addition, Canary Wharf is a booming office and residential complex and the local area is rapidly being developed. Excel now hosts some of the UK's most important exhibitions. And finally that long-awaited transport link is on the way. From December 15, the arrival of the DLR link will make the airport an established part of the capital's scene. Trains will operate every 10 minutes from the airport, reaching Canary Wharf in 14 minutes and Bank in 20 minutes. Passengers will also be able to connect to the Jubilee line at Canning Town, eight minutes away. The one-way fare from the airport to any station in Zones 1 to 4 (which cover the central and wider London area) will be £2.80. "So many of us use it," says travel management consultant Andrew Solum, who is based at Canary Wharf. "But we would welcome new routes, especially those offering premium connections. My clients regularly use KLM, Lufthansa and Swiss to mainland Europe for transfers to onward destinations." Future growth at the airport is assured because London is set to develop eastwards with the Thames Gateway project. "We aim to be handling eight million passengers by 2030," says airport managing director Richard Gooding. "London is the world's only capital city which is growing because it still has spare land for development. We also get a lot of support from the local community. The type of people now moving into the area are those who want to travel from a convenient airport." Convenience also spells time saving. The modern, compact terminal allows passengers to be processed in minutes. London City's normal check-in time is 20 minutes,  although some airlines may allow less if you have hand luggage. Self check-in machines are increasingly popular: "BA tells us 40 percent of its passengers use them here," says Gooding. According to Solum, "A lot of people may question the time saving. But I tell them that if they go from here to Heathrow they have to allow at least an hour to get there plus another 90 minutes to check in. I can allow 15 minutes to reach the airport from Canary Wharf plus 20 minutes to check in. So I'm ahead of time." Along with the growth in the number of routes has come a massive increase in flight frequency. Some destinations are now served almost as often as they are from Heathrow or Gatwick. For example, there are 15 flights a day to Edinburgh from London City, split between British Airways and Scot Airways. The Belgian airline VLM, along with Luxair, operates eight services a day to Luxembourg, which is far more than any other London airport. On this route Luxair now uses passenger-friendly Embraer 135 jets, offering a quieter, smoother journey. VLM serves Manchester and Rotterdam 10 times a day. It also flies to Amsterdam, Antwerp and operates the capital's only service to Liverpool.  KLM competes with VLM on the Amsterdam route; together these two carriers operate 11 flights a day to the Dutch city. Other interesting services include Air France's link to Dublin, and the same airline's service to Paris, which is the only flight from the UK that operates into Paris' Orly airport, located south of the French capital. BA also moved into London City a couple of years ago with subsidiary CitiExpress, flying to Edinburgh, Frankfurt and Geneva. If you want to reach cities like Antwerp, Dundee, Liverpool, Bremen, Berne and Lugano, then London City is the only jumping off point from London. Flights are operated mainly by four-engined BAe 146 jets or twin-engined F50 turbo-props. London City is different from the capital's other airports. For a start it's owned by an entrepreneur (Ireland's Dermot Desmond) rather than a large corporation and, secondly, its route development is driven by demand. "Customer pressure makes a new route possible," says Richard Gooding. The furthest destination currently served is Lugano in Swiss Ticino. "Routes planned between now and the end of next year include Copenhagen, Glasgow, Madrid, Milan, Newcastle, Stockholm and Vienna," he adds. Some of these routes are outside the range of the existing planes so the airport is looking to new models. The 100-seater Airbus A318/319 series is one plane the airport could consider. It would enable an operator to fly non-stop on longer stages like Madrid (currently the most requested route and one outside the range of existing planes). "There's a 50/50 chance this plane will come here. Flying the Airbus into London City isn't a problem," says Gooding. "The problem is what you do with the plane on the ground. [Although the Airbus would hold roughly the same as the Bae 146] it is bigger but taller than the existing planes and our taxi-ways and parking spaces were originally laid out for more compact models." Corporate planes face no such problems. Says Gooding:"60 percent of all corporate planes can land here, with Netjets being one of our best customers. Corporate traffic now comprises 10 percent of our total traffic." The Jet Centre is at the London end of the airport and can be reached swiftly and discreetly. Unlike at Heathrow, executive planes are welcome. "We operate nine-seater Citation Excel jets from here on sectors up to 4.5 hours," says George Galanopoulos, managing director of London Executive Aviation, a major user of the Jet Centre with 50 arrivals and departures a day. "We tend to fly to destinations not covered by the normal flights from there. So that means Athens, Moscow, Algiers and Tripoli. The most popular destinations are Nice and Marbella. Main customers are banks and financial institutions in the City and Canary Wharf. Leisure customers are becoming increasingly common and now represent about 30 percent of the total." So what are the drawbacks? These are few in number and concern the limited choice of destinations and restricted schedules. Some travellers grumble about the higher fares (compared with Heathrow) but it all depends on how you value your time. "You have to balance convenience against a cheaper fare," argues Solum. "Heathrow might be cheaper but you spend more time and money in getting there."
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