During 2015, London City and Edinburgh Airports joined together to give two aviation fans the chance to experience Airside Tours of both of their airports. To be in with a chance of winning this Unique Prize, you were tasked to make a two minute video of why you love planespotting. It was simple really. My winning entry can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k624bzRBfis - I took my Tours earlier this year.
A once hidden gem of the airline industry, London City Airport (LCY) has become a centrepiece. Its prime site location, rising passenger numbers, good transportation links and its competitive prices have all played their part in building the airports reputation and ensuring on-going success.
In the same way, in Scotland, Edinburgh (EDI) is growing and becoming a popular airport of choice for many.
Have you wondered what happens behind the scenes in these places? How do they operate behind the screens and plane side? I was fortunate to secure flights between the 2 airports and an airside tour at both LCY and EDI to have an inside view of the burgeoning industry.
This is my story.....
London City Airport Background
The airport is most heavily used by business travellers, with virtually all routes to destinations in Europe, and this is reflected in an operating cycle that has short weekend opening hours. In the peak periods there is a limitation of 38 runway movements each hour with a reported aim of a 30 minute turn around at the gate. The Proposals to expand the airport have now been approved which could increase the runway movements to 45 per hour. On an average day, 15,000 passengers travel through the airport, with up to 64 of those coming from the longest non-stop service from New York JFK. This is provided by British Airways and their all Business Class Airbus A318 service.
Arriving at the airport, the first thing you notice is its size. It is a compact space that was formerly a quayside on the historic London Docks. The entrance to the terminal is shared by the Docklands Light Railway and the check in area and space is constrained during busy periods. Arriving at 8am on a Monday morning feels rather chaotic as the check in was to capacity, yet on closer inspection, it was clear that the staff were well drilled and their training kept things moving.
Unlike the other customers, we had bigger things on our mind, we were about to embark on an airside tour, not something that many people are privileged to see. We were met by a smiling Airfield Duty Manager, Dean, who began our tour with a short walk around the terminal building which is covered by over 1,000 cameras that have been installed to monitor crowd flow and help the airport adapt their services to meet the demand. These cameras do not recognise faces.
Once through security, we were treated to a trip in an ops vehicle which took us over the whole site of LCY. To the west you have the famous skyline of London including Canary Wharf, the Shard, St Mary’s Axe many more of the new high rises. Immediately south is the river Thames and to the east, there is a main road close to the airfield, The north is the only direction that has open space, even this is restricted in some areas with the presence of council offices. With multiple stop off points, we were able to see the aircraft movements from many different angles, side on, over head and head on. At all of these locations it is obvious that aircraft have to come in twice the angle than at other airfields due to being positioned in the middle of so many obstacles . A trip down the length of the runway at speed was a real treat and showed just how short the runway actually is taking just over a minute in the car.
The east apron of the airport is built on stilts above the docklands water. Dean mentioned that this is one of the first things that is checked when the temperature dips below 4 degrees celsius as the water beneath can cause the conditions on this apron to be dangerous. This is also the larger of the aprons meaning that if this has to close, aircraft such as the Airbus A318 will not be able to park. Embraer 190s are a tight fit, especially on the west stands meaning that the margin for error is small. Too far one way and you are on the taxiway and too far the other, on the in airport road.
Looking down the runway to the west, towards the city, the lack of a parallel taxiway is obvious. You can clearly see that there is the space for this to be done (built on stilts like the east apron over the docklands) and London City have applied to be able to do this, although their plans have been rejected which has lead to an appeal process which is ongoing. Aircraft back tracking from the stands to runway 27 use up time where aircraft could be arriving or departing, limiting the runway movements available. Simply adding the parallel taxiway could increase the runway movements by 8 per hour.
Approaching the northern side of the runway you were able to visualise how steep the approach is. Aircraft may pitch down at 5.5 degrees until less than 100 feet above the runway before flaring and touching down. Watching an RJ85 land, this was especially noticeable. Personally, it was fascinating to see the aircraft gear kissing the ground and hearing them spool up 20 meters away. From this location looking back at the terminal, it is clear that British Airways CityFlyer, CityJet and FlyBe are the popular operators are at the airport with their liveried aircraft taking up the majority of the stands.
The Jet Centre and snow clearing equipment are towards the west of the airfield. London City is one of only a few airports that have their operations team certified to operate the snow clearing machines, allowing the airport to become operational again much quicker than others. This is beneficial to the business traveller and private jet owners as it minimises the impact on the opening of the airport in adverse winter weather conditions.
Back at the terminal buildings, there is only one baggage belt for domestic arrivals with most travellers traveling hand baggage only. This allows for a quick transfer time of just 10 minutes from aircraft to landside. Despite this, there are some strange items left in the airport that have included a bag of diamonds, prosthetic leg and even £50,000 in cash!
The last leg of the tour was a trip to the Air Traffic Control Tower. This is quite small although more than suitable for an airport of this size. The team were very welcoming up there and more than willing to show me around and talk about their job! Like any airport, their job is first and foremost about safety and ensuring that the plane traffic is monitored well.
Being situated close to the river, there are a few challenges that face pilots and the Air Traffic Control (ATC) team. London is a busy city with helicopters, for both tourists and business travellers. To minimise the disruption, ATC have to co-ordinate the helicopter crossings in between other arriving and departing aircraft. When winds are from the East, aircraft must make an approach over the City. This approach is not a clear and with buildings such as Canary Wharf close to the airport, aircraft have to pitch down 5.5 degrees (double any other airport in the UK) and complete a steep approach before landing on runway 09. The largest certified aircraft for the steep approach at London City is the Airbus A318, European Manufacturer’s smallest commercial jet aircraft with the certification of the Bombardier C-Series penciled in for June before services with Swiss.
With no maintenance area at London City, aircraft that go tech on stands can cause backlogs and delays especially during the busy periods. In the event of something such as a bird strike on takeoff causing one engine to be lost, the aircraft would not return to London City but divert to another close by airport such as Southend or Stansted where the issue can be dealt with more efficiently. Any maintenance that is carried out on the aircraft usually takes place during the 24 hour closure between 12pm Saturday to Sunday.
The tour was fantastic and we could have seen so much more but we had a flight to catch...
Boarding was almost completed when I joined the flight. G-LCYF, an Embraer 170 would be the chariot for the short flight up to Edinburgh. Passengers were the suited and booted crowd I actually felt a little out of place being in jeans and a backpack among the suits and briefcases. The door was closed early as everyone was on board 10 minutes or so early, which was great for an on time departure! Being one of London City’s quiet periods there was a non stop taxi to the runway to line up and wait before powering up the General Electric CF34 engines and after a quick 20 second takeoff roll, we were airborne over the City of London.
Onboard Service and seating
Cabin Crew Christopher and Kayleigh commenced the on board service shortly after departure. On offer today was the usual short flight complimentary drinks and snacks although the absence of Hot Chocolate was a disappointment but I guess those business travellers are more likely coffee drinkers!
The Embraer 170 aircraft was configured in a 19 row (2-2) layout with a 30” seat pitch, allowing for 76 seats in total. It was ample leg room for the short hop to Edinburgh and the leather seats were comfortable allowing you to sit back and relax. The only small downside to the aircraft for the would be the alignment of the windows to the seats, forcing you to have to move forward to be able to see out.
After a bumpy descent through the clouds, a rainy Edinburgh appeared beneath us and a brief 36 seconds later, we landed with a short taxi to parking on stand and a short wait before the stairs arrived. As usual on flights today, the aisle was full of passengers standing ready to disembark. The flight crew were very happy for me to visit the flight deck which was a small area for seating two pilots surrounded by the usual dials, screens and yokes.
Being a local UK flight, arrivals took you into the departure lounge. This provides a great view of the runway and main taxiways - a perfect place to plane spot in the rain and review the day. Tomorrow, a similar day in reverse.
Edinburgh Airport Background
As the busiest airport in Scotland, Edinburgh welcomes around 30,000 passengers per day (double that of London City). easyJet is the airports largest user with United Continental helping stretch the reach of the airport having had a New York service for over 10 years.
Arriving during the lunch time peak, it was noticeable that the airport was much larger than London City with a spacious entrance hall. Once through security, we made our way towards a Qatar Airways Dreamliner parked on stand, a feat of engineering in size and beauty. What struck me was the amount of equipment needed to keep an airport running. From baggage carts to ground power supply boxes, there was a constant activity, like bees around a honeypot.
Once again, it was time to get a wider perspective of the airfield in an operations vehicle. Unlike London City, there are a lot more taxiways and aircraft to negotiate to get out to the runway. We ended up having to reverse on ourselves to clear a path for a Boeing 737 on the taxiway ahead of us, as aircraft have the right of way on the airfield. The extra space feels spacious and less restrictive compared to London City. This tour was in the rain and so each aircraft was followed by a wall of spray as they powered down the runway to lift off, showing how powerful the engines are.
We arrived at the cargo area which is to the east of the main terminal building and the variety of aircraft were in evidence. From a DHL Cargo Airbus A300-600 D-AEAI that was parked up for the day and two Jet2 Boeing 737-300 aircraft. These are examples of the 8 Quick Change versions Jet2 operate allowing them to be used to carry passengers in the day and cargo at night. Seats are removed and stored in containers at the airport while it carries out its cargo duties and are installed again by the first departures.
Returning to the terminal, we passed the north eastern end of the terminal where the ‘New Stand 15’ is to be located. Its positioning on the end of the terminal means that it can be made wide enough to accommodate aircraft as large as the Airbus A380 Superjumbo. Although alterations would be needed on the taxiways to make them wide enough to accommodate the giant, it is one step forward for Edinburgh, modernising for the future and their infrastructure.
Walking back to the departure lounge, I couldn’t help but notice the retro Virgin Atlantic Little Red newspaper racks almost a year after their cease. Edinburgh was a good route for Little Red, being the most profitable. It was just unfortunate that the Manchester and Aberdeen routes were not as successful, or they may still be around today. Despite the loss of Little Red, Transavia recently started 4x weekly service to Paris Orly operating on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and Nordic Aviation will commence a 3x weekly CRJ-900 service from Tallinn on the 28th May. This will run until the 3rd October and will operate with an Adria Airways aircraft.
After the tour had finished it was time to board another Embraer 170, this time G-LCYI for the flight back down to London. A little emptier with only 50 passengers on the flight, there was more room to spread out and relax. This was also helped with the extra legroom bulkhead seats that I had managed to secure when checking in.
The service was the same to as it was on the flight up from London the day before, with the cabin crew again being very friendly and helpful. Ending too quickly, the gear kissed runway 27 at LCY 10 minutes earlier than the scheduled arrival time. A short taxi to the stand and stairs were ready to be joined for a swift deplane and walk landside.
Fantastic flights from British Airways CityFlyer, I would definitely recommend them.
One hidden gem that has had some beauties revealed, and a major Scottish hub. London City and Edinburgh are two very different airports, but where would we be without them?
I would like to thank Dean and Dani from London City and Gayle and Barry from Edinburgh who took time out of their day to welcome us, take us round the airport and provide answers to all the questions that I had. They were fantastic people, and do their workplaces proud!