THE Civil Aviation Authority has backed plans to extend Southend airport's runway without affecting the historic St Laurence Church.

However, it is likely to mean the diversion of part of Eastwood- bury Lane, Eastwood.

While the authority's support does not mean the plan has final approval, it will boost the chances of raising the £35million needed to achieve the full potential of the airport.

The Echo revealed yesterday Regional Airports, which leases the airport from Southend Council, hopes to sell its lease to a company that will complete the ambitious extension of the facility.

This would include a new terminal, control tower and railway station, together with a new hotel.

The proposed 250-metre runway extension would allow medium-sized aircraft - such as an Airbus A319 - to land at Southend while fully loaded, which is not possible at the moment.

In a letter sent to staff, companies at the airport and local councillors, Regional Airways chief executive Andrew Walters said the extra runway length would allow Flybe, the only current commercial operator, to land its 150-seat Embraer aircraft.

He added: "This will make Southend much more attractive to airlines for providing passenger services."

The question of how to accommodate the extension will now be looked at as part of the joint area action plan being drawn up by Southend Council and Rochford District Council.

It is likely to mean the diversion of Eastwoodbury Lane, possibly behind its present route and through the smallholdings that border the A127.

A planning application would have to go to both councils and any local opposition could eventually lead to a public inquiry.

Keith Hudson, deputy leader of Rochford District Council, is in favour of the development of the airport.

He said: "If it is possible to extend the runway without affecting St Laurence Church, then it is super. I think we all want to see the airport operating again on a commercial passenger basis.

"We don't want it left just for maintenance facilities and an old boys' flying club."

Airport sell off is welcomed

POLITICIANS across south Essex have welcomed the looming sale of Southend airport.

Operator Regional Airports yesterday announced the airport was on the market, in the hope it could be sold to a company that would continue its £35million programme of upgrades.

Southend Council leader Nigel Holdcroft said he believed the move would help to ensure the future and continuing development of the airport to benefit local residents, business and the council.

He added: "As the owners of the freehold of the airport, we have been pleased with the positive progress which has been made over recent years.

"We will do all we can to ensure the continued development of the airport and particularly encouraging commercial services."

Graham Longley, Liberal Democrat group leader on the council, said: "We welcome the potential involvement of a company which has sufficient funds to invest and finance the development proposals of our airport.

"We hope this will provide additional and extended services for local residents, but we will continue to remain vigilant over the airport's activities to ensure the residents of the town get the best deal."

Keith Hudson, Rochford District Council's deputy leader, said it would be a welcome return to prior success when commercial flights were firmly established at the airport.

He said: "I look forward to seeing the prosperity this new initiative will bring, especially with new employment prospects for existing businesses and new ones being attracted."

Tony Humphries, who represents Rayleigh Town Council on the airport consultative committee, also believed the proposals would bring welcome employment and investment to the area.

He said: "If the estimated cost of £35million is accurate, then it should be an attractive prospect for a development on a reasonable scale to benefit the area."