BIG things are planned for Southend Airport. Staff are still on tenterhooks, waiting to hear the result of a sealed bid auction by Regional Airports for its 99-year lease, which is expected to fetch £100million.

Coach-loads of up to 45 people took trips around the airport ahead of the announcement, to learn about the investment potential of the site.

They heard about the planned four-star hotel, extended runway and railway terminal, which could lead to a boom in leisure flights.

Managing director, Alastair Welch, said the furthest passengers could go at the moment was the south of France.

He insists this could change once new investors take over and the runway is extended, giving the airport the chance to grow.

Airport bosses are anxious to move ahead with extending the runway by diverting Eastwoodbury Lane, but without disturbing the historic 1,000-year-old St Laurence Church.

“In the Sixties this was the third biggest airport in the country, with 697,000 passengers a year,” he said.

“Since then, aircraft changed quite significantly. Most aircraft need a much longer runway so most aircraft that use passenger airports, can’t use this one.”

Mr Welch said if the runway was 300m longer, passengers could reach twice the distance, up to 1,200 miles, to southern Spain.

This is because larger aircraft, such as the Airbus 319, would be able to take off from the site.

Mr Welch said: “With a longer runway we can actually make less noise and go further because that’s the way the market is going.”

Those on the coach trips also had the chance to see behind the scenes at the airport, where about 1,000 employees work for companies which are world-leaders in their field, including Ipeco, which makes the cockpit seats for most of the Boeing aircraft.

There are also re-spraying experts on site. Aloha Airlines, from Hawaii, shipped several aircraft to Southend Airport after it went bust in March this year.

The planes have been sold to Afrik Air, based in Nigeria, and will be re-painted in the company’s livery before being moved on.

Mr Welch said there were also many old aircraft being broken up at the airport, after they had come to the end of their working lives.

He said: “For many years the airport has had a lot of aircraft here which frankly are never going to fly again.

“From my point of view they should be operating, or flying, or going somewhere else. We are not a museum.

“We are breaking up an aircraft a month.”

The airport is also used to transport human organs swiftly, and Formula One parts which are urgently needed ahead of races.

It is hoped it will take some of the pressure off London airports, particularly in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics, and already takes in many aircraft during bad weather conditions.

An example of this happened last Tuesday. Mr Welch said: “We were watching the radar screen and London City had problems and weren’t able to accept inbound aircraft. We were asked to take in quite a lot of aircraft in around half an hour.

“Luckily, we only had to take three before their problems went away and it was fine.”

It remains to be seen who will win the bid for Southend Airport and make the most of its facilities.

Only then can the airport truly take off.

Planned changes

The planned and projected development

  • New control tower
  • New four star hotel – at entrance to the site
  • Possible runway extension and diversion of Eastwoodbury Lane
  • New railway terminal planned for October 2009
  • Changes to passenger terminal planned for 2011