February 2018: The only way is Southend

A long-established regional hub, Southend Airport in Essex prides itself on both its quality of service and its potential for future growth. Glyn Jones reveals why the east of London airport is the one to watch.

“It’s a surprise to most people – how close Southend is to London,” says Glyn Jones, CEO of Stobart Aviation, which is responsible for London Southend Airport. “Like most people, I mistakenly thought it was a long way from the city, so I was slightly surprised when I first came here how close it is to London.”

An enthusiastic Jones is explaining what drove his move from another of the UK’s regional airports – London Luton – to Southend in 2015.

“I was impressed by Southend in several respects,” he says, revealing that the airport’s real appeal was the “quality of the passenger experience as well as the potential for growth and opportunity at the airport.”

Capable of handling 5m passengers and boasting the same airfield capacity as Luton (a 16m-passenger airport), Southend could arguably cater for a much greater volume of passengers than the 1.2m it handled in 2017. But Jones argues that Stobart’s focus is on quality not quantity.

“Stobart has always been about providing a great passenger experience,” he says, arguing that if you were to push a higher number of passengers through the existing terminal, the quality of service would be compromised.

It’s no surprise then to learn then that Southend has been named Best London Terminal four years in a row (most recently in 2017) by ‘Which? Airport Passenger Survey’ and twice been recognised by the Airport Operators’ Association (AOA) as Britain’s best small airport.

Despite the airport not filling its current capacity, Jones reveals that Southend is projected to grow capacity to 10m by the late 2020s without compromising the quality of service. In anticipation of this growth, Southend has been granted planning permission to extend its terminal by a third in 2018.

“We don’t really need to do the work yet, but we are extending the terminal for operational capacity – we want to be absolutely sure that we can keep a very high level of service and that we can do so ahead of demand,” says Jones.

Race to the city

Although Southend operates as a hub for easyJet and provides a gateway to London, it doesn’t jump to mind as one of the UK capital’s primary airports, which include Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and to some extent London City.

But Southend has its own secret weapon says Jones. He reveals that passengers travelling through his airport will on the whole find themselves in London faster than they can get through Heathrow.

“I can stand in the air traffic control tower and watch someone come off an A320 and less than five minutes later they’re through the airport and on the train platform,” says Jones.

Last year Southend pitted London’s six main passenger airports against each other in a ‘Race to the City’ to see how they fared in terms of the fastest journey between two points. Starting at an origin common to all London airports – Amsterdam Schiphol Airport – the race ended at London icon – the Stock Exchange.

“It’s unsurprising that London City was the quickest option, taking 70 minutes in total from Amsterdam to central London. However Southend, which came in second place, wasn’t far behind with a total journey time of 99 minutes,” says Jones triumphantly. “With a flight time of just 24 minutes, a 5-minute aircraft taxi time from touch down to gate, and a gate to exit walking time of 3 minutes, the longest part of the journey was the final leg – the 67-minute journey on public transport to central London,” he continues.

Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton all lagged behind. So, as well as being situated outside the capital’s most congested air traffic area, when it comes to actual journey times into the capital, Southend can offer a more convenient and less stressful option for passengers when compared with other airports serving London.

Regional awareness

While Jones is the first to admit that Southend had a great product and offered a great service when he took over the helm, he divulges that what was lacking was “great awareness” of what was on offer.

“I brought honest recognition that there was a job to do (both in terms of business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketing), as well as some of the tools and experience to carry this out.

“For me, marketing is all about numbers and understanding people in detail. Those people in our case are both businesses (the airlines) and the passengers,” asserts Jones. One of the first things he did in his role as CEO was to commission the use of big data to better understand the airlines and their passengers.

Accessing and analysing this data has not only allowed the airport to better understand its catchment (based on both outbound and inbound traffic), but it has also enabled the airport’s management team to help airlines to evaluate the risks and benefits of serving Southend.

“Airlines understandably get nervous about putting their capacity into a new airport because it involves risk and we all know the operation of airlines isn’t cheap. Our understanding of our catchment enables the airlines to evaluate the risks in a more detailed way.”

The airport has also teamed up with its airline partners to invest a seven-figure sum on consumer marketing. “It’s all about driving awareness and resonance,” he says, explaining that it’s not just about saying that you can fly from Southend to any number of destinations in Europe, but reiterating why passengers should choose to fly to or from Southend.

It’s the same issue faced by airports around the world; to attract passengers you need airlines and to attract airlines you need passengers. But Jones concedes the current aviation market is a particularly competitive one, particularly at a European level with asset allocation and airlines being able to pick and choose where they base their aircraft. “The competition is severe, so we need to make sure we can help airlines by creating new values and a whole new experience that they can benefit from, as well as the passengers.

“Fundamentally though it’s about being a believer,” insists Jones. “And we believe that in 10 years we will be a 10m passenger airport.” But he adds that government support is needed to drive this growth, particularly at airports like Southend which has peak capacity available, rather than to keep piling passengers into busier, existing airports. “This only increases delays and decreases the level of service at these facilities,” he argues.

Raising the game for smaller airports

Renowned for his outspoken campaign urging the UK Government to help free up capacity at smaller airports, Jones maintains that the focus should be on three primary areas.

The most obvious is Air Passenger Duty (APD). “Many airports are marginal financially and APD is disproportionate,” he points out. “I don’t see why the Government doesn’t take a more inventive view of APD and how it affects regional airports.”

Unlike the big airports and airlines, Jones doesn’t think that APD should be abolished altogether. “Rather it should be removed from smaller airports (those serving less than 3m passengers) to help rebalance the economy by using the existing capacity at these regional hubs.”

Secondly, Jones believes the planning system should be streamlined. This, he insists would help smaller airports – which are lacking in the budgets and resources of big hitters such as Heathrow and Gatwick – when it comes to applying for planning consent to expand and improve their facilities.

Finally, he stipulates that the Government needs to better understand the relevance of surface access to airports by improving rail and road connections. Not only would improved access provide passengers with a greater choice of options, but Jones adds: “Environmentally it’s really important that we manage things in the least impactful way possible, which means getting as many people as we can travelling by train.”

He would also like to see airports operating their own rail franchises so that they can tailor the service specifically with the needs of the passenger in mind.

When it comes to lobbying the Government and speaking out about the aviation sector, another issue Jones doesn’t shy away from is of course, Brexit.
He states that there needs to be a constructive dialogue that brings together the whole of the industry and the Government, as well as regulators on both sides of the channel (EU and non-EU).

“We’re not speaking with one voice and admittedly that’s not easy, nor may it be possible, but we should at least be able to reduce the fragmentation of those voices.”

Ultimately though, the most important thing is that we have open skies, says Jones, concluding that “it would be ridiculous to stop the free flow of aviation services and it is in no-one’s interest why anyone would want to do that. But irrational things do happen, so we must be absolutely sure to maintain open skies!”

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