MIAMI – Despite being the fastest-growing airport in the UK in 2019, Southend Airport (SEN) has been severely impacted by the downturn in air travel caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
When the majority of UK airlines grounded their fleets in March 2020, airlines began to retrench their operations. SEN bore the brunt of losing some of its biggest operators Flybe (BE), easyJet (U2), and now Ryanair (FR).
SEN can trace its history back to 1915 when the Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps used the facility as a base.
In 1933 Southend Council purchased the site and opened it as Southend Municipal Airport on September 18, 1935.
Civilian flights, halted during the Second World War recommenced in 1947. East Anglian Flying Service, the forerunner to Channel Airways, launched flights to Rochester, the Channel Islands, and Ostend.
But it was the arrival of British United Air Ferries (VF) in 1963 that really put SEN on the map. By 1967 nearly 700,000 passengers were using the airports every year and it had grown to become the third busiest in London.
However, as larger jets were introduced in the 1970s, SEN’s short runway saw airlines move their operations to other facilities and passengers numbers fell. Limited charter flights continued into the 1990s. But by the turn of the new millennium, the airport had fallen out of favor with most passenger operators.
On December 2, 2008, SEN was purchased by the Stobart Group for £21m. The new owners set about making the facility London’s fifth airport. This included a new state-of-the-art control tower, which opened in March 2011. A mainline station, with direct links to the capital, opened in July 2011 and a new terminal building was completed in February 2012.
Scheduled passenger services recommenced on March 27, 2011, when Aer Arran (RE) (operating as Aer Lingus Regional) launched flights to Galway and Waterford, followed by a thrice-daily service to Dublin in May 2012.
But it was a 300 m runway extension, completed on March 8, 2012, that finally allowed larger aircraft to use the airport and attract the attention of new airlines.
European low-cost giant easyJet led the way, opening a base in April 2012. Three 156-seat Airbus A319s would initially operate up to 70 flights per week.
Aer Arran became Stobart Air in March 2014, signing a five-year franchise agreement with Flybe (BE) for operations from SEN. Two ATR-72s commenced services to six European destinations from summer 2014. However, two of the routes were dropped and an aircraft was removed after just six months.
Flybe increased its presence once again in September 2017. Two Embraer E195s would ply 12 European destinations. Stobart also returned the second ATR-72, increasing frequencies on domestic routes to Manchester, Dublin, and Glasgow.
Air Malta (KM) began flying Malta, Cagliari, and Catania in May 2018. The latter two routes were dropped in January 2019 due to low passenger numbers.
Scottish carrier Loganair (LM) launched services from SEN in May 2019 to Aberdeen, Glasgow, Stornoway, Carlisle, and Derry.
Ryanair launched its base at the airport on April 1, 2019, with the first flight departing to Alicante, Spain. Three Boeing 737-800s would 55 flights per week were operated to 13 destinations across Europe.
A Rapid Decline
The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted operations from Southend.
Norwegian carrier Widerøe (WF) announced that it was moving its Bergen service from London Stansted (STN) to SEN for the summer 2020 season. But the route has since been suspended indefinitely. Airport management has however stated that “The carrier expects to return to the airport in the near future.”
Struggling airline Flybe became one of the earliest casualties of the crisis after suspending all operations on March 5, 2020. Franchise partner Stobart Air limped on until June 11, 2021, when it too suspended all services. Meanwhile, LM ended its last remaining flight to Carlisle on March 23, 2020.
But the biggest blow came when easyJet, the airport’s biggest operator, closed its base on August 31, 2020. Since commencing operations the airline had grown to serve 16 destinations.
So What Next?
Despite scheduled flights returning to the airport in June, passenger numbers fell by a massive 89.5%. For the airlines operating from SEN, the drop was simply unsustainable.
Ryanair announced on August 9, 2021, that it too would be closing its two aircraft base, its 14th, from November 1. According to the BBC, The owner of SEN said it was “agnostic” about FR’s decision to stop flying from there.
The carrier’s departure leaves just Wizz Air (W6) as the airport’s only airline, recommencing its link to Bucharest from November 1, 2021.
Could W6 be the white knight SEN so desperately needs? The operator has already announced that they are looking at opening new bases in the UK and with no other competition, Southend could well be an attractive proposition.
Pre-pandemic easyJet provided 1.2 million seats, while Ryanair offered 842,000 from the airport. SEN has a catchment of 8.2 million potential customers, so the demand is certainly there.
There’s also Flybe MK. II, set to launch operations this year. Its route network is yet to be confirmed, but with its previous history at SEN could the carrier resurrect its operation from the facility?
A Positive Outlook
David Shearer, Executive Chairman of Esken, the current owners of Southend said that the airport, “Will look to build sustainable and profitable passenger growth for LSA (London Southend Airport) with a range of other carriers as demand recovers into a post-pandemic world.”
The low-cost carriers that served the facility have proven that short-haul leisure routes work from SEN. This was highlighted by U2, who swapped a number of its initial city routes for more ‘bucket and spade’ leisure destinations as the base developed.
The SEN annual report for 2020-2021 stated: “The current context is extremely challenging but there are reasons to be confident that the longer-term future for London Southend Airport is positive. We are a short-haul airport and short-haul traffic will return more quickly than long-haul.”
“We are predominantly a leisure airport and leisure will return faster than business travel, as people have become more accustomed to digital communications. And whilst we are proud to serve our local community, more than 60 percent of our passengers originate in London, which is historically a highly resilient market. So we anticipate a return to growth in the not too distant future.”
Featured image: Southend Airport. Photo: SEN