London Southend (SEN) CEO Glyn Jones is confident that passenger traffic will return to the UK airport despite the absence of commercial service during the winter 2021/22 season.
The airport handled more than two million passengers in 2019, up by around 37% on the previous 12 months. That was helped by the expansion of low-cost operators easyJet and Ryanair, as well as Wizz Air’s entry to the market.
However, easyJet pulled out of the airport early on during the pandemic—retreating to its London Gatwick (LGW) and London Luton (LTN) hubs—and Ryanair closed its SEN base at the end of the summer 2021 season. The likes of Wizz Air, Loganair and Air Malta are also yet to return.
The airline exits mean that London Southend is without any commercial flights this winter and owner Esken does not expect passenger operations to resume until April 2022, which should allow the airport to minimize costs and cash burn.
Speaking to Routes, Jones said the impact of the COVID-19 crisis has been “brutal” but expressed confidence that traffic will bounce back, saying that the underlying fundamentals of the business remain strong.
“We’re still only 45 minutes from central London by train and we have 8.2 million people on our doorstep,” Jones said. “Given the underlying demand, I would be extremely surprised if the growth rate we saw before the pandemic didn’t return in two or three years.”
Jones explained that London Southend—the smallest of six airports to carry the London prefix—has a compelling offer because of its vacant slots and direct access into the UK capital. He added that the airport has the “best passenger experience in London,” pointing to new screening technology that allows passengers to leave liquids and laptops in their bags when going through security.
Although no travelers will get to experience the terminal improvements this winter, Jones said the downtime is enabling the airport’s management team to progress a masterplan that will increase SEN’s capacity to between 10 and 12 million passengers per year over the next decade—up from around six million currently.
The planned infrastructure investment follows a deal agreed by Esken in August with a fund connected to US private equity firm The Carlyle Group for a £125 million ($169 million) loan, convertible into a 30% stake in the airport.
Jones said the backing of Carlyle would be “invaluable”—not just to support infrastructure projects, but also to assist in the wider development of the airport business.
“London is still a huge economic engine and will remain so,” Jones added. “The short-term is obviously very challenging but if we continue to focus on satisfying our customers and keeping our costs under control, then we have a very compelling proposition for the future.”
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