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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)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • flyforfun says:

    It’s interesting how that idea of LCY being a “business” airport still sits in most people’s minds. I first flew from there in the 1990’s on the now defunct AirUK thanks to some collect twelve tokens from a paper deal and found it so cool being so compact.

    Then we ended up living at the Wharf and having the direct shuttle bus was great – we actually miss it now because taking the tube and DLR requires that change!

    There are a lot of people in the surrounds that do look at LCY flights as their preferred option and it’s always mine but sometimes the price difference is eye-watering. I had a near £200 difference between LCY and LGW from AMS last year. Admittedly this was because it was a late work booking but still couldn’t justify LCY and had to spend over an hour coming back from there.

    Look forward to the improvements – it needs it. I hope they get rid of the building blocking the light in the main seated area. It’s not great.

    • Chris W says:

      BA have several flights each Saturday morning (maybe weekdays too?) to quite glam beach destinations in summer like Mallorca, Ibiza, Nice and Mykonos which seem very sophisticated for the well-heeled leisure traveller.

    • Michael Jennings says:

      The higher cash prices of LCY flights compared to other airports make Avios redemptions from LCY great value though. I do lots of redemptions through there.

  • G says:

    I certainly hope the E195-E2 and A220 both make it to LCY. It is an incredibly convenient location for anyone within central London. The only drawback for me is the lack of European destinations at a reasonable enough price…

    CityFlyer destinations are either all financial hubs and the leisure destinations are always absurdly expensive….

    • G says:

      Then again, if the company is paying or you’re on that sort of salary in Canary Wharf… who cares what a peasant like myself says?

    • lumma says:

      Living in East London I’ve never found LCY to be more expensive than LHR and the money saved on the Stansted Express can make it sometimes seem decent value over Ryanair

      • Save East Coast Rewards says:

        It’s amazing how many people don’t consider the total costs of flying from a less central airport. I’d not fly from LTN even if it was £100 cheaper but I’ve heard of people who will fly from there to save £20 even though the saving is eaten up in the costs to get into London. Some don’t even think to check BA assuming it’s always going to be much more expensive

        • astra19 says:

          It’s so true. I’ve had some mind-numbing conversations with people where they’ll go to some random airport with a connection to save £50, even stay in a hotel the night before for a terrible flight time, completely eating up the cost.

        • Kev I says:

          Pre pandemic i’d always search flights LCY-Wherever and see what comes up often the cost was very reasonable.One example was LCY to Stockholm with Swiss with a 1 hour stop in Zurich. Worked out £1 more expensive than a Heathrow direct flight.Minus the cost/time of getting to/from Heathrow.

    • George K says:

      Not all leisure destinations are expensive – I flew to Palma from City and it was noticeably cheaper than Heathrow. Equally, I’m going to Berlin in March and flights to and from LCY were almost £150 cheaper in economy.

      However, some of the fares for the greek islands, or even Salonica, have been extortionate.

  • Alex G says:

    If LCY to JFK ever returns, I don’t think it will be all business class. The A220 is too big, and BA1 typically flew half full with about 16 passengers.

    But a non stop flight with an economy cabin and only two crew on the flight deck could be viable. (BA1 used two sets of flight crew to get to JFK, so was expensive to operate.)

    • Richie says:

      A BA A220 with 2 classes, CS and WT+, for flights to NYC sounds good.

      • Chris W says:

        Can’t see Club Suites on an A220. I think the days of business travellers regularly jetting off to New York straight from the office (in business class) are long gone.

    • Stu P. says:

      I actually liked the stop at Shannon. Clearing US immigration this side of the pond was a tremendous bonus.

    • Sean says:

      Never going to happen. Business class seats take up a lot of space and typically the extra fuel means they can’t take as much baggage so they prefer to stick with J only.

      Bombardier did a demo flight from LCY with the C Series prototype and it was equipped with the equivalent of 40 Business Class seats and made it non stop with adequate fuel and baggage.

  • Dev says:

    Im not overly familiar with the geography around either end of the runway, but is not possible to add extra length on either side to get more fuel on the planes for longer flights.

    The flaw in City’s plan is that they think they can get medium to (short) long haul flights using E195-E2s and CS220. Those planes are great for short haul but who would want to fly them on a 5hrs+, especially up front?

    • Rhys says:

      I don’t think so – flights already have to be cleared for a particularly steep take off because of Canary Wharf.

      • Bob Bilby says:

        ahem. teeeechnically the take off clearance is just a matter of proving you’ll make the climb gradient to clear the big buildings if an engine fails at the worst moment…

        the steep approach however is very much its own clearance.

    • Alex G says:

      I would be very happy flying transatlantic in a 220. Why wouldn’t you?

      I don’t care whether I am on a 220 or a 380 as long as the seat is comfortable and the leg room is decent.

      The A220 gets excellent customer feedback. The economy seats in a 3-2 config are the widest you will find. And the overhead bins provide enough space for a carry on for every passenger. 80% of seats are window or aisle in economy. What’s not to like?

      Club World on the A318 was a great experience.

    • BA Flyer IHG Stayer says:

      There are bridges at either end or the runways (well not directly but very close) that would require major relocation / rebuilding before any runway extension could happen.

  • Richie says:

    They didn’t have enough security lanes open for my visit last November and security lanes were far too long, it’s staff resourcing that needs sorting, the type of security scanner isn’t the problem.

    • PeteM says:

      The type of security scanners very much seems to be the problem, at least in my experience. I am not sure if it’s because they’re still been bedding in, staff training, staff inexperience… But every time I’ve used the new scanners at LCY I’ve been told to leave laptops and iPads in and every time me and everyone else ended up having their bag containing iPads and laptops pushed to secondary screening. Making the whole experience take 5x as long as the regular scanners…

      • Rhys says:

        I asked them about this, and they seemed to suggest it was whilst they were fine-tuning/trialling the machines. I guess there are different levels of sensitivity. I also wonder whether, during the trials, they increase the percentage of random checks to verify.

    • BA Flyer IHG Stayer says:

      Just before new year the queue was moving quickly until a couple who were totally unprepared for security and who were arguing with the staff held up a lot of people because they took up two of the three points.

      It’s not always a staff issue but a user issue that is the cause of the delay.

  • Peter says:

    The early morning fights make so much noise and keep waking me up when they fly over Central London… Who even likes 6am flights, they should be banned! On the other hand would be nicer to have more flights to City, it’s such an convenient airport!

    • The Original David says:

      Are you talking about LHR or LCY traffic? Nothing operates at LCY until 6:30am.

  • Save East Coast Rewards says:

    I heard recently from crew that BA CityFlyer plans to add more seats to their E190s. This would be more than adding 2 seats in the massive space in front of 2D but legroom would he adjusted across the board and about 10 extra seats would be squeezed in. This would mean an extra cabin crew member on board (so employment would be the only positive aspect of this) but they said they’ve not heard of any plans to get rid of the complimentary catering in economy (I’m not so convinced as one of the reasons BoB never made it to CityFlyer is they previously only had two crew on board).

    Apparently densification work starts next month so if you want to enjoy the extra legroom then try and get a flight in soon (also feed back to BA how nice the extra space is).

    I’ve always been a fan of BA CityFlyer. The decent legroom, still full complimentary bar in economy and better Club Europe made up somewhat for the lack of lounge at LCY and on the return was less than 20 mins away from where I used to live.

    Getting back to the article there’s no mention whether LCYs pre covid plans for expansion are still going ahead or what is scaled back (perhaps it was covered before).

    • Jack says:

      They wouldn’t be able to add more seats due to a clause that states the planes can only have a maximum of 100 seats on cityflyer . Curious where you heard this rumour from as it wouldn’t happen relastically any time soon or ever as I said the max on cityflyer planes is 100 seats and they won’t hire more crew if they can help it

      • Save East Coast Rewards says:

        I heard it from two separate crew members (on different flights) so although it’s Galley FM it sounds plausible. I was told the agreement with the unions limiting the number of seats on the LCY fleet no longer exists post COVID but of course the requirement for a third cabin crew member is a legal one for safety so there’s no way round that.

        • memesweeper says:

          That’s terrible news. I love the comfort on those planes!

          • Save East Coast Rewards says:

            We don’t know for certain if it’s happening as Galley FM contains lots of rumours but as they said it was happening soon it suggested there might be something to it.

            In the meantime if you fly BA CityFlyer it might be worth leaving a positive comment about the space when you fly them

      • Sean says:

        The rumour is that the clause has gone. Now it is that Cityflyer can operate bigger aircraft but most operate a majority of its flights from LCY (there is apparently a percentage in the new agreement).

  • NorthernLass says:

    It would be great if the BACF MAN flights were reinstated as an alternative to the appalling train service!

    • Save East Coast Rewards says:

      BA never operated a regular service LCY-MAN they were purely positioning flights for when BA were operating leisure flights from MAN although I did use them occasionally.

      VLM used to operate LCY-MAN but after the train service was improved to every 20 minutes the route was no longer viable.

      There’s possibly some market for it again if the WCML is now as unreliable as I’m hearing (anyone know if more people are currently using LHR-MAN point to point?) but as LCY is busier now I can’t see it happening

      • Blair Waldorf Salad says:

        “anyone know if more people are currently using LHR-MAN point to point?” – my very unscientific observation is that I am surrounded by more people at domestic baggage claim than used to be the case. Granted some may be next-day connections who didn’t trust their bags to overnight in the LHR system.

    • Blair Waldorf Salad says:

      The issue with the BACF MAN-LHR (i loved it don’t get me wrong) is that you ended up at the same BA check in desks as for the LHR flights and as oer discussion elsewhere on HfP Menzies check in agents are hopeless at keeping the queues moving in the face of one obstinate passenger who has failed to bring the right docs/not been ticketed as expected.

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