With Europe suffering from one of the worst bouts of economic turmoil in recent history, it takes more than the luck of the Irish for a small airline from the continent’s westernmost fringes to make an impact on a new route.
London-Dublin is one of the most heavily trafficked sectors in Europe. Irish regional carrier Aer Arann (RE) believes it can tap into it by linking up with Irish flag-carrier Aer Lingus (EI) and operating into a new addition to the London airport scene.
RE has signed a deal with EI under which RE will operate all its services under the banner of Aer Lingus Regional. The arrangement, which began in 2010 with a franchise agreement under which RE operated 12 routes from Dublin and Cork, was extended in March to encompass all RE flights between Ireland, the UK and France. The deal sees the Irish regional airline re-brand itself in EI’s distinctive two-tone green color scheme.
RE/EI has begun operating the Dublin route from London Southend (SEN), a small regional airport east of the UK capital (see sidebar). At first sight this may seem a strange choice, but RE’s interim CEO Sean Brogan believes the move will be a winner.
With its road and rail connections and what SEN’s management promises will be a much slicker, more customer-friendly experience than travelers experience at London’s major airports, Brogan is confident of good returns.
A measure of this confidence can be seen in RE/EI’s decision to put three roundtrips a day on the route.
RE has a fleet of eight ATR 72s plus four ATR 42s and will use both types on the SEN-DUB route, depending on demand. Brogan was cautious about load factors to date but described them as “on budget. It’s a strong enough route to support three rotations a day and we’re pleased with early bookings.”
The eastern half of London and the southern part of Essex, the county immediately east of the capital, are the main catchment area for potential passengers, with four million people within 45 minutes’ drive of SEN, said Brogan. “There are huge opportunities for both business and leisure travelers heading in both directions.”
One factor that he believed would be a trump card was transatlantic connectivity through DUB. Given its strong historic connections with the US, DUB (and Shannon, on Ireland’s west coast) have US Customs and Immigration desks in the airport terminals.
This means that passengers heading from Ireland to the US can clear passport formalities at their departure point and effectively arrive in the US as domestic passengers, allowing them to avoid the often long immigration queues at major gateways such as New York JFK. (EI flies to JFK, Boston Logan, Chicago O’Hare and Orlando.)
Understandably, RE/EI is promoting this facility not only to passengers using SEN; passengers from many UK regional airports usually have to transit through Manchester or London before flying across the Atlantic. If they have to make a connection anywhere, they might as well do so through DUB and save time by clearing US formalities there, reasoned Brogan.
RE/EI intends to base an aircraft at SEN to allow the first flight of the day between DUB and it to originate there and thus give travelers—primarily those flying on business—the chance to do a full day’s work in Dublin and fly home the same day.
RE/EI has for some time also operated a service from SEN to Waterford, southeast Ireland, which “continues to be quite a good route,” said Brogan. It was too early to determine expanding services from SEN to other Irish destinations “but the plan is definitely to develop the opportunities that exist under the Aer Lingus Regional franchise,” he added. RE flights are now being operated under EI flight numbers.
From EI’s perspective, the franchise deal with RE means that more traffic —both terminating and transatlantic—will be funneled into Dublin “from [UK] cities they probably wouldn’t be serving themselves.”
Under the deal, “Aer Arann will continue to be a brand, albeit from a customer-facing point of view they will be working as Aer Lingus Regional and cabin crew will wear Aer Lingus uniforms.”
The RE fleet of ATR turboprops was being repainted into EI colors and cabins were undergoing a major refurbishment, he added.
Aer Arann’s arrival at London Southend (SEN) is an important step in the renewal of a facility that had for many years been little used other than for general aviation and MRO purposes.
In the 1960s, SEN, 45 miles east of central London and on the northern bank of the Thames Estuary, was the UK’s third-busiest commercial airport after London Heathrow and Manchester. However, with the demise of its specialty—the carrying of holidaymakers’ cars across the English Channel in the bellies of Aviation Traders Carvairs (modified DC-4s)—and the appointment of Stansted as London’s official third airport, it gradually faded into obscurity.
It was bought in 2008 by Stobart Group, a UK company best known for its trucking operations.
Stobart has sunk some £100 million ($155 million) into revitalizing SEN. The main components are a new passenger terminal, control tower, runway extension and construction of an adjacent railway station.
The station is an important plank in SEN’s marketing platform. The line leads into London’s Liverpool Street terminus, around 50 minutes away. Normally at least three trains an hour stop at the airport halt, rising to as many as eight hourly in peak periods.
This is also one of SEN’s main weapons in the battle to win passenger traffic from the much bigger London Stansted, just 30 miles to the north and used largely by low-cost carriers. It, too, is served by a direct train link and a motorway passes within a couple of miles of its terminal.
SEN managing director Alastair Welch believes the new airport will serve three markets: residents of the county of Essex, east of London, in which both Stansted and Southend are located; travelers from the eastern districts of London; and passengers inbound to London from departure points in northern Germany and the Netherlands (particularly Amsterdam Schiphol, just a 35-minute hop away).
Talking to ATW in May, just over two months after SEN opened for business on February 28, he said passenger traffic was already “well ahead of forecasts.” Encouragingly, people who had tried the new terminal in its early days of operation were already becoming repeat passengers, he said.
Welch made much of the rapid transit times through the compact terminal for both departing and arriving passengers and high levels of customer service. A passenger arriving with just hand luggage can expect to get ‘from plane to train’ in 15 minutes, claims the airport. It is also giving a guarantee for departing passengers of a maximum four-minute wait for security processing.
Despite only recently having opened, the airport has been given permission by the local council to expand. “The terminal has been designed specifically to be extended,” said Welch. “It’s modular and so is easy to scale.”
The extension will add 90 meters to the terminal’s length and create larger arrival and departure areas, incorporating increased numbers of check-in desks and security channels, plus more retail facilities. Construction is due to start later this year.
The recent runway extension added a useful 240 meters, taking the total length to 1,847 meters. The presence of the train tracks just beyond one end of the runway and a road and church at the other preclude much further development. However, current distances are sufficient for Boeing 737 and Airbus A320-family movements.
SEN seems destined to be something of a niche airport. Passenger numbers are projected to reach a modest two million by 2020.
One factor that could upset this is the amount of traffic that will be generated by the Olympic and Paralympic Games, being held in London in late summer. SEN is promoting itself as an ideal UK entry point for Games visitors, with the Olympic site in east London being on the same rail route that passes the airport.
If the Games result in SEN being ‘discovered’ by large numbers of European visitors, that could boost future passenger numbers considerably.
At present, the largest operator is low-cost carrier easyJet, which at the time of writing was operating some 70 weekly flights, mainly to Amsterdam and Mediterranean leisure destinations. The carrier is basing three Airbus A319s at SEN. Aer Arann, which began services even before the new terminal opened, is the other main operator, providing around another 30 services weekly. Other LCCs using SEN are the UK’s Jet2 Airways and Germania, with Boeing 737s and A319s respectively.
One useful income stream comes from a large Ford Motor Company plant nearby, which generates a steady flow of corporate charters to Ford facilities in mainland Europe. These used to go through Stansted. “That’s a very strong business for us,” commented Welch.
Across the airfield, meanwhile, MRO work is buoyant: “We’re happy to continue to grow and facilitate that,” he added.