Princess Caroline of Brunswick, queen of the United Kingdom through her marriage to George IV, albeit for less than two years from January 1820, visited Southend-on-Sea during her period as consort. A lady whom, judging by her Wikipedia entry, would today be an avid social media user and darling of reality TV, Caroline set a precedent for VIP travel to the British seaside town that now centres on London Southend Airport.
Owned since 2008 by the Stobart Group, London Southend is around 40 miles from central London and serves its VIP and business aviation clientele through the Stobart Jet Centre FBO. The facility offers speedy transfers – by car to or from the aircraft in many cases, thanks to easy ramp access – and its marketeers, while making much of its rapid road links into London, also draw attention to its exceptional, and frequent, rail service.
The airport has the capacity and enthusiasm to expand its presence in the VIP and business aviation market. Speaking to EVA late in April, Glyn Jones, CEO of Stobart Aviation noted just how far that will extends. “We had a terminal that was no longer in use, so we rebuilt it into a brand new FBO, which we started using in January. It’s fully equipped with briefing facilities and bedrooms for crews, a beautiful lounge, boardroom with full audio-visual equipment and everything else you’d expect from a leading FBO.”
Stobart has chosen an ideal moment to upgrade its offering, with night flying hours for business aviation at other London airports, notably Stansted and Luton, reduced from June. Much of that traffic will look for alternative London airports and Jones believes Southend is perfectly placed to grab its share. “We’re available 24/7 for private jets, every day. It’s a great opportunity for us. This year we’re targeting 2,000 private jet movements, but we’re already seeing an uplift in numbers; we’re a good way ahead of where we were this time last year and I’d be very surprised if we don’t make that 2,000 target and more.
“We’ve also got a number of operators basing their aircraft here, because we have plenty of hangar space. There’s a degree of capacity restraint around London already, even without the night closures. I ran Luton for several years and I know that from a private jet perspective it’s full and what space it has is being squeezed by its rapid growth as a commercial airport. There’s no real capacity at Heathrow, Gatwick or London City, which means prices increase, leaving us to offer a combination of great service, ample capacity and attractive pricing, and we can handle ACJs and 737-based BBJs, with hangar space adjacent to the FBO.”
Southend to London
But what about access to London? Anyone who regularly drives on London’s motorway network knows that it’s something of a lottery. There’s a fast alternative on the train from Southend, but do bizjet passengers really transfer to the railway? “I was at the Jet Centre recently when a Challenger arrived. I was expecting the passengers to ask either: ‘Where’s the helicopter?’ or ‘Where’s the car?’. There was a helicopter sitting just outside, but they asked how long it took to get to the station.” So, passengers really do use the train, and crews even more so.
“As far as the roads are concerned, on a good day it takes an hour. On a bad day, it takes longer… But that’s no different to driving into central London from any of the alternative airports. I believe our surface access is just as good – or bad – as anywhere else.
“We also own and operate our own helicopter transfer service, flying directly into London, typically Battersea, but also the Isle of Dogs. The helicopter is also available for charter, should customers require more extensive use.”
The lack of timely airport services is a common complaint among FBO operators, a primary reason for them to occasionally fail in delivering the standards to which they aspire and a frequent cause of grumbling in the cockpit. At Southend, the Stobart Group owns and operates the airport, FBO and associated services which, Jones says, brings considerable advantages.
“We ran a change management programme coincident with opening the new FBO and as a great, if somewhat practical example of how we make the airport work, we identified passenger security screening as a potential issue. It’s not something that happens very often, but when it does, it needs to be handled differently to a commercial operation. To avoid taking staff who were really good at doing their job in one environment and using them in another where they were perhaps not so efficient, we set up a completely separate screening facility.
“London Southend Airport has a reputation for delivering exceptional service. We intend to uphold that reputation and carry it over to the Jet Centre. You could ask: ‘What will happen when our commercial airline customers begin taking us towards capacity? Will we squeeze our business aviation clients and somehow manage the conflict?’ My answer is simple.
“We’ve joined the All-Party Parliamentary Group on General Aviation because I’m absolutely determined that we’ve set ourselves up for the long term at the Jet Centre and we’ll continue serving our customers properly. If I need to go to the local authority and request an additional 10,000 movements to satisfy my requirements for private jets and flying schools, then that’s what I’ll do.”
If Stobart Aviation’s CEO has his way, London Southend’s Jet Centre FBO is here for the duration and he’s determined that its standards be maintained even as the airport’s airline customers expand their presence. What then, are his primary challenges? “The weather,” he says, somewhat ruefully, but then any airport operator in the UK might list the country’s climate as a challenge. More seriously, he reckons its awareness.
“We find ourselves in an incredibly complicated communications environment, where multiple vendors and services vie for the attention of people travelling and living in and around London. It’s incredibly difficult to get your product noticed among the clamour but we’re aware of that and we’re really getting stuck into the problem. We’re at EBACE and actively promoting awareness in the industry whenever we can. We’re absolutely alive to the problem and working hard to fix it.”