With weeds on the forecourt, a deserted Southend airport looks to the future

All scheduled flights have ceased at London’s sixth airport, but some think there may still be logic to it as a business

Kevin the Carrot, the Aldi supermarket mascot and star of its festive advertising campaign, was pretty much the only passenger due to fly out from Southend airport this Christmas. And even he missed his plane.

The airport’s security lanes and departure lounge are the backdrop for the budget supermarket’s pre-Christmas advert, a pastiche of a classic 1990s Nike ad featuring the original Ronaldo, in which the adventuring carrot is so busy kicking a ball around the terminal he fails to join his family on their flight.

Aldi has been one of the few morsels of festive cheer for Southend – and a precious source of revenue in a year in which budget airlines and cargo flights have deserted London’s sixth airport. For now, all scheduled flights have ceased, and management face an uphill battle to keep the business afloat.

A deserted parking lot at London Southend airport.
A staff member overlooks a deserted parking lot at London Southend airport. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Redeveloped with soaring ambition a decade ago, Southend looked set to grow exponentially as airlines including easyJet and Ryanair established bases.

In a post-Olympic period where the talk was of the capital’s centre of gravity moving east, it looked ever more convenient. Southend was, after all, the nearest functioning spot to where Boris Johnson dreamed a four-runway super-hub airport should be located, in the Thames estuary.

But then came Covid. And while UK airports have recovered on average to about 80% of their pre-pandemic numbers, Southend clocked up just 5% of summer 2019’s passengers this year. Where it had planned to reach 3 million customers annually, only 15,000 people a month showed up in peak season.

Ryanair stopped flying from Southend in 2021, and now easyJet has gone for winter, as have its cargo flights. Amazon quit in September, deciding to move its cargo operation elsewhere – a relief to residents woken by thrice-weekly night flights, but another source of income gone from Southend. Some short-term business is booked in from January, but the airport is now also searching for new permanent customers for a fully functioning bonded warehouse, as well as its passenger terminal.

Trains still run regularly from Liverpool Street and Stratford to the airport, its station just yards from the terminal, both buildings brand new for the reopening in 2013. No one, bar the Guardian, was getting off. A few weeds are sprouting on the forecourt, the car parks are empty, the doors are locked.

Inside, the trolleys are perfectly arranged, the benches pristine, and the lights are off.

“It’s not easy standing here,” says John Upton, Southend’s recently appointed chief executive. “It’s surreal, isn’t it, an empty terminal?”

Southend airport’s chief executive, John Upton, overlooks the airport’s empty runway.
Southend airport’s chief executive, John Upton, overlooks the airport’s empty runway. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The airport still has about 300 staff, including 40 firefighters, air traffic control and security, as well as those working at the hotel, whose proximity to the train station is now a bigger selling point.

Upton says he has been “blown away by the can-do attitude” of the staff – all pitching in when customers were still coming, and now looking to creative measures to utilise an empty space. Beyond Kevin’s journey – a commercial filmed in September between the last few easyJet departures – has been the visit of MrBeast, the highest-rated individual YouTuber whose own customer base is high enough for him to give away a private jet as a prize in the video shot at Southend.

Even Santa has forsaken his grotto, which in previous years occupied the large conference room. It is still decorated with the marketing banners for a route to Perpignan, launched in 2017, and material branded with the livery of the defunct airline Flybe. Briefly co-owned at the last by Southend’s proprietors, Esken, Flybe finally keeled over at the beginning of the pandemic.

Southend airport staff in the air traffic control tower.
The airport still has about 300 staff, including 40 firefighters, air traffic control and security. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Esken (formerly known as Stobart) are now looking to sell off part of its remaining business concerns, either in the aviation or renewables division, to invest more fully in the other.

There still is a logic to Southend as a business, which Upton spells out: this is, in his marketing speak, a “plug and play” airport – small but new, from the state-of-the-art security scanners to solar panels providing 25% of the airport’s power, and a new control tower. It could, he argues, take millions of London passengers that Heathrow wants another runway to accommodate.

“It’s beneficial for the environment and congestion … why build more pavement in London, when we could take planes away from the spaghetti junction of London airspace?”

Under its present licence and capacity, it could grow from 40 plane movements a day in 2019 to 40 an hour, Upton says.

In the short term, any scheduled flights would be a help. Southend does welcome the odd diverted flight and a charter plane sits outside the adjoining private jet terminal – West Ham’s football team has flown out on European away games – and it remains well used for general aviation, with small planes for private pilots and enthusiasts.

Southend was the third-busiest airport in Britain in the 1960s – a statistic, local campaigners point out, that meant an awful lot less before mass travel, in an era when travellers could still drive their cars on to freight planes to cross the Channel from the Essex airport.

Empty departures hall at Southend airport.
Despite the airport being largely empty, Southend still welcomes diverted flights, charter planes and aviation enthusiasts. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The growth of Stansted put paid to Southend’s jetsetting years, and for decades it was little more than a flying club. But the 21st-century boom in cheap flights brought new ambition: it reopened almost 10 years ago, with a bigger runway for commercial passenger planes and easyJet starting flights to Spain in 2013.

While that brought jobs to hundreds, the expansion came as a shock to residents who found themselves suddenly under flight paths, or worse, cheek by jowl with jets taxiing for takeoff.

Alex Carr, 53, speaks of the consequences with the slightly wild-eyed look of the long-term sleep-deprived. Like most of his neighbours on Wells Avenue, he bought his house long before airlines considered moving in. The taxiway brought passenger planes a stone’s throw from his hedge, he says. Though he has not given in to the temptation to chuck any pebbles at passing craft. “They hold planes 40 feet away – the noise, the smell, you couldn’t sit in the garden, you couldn’t sit in the house.”

Another neighbour, Janet Marchant, now retired, said living by the airport during the pandemic was “lovely. It’s been brilliant since 2020.”

A resident looks out his back window on to Southend airport.
Alex Carr says he was driven to medication by the noise from the airport. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Residents are sceptical that Southend will ever attract the numbers or bring the jobs, but they are still fearful. Carr says that, driven to medication by the noise in 2019, he will have to move, but wonders who would buy: “Unless you’re an aviation enthusiast, deaf and have no sense of smell, it’s a limited market.”

This Christmas, at least, all is peaceful. As Upton surveys the scene from the outside gantry of the air traffic control tower, the greatest noise is the traffic on Southend Road.


Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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