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I chat to Robert Sinclair, CEO of London City Airport, about life post-pandemic

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Earlier this week, London City Airport invited us to Antwerp courtesy of Luxair’s new non-stop service between the two airports, which you can read about here.

Also on the flight was Robert Sinclair, the CEO of London City Airport. Robert has been at London City for just over five years now, but the Kiwi native started his aviation career at Auckland Airport before doing a ten year stint at Bristol Airport.

Robert and I spoke about the airport’s current planning application, his airport master plan, and how he sees 2023 playing out. I also had a chat with Anne Doyere, the airport’s Aviation Director, who is responsible for route development.

Luxair London City Airport

London City is already making some improvements to the terminal building which should be complete by the summer. Changes include rolling out next-generation CT security scanners in all lanes, which will let you keep liquids and electronics inside bags. (Teesside International just beat London City to become the first UK airport operating 100% with next-gen scanners.)

Once through security, there are going to be a couple of larger retail and dining options, including a bigger WH Smiths (already complete). Duty Free will be expanded, as will two restaurants.

The £12 million scheme will rejig the layout of the terminal without extending its footprint in order to increase seating by 30% to 950 seats. It should all be ready by the summer, with works being carried out in stages to ensure the airport can continue operating efficiently throughout.

That will all be necessary as London City Airport hopes to grow passengers by roughly 50% over the next decade or so. The current planning application, which has been submitted to Newham, proposes an increase to 9 million passengers annually, extending Saturday flights until 6:30pm and adding a few more early morning departures between 6am and 6:30am. The airport will maintain the existing cap on the number of overall flights.

I asked Robert about current and forecast passenger volumes:

“I expect we will bounce back to those pre-pandemic levels in the next couple of years. We were at 5.5 million in 2019 and we had 3 million passengers in 2022, which we’re applying to increase to 9 million by 2031.

3 million last year was about our expectation. Last year was a bit of a difficult one with expectations because this time last year we were still in the depths of Omicron. It wasn’t until mid February that they lifted restrictions, and when they did lift them they did so very quickly.

So we had an expectation of things returning to normal, which thankfully they did quite quickly. I have to say 3 million was at the upper end of expectations given how 2022 started, it could have been much worse as we saw in 2020 and 2021.

I think returning to pre-covid numbers is going to be another couple of years away, it won’t be this year. It could be next year, just depends, if not then certainly by 2025. So another year or two.

There’s plenty of evidence from historical crises that travel is very resilient. People give up a lot of things – whether it’s a new TV, new car, or an extension to their house – before they give up on their holiday. People associate travel with being really discretionary, and I’m not sure whether it really is. And certainly it’s an element of London being quite strong in particular.”

Robert Sinclair London City Airport

Will business travel ever fully return?

We often think of London City Airport as a business airport thanks to its proximity to Canary Wharf, but as it turns out the airport actually splits fairly equally between business and leisure:

“Business travel is bouncing back. Our September numbers were 53% business which actually for us is surprisingly strong. And for many who were speculating if business travel would get back to normal it has, and quite quickly.

Overall, pre-covid, annually we were 53% leisure and 47% business, so slightly more leisure which surprises a lot of people, but it’s very dependent on the month and the recovery from covid has been very leisure led.

If we compare September 2022, the proportion of business was actually higher than it was in September 2019.”

What destinations or airlines do you think are currently missing from LCY and would you be keen to attract?

Anne said:

“There are routes that have not returned to our departure board since the pandemic like Warsaw, Munich and Lisbon, and we would love to work with an airline to bring them back.

Equally there are regional destinations (like Antwerp) that either do not have a direct link to London or are currently under-served. Routes like Strasbourg and Bremen. And we should not forget just how important regional connectivity is to the European and UK economies.

Beyond those, with the Embraer E195-E2 set to be certified this year, I do see potential in offering more connections from London City into Scandinavia and, of course, the already certified A220 can get to the Eastern seaboard of North America so we do hope the JFK service, but this time non-stop, can return one day.”

What opportunities does the A220 open for London City?

The smallest aircraft in Airbus’ line-up, the A220 was developed by Bombardier as the C-Series before it was sold to Airbus following the Canadian company’s financial difficulties.

Whilst we haven’t seen this aircraft picked up much by UK airlines yet, it offers five-abreast seating in the 100 to 150 seat market. This is roughly the same size as Airbus’ discontinued A318 but with more attractive economics and longer range, thanks to its efficiency.

I’ve flown the A220 a couple of times now thanks to SWISS, which tends to fly it to London City Airport, and it is a very comfortable aircraft to fly in. In many ways it is the A350 of the single aisle world! My hope is that we will eventually see these aircraft at BA CityFlyer ….

Over to Anne:

“The A220-100 can fly direct to NYC and we are confident we can attract the right carrier to operate this iconic route in the next few years. But not just New York, I do believe there is a market for business orientated, quick, convenient, non-stop services between LCY and other global economic and cultural hubs such as Istanbul, Tel Aviv and the cities of the Gulf.”

Thanks to Robert and Anne for their time.

Comments (71)

  • Andrew. says:

    More lavatories at LCY gates please.

    • lumma says:

      +1 it’s ludicrous that they’re just single toilets and every other gate when a queue forms

      • redlilly says:

        +1, plus at least 1 water fountain please. Unless it has changed recently, last time I flew through LCY, there were none. Drove me mad having to regularly queue up in the mega queue at Cafe Nero to ask to refill a water bottle with their luke warm tap water.

  • BA-Flyer says:

    The area around LCY has become far more residential over the last decade. Obviously people knew an airport was there, but they were reassured by the restrictions on weekend, early morning and late evening flights. LCY now want to tear these restrictions up, and not surprisingly local residents are angry. It will be difficult for Sadiq not to deny planning permission, given how vocal he has been about London air quality, and Newham is the borough with the most deaths linked to air pollution. Expansion won’t come without a lengthy legal flight, likely to drag on for years.

    • Andrew says:

      Sorry but if you buy a house within a few miles of a major airport then you can’t rely on the current restrictions being in place forever any more than you can rely on the nice field at the bottom of your garden never being built on if you don’t own it.

    • Lady London says:

      Sorry, but it’s always been clear the startup with restrictions they were always going to try to remove the restrictions once they were allowed to establish the airport.

      Local people thought as the runway was only short so they thought could only take small planes then this would be limited but frankly it wouldn’t surprise me if they even extended it over the Thames! 🙂

    • BA Flyer IHG Stayer says:

      It’s not the Mayors decision in the first instance it’s Newham Council as Local Planning Authority.

      The Mayor can only step in if he disagrees with Newham. Which is what happened in c2015 when a Boris called in a Newham decision to grant permission on an earlier stage of redevelopment and reversed it which was then reversed itself by Sadiq.

  • Chris W says:

    I used to love using LCY but its become so cramped in the airside area after security (where the bars and restaurants are) that its now quite unpleasant. The gate areas are also quite cramped if its a full flight. Say what you will about T5 at LHR but at least there’s space for everyone.

    • Richie says:

      Not at a T5 A380/ B773 gate there isn’t.

      • Chris W says:

        You can always sit at an empty gate near your gate at T5 if you want more space and keen and eye on boarding from afar. There are only ever a few flights boarding at the same time at the B and C gates.

    • Save East Coast Rewards says:

      Problem is most of the gate areas were designed for when the Fokker 50 was the most popular aircraft at the airport and only needed capacity for 50

    • Londonsteve says:

      Whatever happened to the grand plans to extend LCY’s terminal? I was a regular on the LOT services pre pandemic and remember seeing the artist’s impression of a glamorous building three times the size of the current one. The lack of space and amenities are probably the biggest disincentives to travel from LCY and that could be easily resolved without any alteration to the number of flights and operating hours. Granted, LCY management will want to see a clear ROI if it builds a new terminal and I doubt they’re struggling to fill seats even with the present overly small building.

      Since LCY is only connected to the DLR, it’s not as convenient to get to as many people might assume. A real missed opportunity to not build a station on the Elizabeth Line that runs adjacent to the airport. Heathrow takes the same time to get to from north London and since I have status I’d like an avail myself of a lounge.

      • BA Flyer IHG Stayer says:

        The only “adjacent” part of the Lizzie line partially runs under the site in the Connaught Tunnel and is on a curve which isn’t ideal for trains to stop at.

        The only place for a station capable of handling Lizzie Trains is at the old Silvertown Station site which has been protected from development in case it’s needed in the future, But there are issues with access between it and the airport in narrow residential streets.

        The previous CE of LCY kept offering £50m to build the station yet never submitted a full business case to TFL for such a station. Not that £50m gets you much in terms of station infrastructure.

        Anyway the bus from Custom House isn’t too bad and nor is getting the train to Woolwich Arsenal and the DLR from there. I’ve done both easily with luggage.

        • Londonsteve says:

          Fascinating reading! Thanks for the insight. Goes to show, not everything is always as it seems. Still strikes me as a mistake to not find SOME solution to getting airport and railway connected, however.

  • Bagoly says:

    Are there any plans to resurrect access to the Private Jet Terminal for passengers on scheduled flights post-Covid.
    Did it not attract much business?
    Or is there now too much private jet business?

    • Rob says:

      We were told it isn’t coming back, but never say never – the facilities are still there of course.

  • NFH says:

    Swiss’s A220 aircraft often make an annoying howling noise on their final approach, which disturbs local residents. I hope this is rectified before more airlines use this aircraft.

    • Richie says:

      Is it like yodelling?

    • Panda Mick says:

      I live in Putney… Putney Hill, and am 5 stories up, so have a great view of the Thames Valley. I also have an amazing view of flights on their way into Heathrow. And was is very evident is that the howl that you mention is also on these flights. I’ve often wanted to ask about WHAT the howl is…. But it’s there for most aircraft…

      • Londonsteve says:

        I think (but cannot be sure) that it’s the sound of the engines spooling up as part of the process of keeping the aircraft on the glideslope and maintaining a constant speed. For the most part engines are on idle other than on ‘short finals’ but there are times when they need to level out or keep the airspeed a tickle. Putney may well be a location above which landing aircraft typically need to call upon their engines to work for a living.

  • Jordan D says:

    Disappointing that no questions were asked of whether the terminal expansion plans (that were underway in 2020) will ever be completed. Feels this £12m rejig of space is “putting lipstick on a pig” rather than creating a better facility.

    • Rob says:

      I don’t disagree – I can only assume that it’s a short term fix and if they are back to pre-covid numbers in 2025 it will be back on the table.

  • Novice says:

    The government talks about levelling up but how about sorting out airports. London get to have 5 if I’m counting correctly and in the north, we’re stuck with one major hub Man

    • Novice says:

      I do know there’s others but they don’t have the level of options london as a city has and in south as extension.

      • Blenz101 says:

        If the demand existed then it would happen instead we are seeing capacity cut and airports closing.

    • Catalan says:

      If the government were really serious about leveling up they’d have prevented Peel group from closing down Doncaster/Sheffield airport!

      • Bob says:

        You prepared to watch your tax $’s head up there then? This country really does not suffer from too few airports – hence it being tough to make a return.

  • ADS says:

    Rhys did Robert or Anne talk about the problem of BA CityFlyer reducing the size of their fleet? Did you get any impression which airlines are going to fly the new routes that they want to open?

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