The successful story of London’s ‘other’ airport and it is not even in the UK!

4 February, 2020

Around a decade ago, even Birmingham was claiming to be one of London’s airports given its good train access into the UK capital, but right now, the name London is hardly synonymous with the smooth operation of air travel. The UK’s six capital city airports – Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, City and Southend- are collectively the busiest aviation network in the world, but are each experiencing individual issues of their own.

At Heathrow, economic and environmental ones continue to bedevil efforts to build a third runway. At Gatwick, the debate has been whether a taxiway can be used as the ‘second runway’ it failed to get government approval for. At Stansted, the management is pitted against councils and residents which are opposed to expansion.

Elsewhere, Luton is limited in how far it can expand by local decree while London City faces a threat from Crossrail (the Elizabeth Line) when it finally opens. Only fast-growing Southend, located out on the Essex coast, can feel smug but now its owner, Stobart Group, is caught up in the continuing Flybe financial debacle as a shareholder in that airline.

However, it is a different story at another London airport, which recorded a year-on-year traffic increase of +27% in 2019, handling almost 700,000 passengers. This one was the second fastest growing airport in Canada last year. Yes, Canada! As this is London International Airport in Ontario.

The strong growth was led by the introduction of Swoop, the Canadian ultra low cost carrier (ULCC) headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, and a venture by WestJet, in response to growing competition in the price-sensitive market following the proposed introduction of low cost Canadian brands such as FlyToo, NewLeaf, and Canada Jetlines.

Swoop is now the second largest carrier at the airport by seat capacity after Air Canada, with WestJet still also an important player, followed by Sunwing Airlines, which specialises in the vacation destinations across the Caribbean, Mexico, Cuba, Central and South America that are immensely attractive to eastern and central Canada citizens during the winter months.

CHART – Air Canada remains the largest operator at London International airport, but Swoop has become a close second and a key new entrant into the marketSource: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and OAG (data: w/c 03-Feb-2020)

Swoop added services to seven destinations in Canada, US and the Caribbean during 2019 with WestJet, Air Canada, Sunwing and Air Transat also increasing services. All this made a major difference. Passenger growth in the previous two years had been just +1.4% and +2.9% respectively.

The airport’s route map shows that two regular scheduled destinations are in the southern US (Las Vegas and Orlando) and six in the Caribbean. London International can hence be classified as primarily a ‘leisure airport’ – and almost two-thirds of seats are on LCCs – but connections to Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Abbotsford in British Colombia keep London in contact with most major Canadian cities and support local business travel needs.

Noticeably, Toronto is not one of them. The two cities are just 190km (120 miles) apart and connected by rail and one of the major highways of North America, Highway 401. London itself is a city-region of over 500,000 people, situated halfway between Toronto and Detroit, Michigan in the US. Since the manufacturing crisis of 2009 it has transitioned to become a digital technology hub in addition to life sciences and biotechnology.

A small number of airports have evolved in southern Ontario to present a challenge of sorts to Toronto’s Pearson International, the busiest in Canada. They include the Toronto John C Munro Hamilton International Airport, to the southwest of the city, which in the last three years has been very successful, handling almost one million passengers in 2019; and Region of Waterloo International Airport near Kitchener to the west, which has found the going to be harder.

To the southwest of London is Windsor airport, one of two serving the cross-border conurbation of Detroit, Michigan and Windsor (the other being Detroit Metropolitan). All these airports are classed as an ‘airport of entry’ by Nav Canada and staffed by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

MAP - London is located in southwestern Ontario, just north of Lake Erie and the Canada-USA borderSource: Google Maps

After a successful 2019, what will the new decade bring for London International. Airport president and CEO Mike Seabrook says they are looking forward to another record breaking year in 2020. Growth is expected to come by way of adding further selected Canadian, US and Latin American services. But, there may also be opportunities for future trans-Atlantic connections.

The 2,700m main runway would be able to handle long-range versions of the Boeing 737MAX and Airbus A320neo families, so we could in the future actually see a London-London flight. One issue is that London International is not as well situated for the UK diaspora market that settled to the west and north of Toronto as are Toronto Pearson, Hamilton and even Waterloo.

However, the equi-distance of the airport between two major centres of population, Toronto and Detroit, speaks well for London International’s opportunity. It could be compared perhaps to the airports between New York and Boston which picked up Norwegian transatlantic services, if only for a while.

What might hold it back is that Canada Border Services Agency officers can handle aircraft with no more than 180 passengers; however, they can handle up to 450 if the aircraft is unloaded in stages. That situation might have to change if London International is to raise its profile like its namesakes in the UK.