EasyJet is to launch flights from Southend airport in Essex, creating an alternative to Stansted and London City in time for the 2012 Olympics.
The low-cost airline is moving three aircraft from Stansted and redeploying 150 staff as it attempts to win customers and cut costs.
Tickets will go on sale in July for an initial 70 flights a week to destinations that include Barcelona, Ibiza and Faro.
This raises the prospect that Southend could become a significant air hub for London, carrying an estimated 2m passengers a year by 2019, and relieving pressure on the capital’s overstretched airports.
The government has blocked expansion at Heathrow and Stansted, which together carry 87m passengers a year, raising concerns among business organisations that a lack of capacity could hamper the country’s economic growth.
Douglas McNeill, analyst at Charles Stanley Securities, said: “This neatly illustrates the way in which capacity constraints at London’s two biggest airports are prompting airlines to unlock the potential of existing runways elsewhere in the region.”
EasyJet believes the services are likely to be attractive to customers as they avoid the congested London flight path and shave 20 minutes off journeys to Europe.
A new railway station is due to open next month, taking passengers from the airport to Liverpool Street Station in 49 minutes and to Stratford in 42 minutes. Security checks will not be more than four minutes, said EasyJet.
The decision by Europe’s second-biggest airline by passenger numbers comes as rising oil prices and aviation taxes have nearly doubled EasyJet’s losses in the past six months. The airline has announced a freeze on fleet growth over the next two winters and admitted it may be forced to park aircraft in slower months in an attempt to stem losses.
Landing slots and charges are cheaper at Southend, which is owned by Stobart Group, the UK logistics company famed for its distinctive Eddie Stobart trucks. Stobart bought Southend airport in a £21m deal in 2008.
Some 85 per cent of air cargo freight in and out of London comes on passenger aircraft and Stobart hopes to provide customers with an integrated air and road haulage service. The airport is currently a hub for private business jets, flight clubs and aircraft maintenance, with Flybe and Aer Arann the only commercial airlines operating from there.
Although Southend’s expansion is expected to create around 150 new jobs, local residents have launched legal action against plans to extend the runway.
“Twenty thousand residents are under the flight path and the noise is a big issue,” said the Stop Airport Expansion Now group, which claims 300 residents.
Both EasyJet and Stobart declined to give financial details of the deal.