The History Of London City Airport

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It is an all too familiar and often warranted annoyance among air travelers that an airport isn’t especially close to the city that it serves. However, one airport where there are no such complaints is London City (LCY). Let’s take a look at the story of this small airport, which is situated in the heart of London’s Docklands area.

BA CityFlyer ERJ 170 at LCY
London City Airport is situated a stone’s throw from London’s key financial districts. Photo: Getty Images

In the beginning

The London Docklands is an area in the east of the British capital that was the subject of an extensive urban regeneration project in the 1980s. Part of this program was to be a small airport, which was first proposed in 1981. The following year, a survey among nearby residents found the majority of the local population to be in favor of its construction.

Planning permission for London City Airport was eventually granted in May 1985, along with detailed planning permission the following February. Construction began just three months later, with Prince Charles laying the terminal building’s foundation stone. May 1987 saw the airport’s first arrival, with commercial services commencing that October. Queen Elizabeth III opened the airport in an official capacity the following month.

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London City Airport Dash 7
The steep approaches that the airport demands are well-suited to aircraft like the de Havilland Dash 7. Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons

London City Airport is known for requiring a steep approach due to noise restrictions and the surrounding buildings. This was particularly crucial in its early years, when the runway was just 1,080 meters long. This meant that contemporary turboprop aircraft like the Dash 7 and Dornier 228 had to fly a 7.5-degree glide path to land at LCY.

However, the airport can now accommodate larger aircraft thanks to a 1992 runway extension. This stretched the landing strip to 1,508 meters long. Accommodating more aircraft has been key in the airport’s growth, with passenger numbers increasing steadily since it opened. 2019 was the first year that it exceeded the milestone of five million passengers.

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A strong business focus

Owing to its location, London City is especially popular among business travelers. After all, the airport’s proximity to the City Of London and Canary Wharf give international arrivals unparalleled access to the British capital’s central business districts.

Flybe Dash 8 London City
Flybe used to serve destinations such as Edinburgh from LCY. Photo: Jake Hardiman | Simple Flying

British Airways’ regional subsidiary, CityFlyer, serves several important European business cities from the airport, including the likes of Frankfurt, Rotterdam, and Zürich. Other carriers with a presence at London City include Alitalia, KLM, Loganair, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, Luxair, and Swiss International Air Lines.

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That being said, the airport has seen a growth in its leisure network in recent years. This has largely come about due to BA CityFlyer adding a host of seasonal services to popular European holiday destinations. These flights serve countries including Greece (Mykonos, Santorini, Skiathos), Portugal (Faro), and Spain (Menorca, San Sebastián).

Transatlantic operations

While domestic and European services are the airport’s bread and butter, it has seen flights further afield as well. London-New York is among the world’s most lucrative intercontinental routes, and, while airports like Heathrow and Gatwick have served the Big Apple for decades, London City also got in on the act in September 2009.

British Airways, Airbus A318, Retirement
BA flew its all-business-class A318s from LCY for over a decade. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

This saw British Airways launch an all-business-class service to New York JFK using 32-seat Arbus A318s. The outbound flight featured a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, which also allowed passengers to undergo US border preclearance. Meanwhile, the return journey flew directly from JFK to the heart of the British capital.

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Unfortunately, BA ended this service, which featured Concorde’s BA1 flight number, amid the challenges of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic last year. However, all is not said and done for the airport as far as longer-haul flights are concerned. Indeed, new startup Odyssey Airlines is also planning to launch premium Airbus A220 flights from London City to North America and the Middle East in years to come.

Odyssey New York
Odyssey Airlines has plans to bring premium long-haul services back to LCY. Image: Odyssey Airlines

Coronavirus forces a closure

When the coronavirus pandemic first struck last year, it hit the airline industry hard. Passenger numbers dropped sharply worldwide as governments implemented travel restrictions in attempts to contain the virus. While some airports remained open for cargo and essential passenger travel, London City temporarily closed altogether.

On March 23rd, 2020, British Airways announced that it would suspend its CityFlyer operations from the airport. Coincidentally, this was also the date that the British government announced the country’s first national lockdown later that evening.

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Embraer at LCY
BA CityFlyer suspended operations three days before the airport’s closure. Photo: Getty Images

Three days later, the airport as a whole was struck with a 36-day closure from the government until the end of April. However, this ended up lasting some three months, until June. This did not represent a complete reopening, as BA Cityflyer’s services didn’t return until the following month. Meanwhile, LOT Polish began restoring its LCY services in September.

Recent development programs

You might have thought that the complex geography of London City renders it a difficult airport to expand. However, particularly in recent months, the facility has been able to make impressive growth within its fairly limited confines. In fact, this would likely have taken place earlier, had the COVID-19 pandemic not temporarily halted its plans.

London City Airport, Taxiway, Increased Capacity
LCY’s new taxiway will increase its operational efficiency and safety. Photo: London City Airport

First of all, the airport received an early Christmas present last December, when it opened new stands and an additional taxiway. These aspects helped increase LCY’s capacity, operational efficiency, and safety. Indeed, the taxiway, in particular, is crucial in that it removes the need for taxiing aircraft to backtrack along the active runway.

Then, just yesterday, London City Airport became a world leader in the field of remote air traffic control. Specifically, April 30th saw it open a 50-meter tall control tower topped with 16 cameras, making it the world’s first major international airport with fully remote ATC.

London City Airport Digital Tower
London City Airport’s new remote ATC tower. Photo: London City Airport

Movements at the airport are now dictated remotely by controllers at the home of home to NATS (National Air Traffic Service) in Swanwick, Hampshire, 115 km (70 miles) away. Overall, the airport is well set to gear up for what it will hope is a fruitful summer recovery

Have you ever flown from London City? If so, how did you like it compared to the British capital’s other airports? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

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