30-Second Interview – Bernard Lavelle, Aviation Business Development Director, London Southend Airport
London Southend Airport has undergone quite a transformation since it was purchased by the Stobart Group in 2011. Among the infrastructure developments put in place by the new owners were a new terminal, a runway extension and a dedicated rail station with regular links to London. The expanding London airport has already welcomed two new carriers in 2018, with the introduction of services by IGavion and Air Malta, and will host its third new airline of the year in June, when Loganair connects it to Carlisle, Stobart Group’s other airport interest.
The opportunities for future growth at Southend were enough to lure in Bernard Lavelle, its new Aviation Business Director, who previously spent more than 30 years honing his route development skills at London City, helping to transform that facility from a non-entity into a serious player in the London market. Nick Preston caught up with the man charged with continuing Southend’s growth during a visit to the airport on 8 May, and discussed the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
anna.aero: What appealed to you about the opportunity to become the Business Development Director at London Southend and how can your experience and knowledge from London City be beneficial in the new role?
Bernard Lavelle: “A lot of people look at London City now and see how successful it is, but not many remember what it was like 15-20 years ago when it was struggling to attract passengers and airlines. Over that period I was able to build up traffic at London City and I see the same opportunities now at London Southend. We had just over one million passengers here last year, which is fairly quiet compared to the other London airports, but there is a fantastic opportunity. The thing that attracted me most was the available capacity. Secondly, in terms of connectivity, as you’ve seen, there’s a train station right outside the terminal and the Air Malta passengers that have come off the flight this morning, will have only taken 10 minutes to get from the aircraft to the train, which is absolutely brilliant and I don’t think any other airport can beat that.
“My time at London City allowed me to build relationships and trust with various carriers, even those that didn’t serve the airport. These relationships are helping us to start conversations with airlines about the opportunities on offer at London Southend.”
aa: Southend has essentially become London’s sixth commercial airport since Stobart Group took over and rebuilt the infrastructure. How does Southend fit in among the other London airports and what is its unique selling point?
BL: “What a lot of people don’t realise about London Southend is its proximity to London. Trains to Liverpool Street take 53 minutes and only 45 minutes to Stratford, with connectivity to the underground at both of those stations. The challenge for London’s airports as a whole is all about capacity. If we look at what the Davies commission said, it was talking about the increase in demand, but capacity supply has not kept pace. We have a lot of spare capacity available here. If you look at peak times, there are very few slots available at the other airports when airlines, especially those with inbound demand, want to fly into London. We have plenty of those slots available and that is the unique opportunity for airlines and for Southend to play a part in the London capacity challenge.”
aa: What do you define as Southend’s catchment area and main competing airports? Do you believe there is an opportunity to take market share away from these airports on certain routes?
BL: “Before I started, the airport carried out some quite innovative catchment work using mobile phone data which showed a lot of users originating in the Essex area, going down into Northern Kent and then edging into London which is really what you would expect. We’ve done some more recent catchment analysis, using actual anonymous booking data from our in-house airline Stobart Air which flies as a Flybe franchise. Using this, we were able to post code match the bookings for Flybe. That showed us that the catchment is now moving further Westwards into London, with 14% of our passengers actually coming from the city of London, with EC 1-to-4 postcodes, which is a key market. I think that’s really a function of two things; one as the airport matures and gets more well known, passengers are starting to recognise and use it, and secondly it’s a function of the increasing number of routes available. With easyJet adding a fourth aircraft this summer, and also the big expansion by Flybe, we’re now attracting passengers from a wider area. The other interesting thing about catchment is, if you were to heat map it, you would see almost a direct line from London Southend going to London, and that’s going along the train line, so it shows the importance of the train line and the connectivity it provides, both to London and to Southend.
“I think we can act more as a complimentary element to the other London airports. With our catchment and connectivity into London I see us offering an opportunity for complimentary service for airlines that are, for example, operating from Heathrow, which are babysitting slots, or that have slots they perhaps need to sell at some point. We are also talking to airlines that are generally looking to come into London and are struggling to find slot capacity. London Southend wouldn’t necessarily have been the first airport they would have thought of, but when you actually start talking to them and bring them down here, they really understand the whole benefit of the product. The message we’re trying to get across is that London Southend is part of the London airport system.”
aa: Southend’s primary airlines are currently low-cost and regional operators. Will it primarily serve low-cost airlines and leisure routes, or do you believe there is realistic demand for business traffic and full-service operators?
BL: “Absolutely. We have easyJet and Flybe as the main operators. easyJet provides a good service on the low-cost side and Flybe provide a good regional service, but I’m talking to a range of carriers at the moment that cover all the different business models. There are opportunities here for full-service carriers that might, perhaps already operate from say Heathrow or Luton and want to take advantage of the different catchment we offer. I suspect low-cost and regional will probably end up being 65-70% of the overall traffic, but that does leave 30% which could be provided by full-service carriers going forward.”
aa: Do you expect to see an increase in capacity and based aircraft from easyJet and Flybe (Stobart Air) in the next few years? Are you expecting to announce any additional based operators in the near future?
BL: “One of the things I have always done, previously at London City and now at London Southend, is to work and focus with existing customers and grow their business as well as looking for new customers, so its not just about looking for new airlines all the time. Growing new routes or growing frequencies is crucially important so absolutely, we’re talking with our two based customers to develop and add to their services. With easyJet adding an A320 to its based fleet from June, they know and understand the market. The market has got to be profitable for them, otherwise they wouldn’t be adding additional capacity. I think that sends a really positive message that the airport wants to work with its existing customers, and the evidence of how we like to work with existing carriers is there to see for prospective new carriers. We’re also talking to other airlines about either basing aircraft at London Southend, or indeed basing aircraft at the other end of the route, but looking to fly into London at those peak times that aren’t really available from the other airports. I think the inbound market and our train connectivity has been under exploited so far and it’s a real opportunity for growth.
aa: Is there a strong likelihood that operators will introduce additional flights to Southend using non-based aircraft?
BL: “Air Malta is a good example of this. They’re doing Malta, Catania and Cagliari into London Southend. The aircraft isn’t based here. IGavion has just started as well and the aircraft is based in France. Peak time capacity in the morning and I’m talking from about 06:30 to 09:15, is when inbound operators, certainly on business-type routes, want to come into London. This is very difficult to get at any of the other London airports and we have a lot of that capacity available for airlines to take advantage of.”
aa: How have the links to Manchester, Glasgow and Dublin performed since their launch last year?
BL: “One of the questions put to me when I started was how do you make domestic services work? And the answer is simply, you provide a decent schedule. Its interesting to look at what Flybe has done on Manchester and Glasgow and to an extent on its international link to Groningen, on which it has actually improved its schedule and is now starting to see that traffic grow. Approximately 30% of the domestic traffic is now repeat business and repeat business only comes if people like the product and the fare and want to take advantage of it more regularly. Having a decent schedule is really important to domestic services and we’re starting to see the benefits of that.”
aa: What do you see as your biggest challenges for attracting more airlines and passengers to use Southend and how can these be overcome?
BL: “In my short time here I’ve come across three different types of airline conversations. There’s the group of airlines that know absolutely nothing about London Southend so they’re like a blank canvas and we can go and paint on that canvas by giving them the facts and information and then they understand the benefits and opportunities and want to engage with you in conversation. Then there’s the group that knows something about London Southend but its either wrong, or out-of-date. That’s slightly harder because, first of all, you have to correct that information but again, once you have the chance to engage they understand the opportunity that’s available to them and really do consider us as part of the London airport system. The third group is almost a sub-group of the second, these are airlines who say their flight operations department say they can’t land an A319 or A320 at Southend, and then you point out we have A320s landing day-in, day-out, and again this is usually down to inaccurate information or because they don’t fully understand the runway characteristics.
“That’s the challenge I have, educating the market. It is no different to the challenge I had at London City when I had to talk to airlines who didn’t know where London City was or what it was about and didn’t understand what the opportunity was. You can’t change that overnight. It does mean you have to go and talk to a lot of airlines. London City had 100,000 passengers when I started and 4.5 million when I left. I never thought I’d be in the position where I didn’t have any slots left at peak times because I’d sold them all. Now, at London Southend, people will never think we’ll be in the position where there are no slots available at peak times because, currently, there are so many, but hopefully over time we will reach a position where we will have to look at expanding capacity going forward to provide more slot capacity because we are successful. That is my key objective.”
aa: What are the airport’s biggest targets and opportunities for future airline partners and route expansion in the coming years?
BL: “The question is, do you go after airlines or do you go after routes? My view is you go after routes because you’re looking at unserved routes with demand from your catchment, then you go looking for the relevant airline that would work well for that route. With airlines like easyJet and Flybe they’re well-known brands with good sales, marketing and distribution systems and that makes it easier. With smaller, less well-known airlines they need more help, and we are a very supportive partner for carriers and want to work hand-in-hand with them. I think there are fantastic opportunities available in terms of domestic routes. We’re keen to add services like Edinburgh and Belfast. I brought both of those routes into London City and I see no reason why both destinations couldn’t work successfully from here as well. There are some other potential domestic routes going forward, particularly in Scotland and the Channel Islands.
“I think there are still a number of unsupported sun areas and also city areas. On the leisure side we’d like to see a bit more in places like Spain, Turkey and Portugal. We already have some services that are very successful so I think there’s an opportunity to develop more. I also think there’s a real opportunity for some seasonal ski market traffic to places like Chambery. I think there is the potential for business traffic that hasn’t been exploited here before, to help compliment other services, but also in some smaller niche markets with demand for business traffic into London. London is a huge market that pulls traffic from all over the world. Everyone wants to come to London whether its for business or leisure, and London Southend will be able to provide that capacity for them. I think there’s a real opportunity there for adding business traffic, while continuing to develop the leisure and VFR traffic that we have already. On the business side, I think Germany is a really unexploited market, it’s the UK’s second biggest trading partner after Ireland. We have a link to Cologne Bonn with Flybe which is doing well, but there are other opportunities with the likes of Hannover and Düsseldorf, or even some of the smaller cities like Rostock which has a big business market. Scandinavia is another potential market, with Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo, but also some of the smaller Norwegian cities that don’t have direct connectivity into London. There may not be enough demand for daily flights from these Norwegian airports but I think a two or three times weekly operation could work quite well.
“Then there are airlines who have perhaps more business services elsewhere but might want to add some leisure traffic in the London market. I think there are opportunities for them to compliment what they are doing at the other London airports where they might want to expand but can’t. You can go to one of the other large airports and try and find a slot, but probably won’t get the time you want. If you go to Luton or Gatwick you risk getting lost among easyJet’s services, if you go to Stansted the same thing will happen with Ryanair. If you come to London Southend, you’re not going to get lost.”