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London Southend Airport; An Inevitable Conflict?

Begin in 1993; Southend Borough Council, owners of their local airport, decided to sell it in an effort to return the facility to profitability as it had been making losses steadily since the heady days of the 1960s when it was one of the top five busiest airports in the UK. Having rebranded itself as London Southend (SEN), and changed ownership yet again when the Stobart Group bought it in 2008 for £21m, the Essex airport has seen a huge increase in the number of flights, particularly those of easyJet and Ryanair, in recent years.

The increase in use is not really a surprise; Stobart wouldn’t have taken it on unless there was the potential for growth. Their investment in the airport saw a new ATC tower rise in March 2011, closely followed by a railway station and a 984ft long runway extension at the 06 end (nearest London), complete with a 187ft turning circle at its end. The circle was needed as the taxiway serving 06, taxiway Charlie, didn’t go as far as the threshold – it hasn’t done so for decades. The airport’s new terminal opened in February 2012 and Southend’s revitalised airport was ready to go. It has seen airline traffic increase ever since – along with the complaints.

In 2013, a year after the new terminal came into use some 1,000 claims against the airport were made, citing aircraft noise as the reason for a loss in value of people’s homes, particularly those that border taxiway Charlie. The story behind the claims was reported by the BBC and the local newspaper, the Southend Echo.

The original airport buildings, including the old terminal and several hangars, are located on the southwest side of the cross formed by the two runways the airport had at the time. Right behind them is a housing estate and the most westerly of these homes are very close to taxiway Charlie. None of these houses however, existed when the runways and the taxiway were first built. Grainy black-and-white photographs from the 1940s and 1950s show some houses had been built but the hangars shielded them from the airport itself. By 1967 however, the housing estate had grown further west until the back gardens of some of them formed the boundary of the airfield. Rather curiously, beyond the housing estate is an area of open land before the urban spread begins again. Yet it is also this period that saw SEN at its busiest with British Air Ferries and their Carvairs operating every day. The Carvair was that ungainly-looking modification of the DC-4 carried out by Aviation Traders, led by Freddie Laker – cars in at the front, people at the rear and one was featured in the James Bond movie ‘Goldfinger’.

Yet again, the drop in use by passenger airlines since that time had been put down to local opposition to the extension the primary runway, 06/24 (the cross runway, 15/33, closed in 1992) but despite the opposition, the local council clearly believed that there was a future for the airport. After all, it was the council, as owners, who had built the two runways and the taxiways that served them, after World War II. A little oddly, the RAF, who used the airfield during the war, had not laid down runways themselves, keeping the grass surface that had existed since the airfield first opened in 1914.

With the new terminal in use, the older apron area and taxiway Charlie needed upgrading as aircraft needing to depart from 06 had to backtrack a long way down the runway to reach the turning circle and it was the completion of this work that has led to the current furore. Before completion, the taxiway had been used primarily by light aircraft and not passenger jets.

Making national news, predictably, newspapers have made some somewhat exaggerated claims; The Daily Express wrote: ‘A NIGHTMARISH scenario has become a reality for those living on the doorstep of the newly revamped Southend Airport, as colossal aircraft begin their taxi to the runway at the bottom of people’s gardens’. The paper went on to say: ‘The ludicrous scene has been captured on video as every twenty minutes an international carrier belches fumes over residents’ washing lines. Up to 50 such planes take off every day from the Essex airport - one of five which serve London’.