FROM THE ARCHIVE: Business travellers are slow to catch on to the merits of London City Airport

Boris Johnson's suggestions for a new airport in either Kent or the Thames Estuary may be doomed to lose out to Heathrow's expansion plans, given Londoners' unwillingness to head east to fly out of the capital

Last Updated: 19 Jul 2013

William Charnock, London City Airport's managing director, cannot understand what it is about Londoners which makes them regard anything east of Tower Bridge with suspicion. His airport, on the site of the old Royal Docks, is about six miles and a 20-minute cab ride from the Bank of England. Heathrow, by comparison, is 16 miles from the City, and Gatwick 25 miles. Yet selling London City Airport as a business traveller's alternative to the big two has been an uphill job.

Foreigners, however, do see the benefits. The growth of the airport, says Charnock, has been based to a great extent on European travellers flying into and out of London rather than British people heading for the Continent. 'The public in Europe are well aware of us and our benefits and advantages. None of them have a hang-up about the East End or Docklands or anything else about it. Their view is, there's a city centre airport that can get us quickly into the centre of London. Great. Londoners, on the other hand, don't seem to like change or experimentation. 'It is the difficulty of persuading a business traveller in London that he should change the habit of a lifetime. Heathrow and Gatwick are ingrained in his soul and his secretary's soul.'

In spite of the announcement by Brymon European Airways in February that it was ceasing operations from the airport, Charnock believes London City's fortunes are changing. Many of the changes hinge on a runway extension, operational since last April, which has opened the airport to newer, faster aircraft with a much greater range than the old de Havilland Dash-7. This had a maximum range of 300 miles, fine for Channel-hopping but not for establishing a European network. Several airlines now use British Aerospace 146s – the Whisper jet – which has a range of 1,000 miles. That brings cities like Stockholm within reach.

In the nine months from April to December last year [1992] the number of passengers was 26% up on the same period in 1991. Charnock estimates that, based on existing services alone, passenger numbers could reach something like 300,000. The addition of new routes this spring – including London-Frankfurt – could push that number to between 335,000 and 350,000. This is still a long way from the airport's total capacity of 1.2 million, but a move in the right direction.

'We have always held the view that the core of a business network in Europe needs to link London with Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. They are the heavy routes. We've got Paris, we've got Brussels. Frankfurt begins in April of this year and I am in discussion with two carriers for the establishment of an Amsterdam service, hopefully again in the spring.' That, says Charnock, gives him the core. In addition, he has airlines flying BAe 146s to Zurich and Berlin, as well as Stockholm.

The next step is domestic routes. The immediate objectives are Manchester, Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh. 'If you look at the business community in Edinburgh,Belfast or Glasgow,' says Charnock, 'quite a large proportion of that community wants to get to the City. It does not really want to be stuck out to the west at Heathrow.' There is also active discussion among the airlines, says Charnock, of developing the airport to link all sorts of different destinations. 'If the airlines are able jointly to arrange block bookings, you could get Dublin sold in Berlin or Berlin sold in Dublin, through this airport. The airlines are driving this. They're fascinated by the idea of being able to co-ordinate their schedules to such a degree.' If that did happen, he adds, the speed (a 10-minute check-in time) with which the airport can process passengers would come into its own. 'Transferring would be like stepping from one room in a house into another, rather than feeling as if you are about to have a heart attack racing from one terminal to another.'

Stansted's business stature grows

Stansted, 34 miles north-east of London, is rapidly establishing itself as a major business airport. It was Britain's fastest-growing airport for the second year running last year. The total number of passengers grew more than 38% to 2.33 million, according to the Civil Aviation Authority. 'Sixty per cent of passengers are business people,' says Clive Hobbs, Stansted's director of marketing. 'We have set out to create a high-prestige business image. We had more than 40 scheduled destinations last summer, making us the fourth largest airport in the country for scheduled destinations.' Aeroflot is starting a service to St Petersburg in the spring and Moscow later in the year.

The airport does not have many of the major flag-carrier airlines but, says Hobbs, 'The businessman is generally getting far more comfort with what we call second-level carriers. For instance, we have many French businessmen avoiding Charles de Gaulle and flying direct from Lille or Dijon to Stansted to get to the City.'

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