The late Frank Johnson — former editor of The Spectator — had a thing about London City Airport. ‘I never want to fly from anywhere else,’ he would say, often after returning from Germany, a country he loved, not least because of its Wagner connections. He was right, of course. Even today, more than 30 years since its official opening, flying out of City is a completely different experience from any other airport in the UK.
Size matters, of course. It’s merely the 14th busiest airport in the UK, just ahead of Leeds Bradford and below East Midlands. It only has one 1,500-metre runway and the terminal has a distinctly pop-up feel to it. But when it comes to getting there it must be near the top of the pile, especially if you ride the Docklands Light Railway, which snakes its way past Canary Wharf and through Docklands on an elevated track not dissimilar to New York’s Number 7 subway train which does much the same thing in Sunnyside, Queens.
On arrival at the terminal, the check-in desks are just inside the sliding doors. There are BA flights to Dusseldorf and Rotterdam; TAP to Porto; Flybe to Jersey, all interesting destinations, none of which attract the hordes. Turn round from check-in and an escalator awaits to bring you to security, where there’s seldom a queue. ‘Should I remove my belt?’ I asked a few weeks ago before leaving for Portugal. ‘Only if your trousers fall down, darlin’,’ said a buxom security official.
Most airports have become essentially shopping malls, from where planes land and take off. All too often you’re forced to walk past women holding bottles of scent offering a free spritz, and men brandishing a tot of this or that as means of prizing open your wallet. Not at City. There is a small Duty Free, and apart from that just a WH Smith, a Boots and a few coffee shops. That’s it.
Once up in the sky, the view is superb. We took off to the west, over the Isle of Dogs, and then swung right past the Olympic Stadium, the Thames Barrier and then down the Thames Estuary with Essex on our left, Kent on the right.
Returning a couple of days later on a gloriously sunny evening, we flew across London as far as Buckingham Palace before turning round for our final descent, the whole city spread out before us.
‘Those sitting on the left of the plane will get a good view of the Palace of Westminster and those on the right can look into the Archbishop of Canterbury’s garden,’ announced our pilot-turned-tour-guide over the tannoy, clearly enjoying himself.
At the last London mayoral elections, Siân Berry, the Green party candidate, proposed the closure and redevelopment of London City Airport. She argued that the land could be better used for housing and that the four million passengers who use City each year could easily be absorbed by other London airports. I’m sure they could — but, as anyone who has ever flown from Stansted or Luton will know, there is simply no comparison.