Sunday 18 August 2019

The other way is Essex: how London alternative is faring

Graeme Buchanan, managing director of Stobart Air, which operates the Dublin to London Southend route on behalf of British carrier Flybe. Photo: Maxwells Dublin
Graeme Buchanan, managing director of Stobart Air, which operates the Dublin to London Southend route on behalf of British carrier Flybe. Photo: Maxwells Dublin

Mark Evans

Even with Brexit bringing down British numbers, Dublin-London remains Europe's most travelled route, with around five million passengers a year.

But regular trips to the British capital can be a slog, whether it's because of a holding pattern over Heathrow or Gatwick, bustling Stansted isn't the airy terminal space it one was, or cramped, but very central, London City is eight years away from a massive overhaul.

Step forward Southend Airport, with Ireland's Stobart Air, plying the route in the Flybe colours, aiming to make it third time lucky on a route that's been dropped in the past by Flybe and Aer Lingus Regional.

The main difference this time? Jet aircraft, instead of slower and weather-dependent turboprops, with a service which Stobart managing director Graeme Buchanan believes is a serious contender for the business and leisure markets.

So far, the response has been positive about the service, which commenced in late October, to the lesser-known Essex airport. "We're more than pleased with how it's started and we've got a number of flights that were 100pc full," he says.

"We're going to beat our initial target for passenger numbers in November and we're well placed for December.

"Our overall load factor assumption starting the route was much lower than that - we were only expecting in the mid-60s."

It's early days, but the service, operating up to three times a day, is to expand in the summer.

And while leisure is, well, flying, the corporate sector is only coming around to the idea. The push is to promote the ease of the airport - "like London City was 15 years ago" says Buchanan - and the short walk from plane to train for a 53-minute rail connection into Liverpool Street, in the heart of the city.

"We're not so much getting the business market yet, but there is a proportion of the business market who are now starting to use it and that will be an important metric to us. The schedule we have deployed is business-friendly, we believe, as well as leisure-friendly and we are trying to tap into both of those markets."

Buchanan believes mindsets need to change and see Southend as complementary to the bigger airports: "If you take London City out of the analysis, then pretty much all of these airports are equidistant, so we are as much London as any.

"By the time you take the whole travel process from when you sit in your seat in Dublin to when you get out at your destination in central London, your total travel time is competitive with us."

And he believes that Southend - which is aggressively aiming for a bigger slice of the Greater London market - is a case of travelling without it "feeling like a hassle".

He concedes it's an airport with more limited facilities due to its size, but believes the range of eating and drinking outlets is more than adequate. Retail-wise, there's a small assortment of stores, but in Southends's defence, he asks rhetorically: "If you want to go shopping, why would you go to an airport?"

Good news on the connectivity front, with Luxair announcing that it's to increase services between Dublin and Luxembourg from six times a week at present to twice-daily, except Saturdays, from March 25.

Flights will depart Dublin at 2.05pm and 7.45pm, with the single Saturday service leaving at 8.35am, using 76-seater Bombardier Q400s. As with the case of Southend, the service was dropped before - in Luxair's case in 2011 - but demand has been good since it was reinstated in March 2014.

The new services will appeal to the corporate sector in particular, with fast-track access at security for business travellers, and the Duchy itself a key European financial and political centre.

The debate about whether on-board connectivity is the way of the future, or an intrusion into your own time away from the office, rages on, but more and more carriers are looking at the technology.

Cathay Pacific - which will commence direct services between Dublin and Hong Kong next June - is the latest.

The Asian carrier is to begin rolling out wifi on all wide-bodied aircraft from the middle of next year. So it'll be a lottery for a number of years if you're travelling on that route out of Dublin, depending on what aircraft is deployed.

Prices are listed from $9.95 (one hour continuous use) to a flat fee of $19.95, for service on flights of over six hours' duration.

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