ONE of the biggest package holiday companies in the world will start flights from Southend Airport next year, the Echo can reveal.

TUI Travel, which includes the famous Thomson and First Choice brands, has struck an agreement with airport bosses to offer all-inclusive deals.

The first destination, served twice a week throughout next summer, will be the sun-drenched Majorcan capital, Palma.

TUI chiefs are keen to move away from congestion-clogged major airports and say many more flights could be available from Southend if it proves a popular choice for customers.

A spokeswoman for the company said: “There is always the potential for more destinations. “At the moment we are focusing on our schedule for next year and we’re delighted to be able to enter into this partnership with Southend Airport.

“We want to allow our customers to fly from their local airport.”

Southend Airport has undergone a £100million transformation, since Stobart Group snapped it up for £21million in December 2008.

Aer Arann, now operating under the Aer Lingus Regional banner, began flights to Waterford, in Ireland, in March 2011 and has since added thrice-daily services to Dublin.

In April 2012, easyJet started flights to nine overseas destinations and will add a further two – Geneva and Venice – within the next six months.

But the airport has yet to crack the lucrative package holiday market.

Because companies, such as TUI, either use their own airlines or charter other aircraft for flights, they can be more flexible in the number of destinations they offer and when those routes are available.

The Palma flights are scheduled to leave Southend at 7.30am on Tuesdays and Saturdays, returning at 1.30pm on the same days.

Crucially, the airline believed to be lined up to run the route, Germania, operates aircraft with more powerful engines than easyJet.

That means despite Southen-d’s limited runway, flights to the Mediterranean coastline and Canary Islands could be possible.

As well as Palma, Thomson and First Choice also offer holidays to more than 80 other destinations, including Portu-gal, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

Alastair Welch , Southend Airport’s managing director, said: “We can confirm we are working closely with Thomson and First Choice as part of their strategy to allow customers to fly to holiday destinations from their local airport.”