AS Southend Airport continues its attempt to recover from the Covid pandemic - which wreaked havoc on the travel industry - the Echo has posed a number of questions to airport CEO John Upton around potential new routes, further investment and the outlook for the once-bustling airport

1. What is your vision? You’ve been in post for some time. As the senior exec leading the airport, what do you want to see and what are the milestones that need to be reached (and when), in your view? How do you passionately drive a business forward that has suffered to much since the pandemic?

I started just over six months ago, and I’ve been blown away by the passion of my team, and our customers, to get London Southend back to where it was, 2.1 million passengers in 2019 (and beyond).

As to a vision, it’s simple. It’s about making it easy for airlines and customers to choose to fly to and from London Southend. We have clear advantages, enabled by a ‘re-start-up’ mindset, that I firmly believe will see our growth ambitions realised – we saw more than two million passengers fly through in 2019 and we were very much on the way up pre-pandemic. London Southend Airport presents a future-proof opportunity for airlines to drive up their revenues and recovery pathways over the coming months and years.

The whole aviation sector went through a truly tough time during the pandemic and we’re now collectively working hard to rebuild and grow again. That’s very much the case for us here at London Southend. While there are lots of positive green shoots around, we must manage a number of headwinds such as cost inflation, recessionary concerns and the ongoing geo-political challenges that are – excuse the pun – creating real turbulence for our industry.

Echo: Aerial shot of the airportAerial shot of the airport (Image: Southend Airport)

Encouragingly, we are in detailed discussions with a wide range of airlines and have the proven data on the airport’s 40+ pre-pandemic routes, which were mostly highly profitable for airlines. We really are in a great position for growth.

On driving our recovery as CEO, and having led an aviation business through the pandemic, I know just how tough it was in the aviation sector and for our airport team during that period, and so the opportunity to get stuck in to “re-starting up” and growing a previously highly successful business is very exciting.

To date, my career has given me rich learnings in how to work with partners, customers, teams and lenders and to think carefully about costs, sales and profitability. I’ve worked in a range of frontline roles from making Big Macs, to gardening and working in call centres and pubs. This experience really helped in me in recent senior roles at McDonald’s, as managing director at Leon Restaurants and then most recently as CEO for No1 Lounges.

I’m fortunate enough here at London Southend to be surrounded by great, passionate people. Our new, entrepreneurial, dynamic and highly experienced leadership team are building from the bottom up, back to 2 million passengers again and then to 3 million and beyond.

2. What does the landscape look like? What does Southend Airport look like in one, two and five years’ time? What’s the customer base like over that period? What new flights to you believe will be on offer?

In five years’ time, and ideally sooner, I’d expect us to be well ahead of where we were in 2019. Alongside our own commercial activities to make this a reality, we also get the benefit of being part of the growing London aviation market; in fact, it is the world’s largest aviation system with over 180 million passengers travelling each year. Capacity for airlines in other airports across the capital is fast reaching a cliff edge and we offer a clear pathway to profitable growth for a range of airlines now and the future.

More than 8 million people live within one hour of the airport, and we serve the fast-growing and increasingly affluent east London, Essex and east of England catchment area.

Conversations with airlines are ongoing particularly around unlocking new routes and basing aircraft with us as we re-establish and grow our business back to, and beyond, the 40+ routes we had previously.

Echo: Passengers at the airportPassengers at the airport (Image: Southend Airport)

London Southend is the most modern, cost-effective airport in London and the only one offering sustainable growth capacity now. Airlines recognise this and our primary focus is to get them here as quick as we can. Watch this space.

3. The partnership with easyJet seems to be paying dividends. Amsterdam will be the fourth destination easyJet serves from London Southend Airport, alongside Malaga, Majorca and Faro. What’s next? What are you doing to tempt easyJet and other carriers to sign on the dotted line with even more flights?

We have partnered with easyJet for many years now and the growth from three to four routes this year is a further demonstration of a strong relationship between us.

In terms of other airlines, we’re leveraging our attractive London location, our unclaimed catchment area and our low operating costs (lowest in London we think). We also have the fastest taxiing times and in-house handling operation, so we consider ourselves to be an easy to work with ‘one-stop-shop’ for potential airline partners.

With our coastal location, we are naturally closer to Europe and, by operating our own airspace which has recently been increased, airline partners don’t have to navigate through the ‘spaghetti junction’ of airspace over London when they fly London Southend – it’s a really compelling proposition.

Echo: The airport's SKYLIFE loungeThe airport's SKYLIFE lounge (Image: Southend Airport)

Given this, we are a natural place for growth for airlines, with our low-cost base, an efficient operation and proximity to London – London Stratford, now London’s busiest station, only 43 minutes away by train, we are an obvious partner airport option for airlines.

Airlines also know that we will work hard on ensuring their success, amplifying their routes and brand messaging through our smart marketing campaigns that reach millions of people across Essex, London and further afield. For example, when you travel via the C2C train line this summer you’ll not be able to miss our striking orange easyJet and London Southend airport brand takeover of all gatelines from London Fenchurch St to Shoebury. Watch out for some more eye-catching activity later this year too.

4. How important are the cargo flights to the long-term sustainability of the airport? What is your message to people who say they are constantly affected by the noise created by these flights?

Our primary focus remains on commercial passenger growth, although both general aviation and cargo handling are also important potential revenue streams for the airport.

Our global logistics operation was incredibly important during the pandemic, but this came to an end last year. We had a short-term operation for three months from the start of 2023 until late March.

The airport’s state of the art bonded warehouse offers quick access to a professional screening service for dutiable goods. We’re talking to a range of partners who are facing congestion at nearby ports and airports and how we can help them to beat this by using our London Southend warehouse solution.

5. The proposed sale of the airport’s parent company, Esken, has been announced, which was a surprise to many. Can you give some clarity over what has driven this decision?

Esken recently announced that it is exploring a sale of the airport and initial planning for this has already started. Having completed its strategic review, Esken is looking for the right buyer with the capital to me and our new management team and our ambitious growth prospects over the long term. In terms of timelines for this transaction, we are at the early stages and, in the meantime, it’s very much business as usual for us at the airport.

My personal view is that the process will ultimately be for the benefit our airline partners, our people and our local community.

6. How have staff and stakeholders reacted to the news?

So far so good I’d say. It is crystal clear that every member of our team is deeply passionate and committed to the airport’s success and that’s one of the key reasons why I took this job. Our positive culture and effective, alongside regular transparent communication platforms, really help us to keep our people well informed of changes and we’ll be keeping this going over the coming weeks and months.

Since starting out in this role, the support from the vast majority of local stakeholders has been overall incredibly positive across the many meetings and forums that I’ve attended since starting. We don’t this for granted though and will continue to work closely with all stakeholders now and going forward.

Echo: The airport's Greater Anglia train stationThe airport's Greater Anglia train station (Image: Southend Airport)

7. Esken says the airport provides the best opportunity to secure London slots as the UK recovers from the pandemic. Is that still the case? Is there now such competition for the London market, that London Southend is more squeezed than first thought?

Yes, capacity at London’s other airports is fast approaching a cliff edge. London is the world’s largest aviation market and other airports are starting to creak with capacity concerns. London Southend airport represents the best option for airlines if they want to continue growing in London. But, and this is important, our current capacity availability won’t be available for that much longer based on the conversations we’re having. So, for me, it is up to airlines to act now if they want to secure their future growth.

8. You say it is your expectation that London air travel will be at the vanguard of a recovery. Is that still accurate?

Yes. The London aviation market has been, and continues to be, at the vanguard of the global recovery and it very clearly remains the world’s largest and most successful aviation marketplace. People from across the world, for business and leisure, want to travel into London and visit the thriving capital as well as to connect with the rest of the UK (and further afield) and of course to come and see us here at Southend. At the same time, there are lots of Brits who are keen to fly abroad and enjoy the sunshine elsewhere in the world or who are keen to visit family overseas. In both cases, air travel plays a pivotal role in making those wonderful memories and connections possible.

9. Charity and community commitment has been a big part of the airport’s employee culture over the years. Do you plan to nurture this? Do you have any CSR activities taking place in 2023?

Ultimately our aim continues to be a ‘growth enabler’, not just for airlines but for our neighbours in terms of our broad range of careers, some of which are high value, and through our contribution to local activities and organisations. As an airport, we recognise that our operations can have an impact on our closest neighbours, with whom we regularly consult through our various forums and channels to listen, learn and enable transparent two-way communication.

Echo: The airport's air traffic control staffThe airport's air traffic control staff (Image: Southend Airport)

On charity and volunteering, in recent years our teams have pulled together with community supporters in raising more than £120,000 for multiple and varied charities. In 2020 we formed a charitable partnership with Southeast and Central Essex Mind and have so far enabled them to build a beautiful wellbeing garden and in 2023 fund their ‘Somewhere to Turn’ mental health support phone line and I’m delighted to say that our partnership with SECE Mind is continuing this year. Anyone wishing to stay well informed of our community activities can subscribe to our community newsletter, via our website.

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10. Can you tell us about the airport’s Environmental Action Plan? What are the airports’ ambitions and how are they guiding real change?

We have made a great start on our journey to Net Zero with 25 per cent of our terminals energy usage already being met by renewable sources, generated onsite from our solar farm. In fact, since commissioning, this total carbon saving equates to the planting of more than 40 million trees.

We are London’s most recently developed airport and so, as we grow, we will look to make further ambitious infrastructure and operational decisions aligned with our environment aspirations.

Our airport will be ready, on demand, to provide access to options such as Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) in particular, which supports the reduction of aircraft carbon emissions.

Echo: Southend Airport's solar farmSouthend Airport's solar farm (Image: Southend Airport)

11. With a train station just yards from the terminal, what advantages does London Southend Airport see this bringing for airlines and passengers?

London Southend has, since its inception, offered the easiest and most sustainable access to the 8m passengers who live within one hour of London Southend.

You can be in Stratford in just 43 from minutes, and central London in only 52 minutes, from our modern train station. And don’t forget our station is only 100 steps from the terminal so it’s very quick to get from your plane to your train (and vice versa).