Stansted: the UK's third airport
It's all too easy to overlook Stansted when talking about flying from London. While Heathrow is one of the biggest airports in the world and Gatwick has risen in stature as an alternative to the former during peak periods, Stansted has been quietly working to overtake Manchester as the third biggest hub in the UK. So what exactly does it offer that is tempting to holidaymakers not only from London, but from further afield?
Back in the day
Stansted Airport was founded in its original form in 1942 and established in its current incarnation at its site in Uttlesford, Essex in 1991, after a £400 million terminal was opened at the site following five years of hard work.
Eight years later, passenger number laws for UK airports were changed to allow more people to pass through the hub, helping to set the scene for the next phase of expansion in 2000, when work began to boost capacity from eight million to 25 million travellers a year.
Since then, the hub has made numerous attempts to further expand its operations, courting a fair amount of controversy along the way. However, whether it continues to increase capacity or not, Stansted has much to offer travellers wanting to be able to choose from a wide variety of routes while avoiding the near-scrum that is the summer rush at Heathrow.
So which destinations does Stansted serve? Currently, some 34 airlines fly from the hub to about 160 destinations across the globe. Air Berlin is a big player at the hub and flies to destinations such as Belfast City, Berlin Tegel, Dusseldorf, Glasgow, Hanover, Leipzig, Munster, Nuremburg and Paderborn.
Heading further afield, Turkish Airlines carries passengers to Istanbul, Prague is served by Czech Airlines, and Air Malta offers a link to - you guessed it - Malta. Significantly, American Airlines - one of the biggest carriers in the USA - will soon operate flights to New York from Stansted.
Recent years have seen increased interest from airlines - particularly business class-only carriers - looking to fly to American destinations from London. However, with a slot at Heathrow difficult to obtain, Stansted has emerged as an ideal alternative.
What's in the airport?
Stansted offers a wide range of shops and restaurants to keep everyone amused until departure. Stores range from high street names such as Accessorize, Boots, Monsoon and HMV to the likes of Best of the Best Supercars, French Connection, Hamleys and Kurt Geiger. Not to mention the various specialist duty-free outlets, such as World Duty Free. Food-wise, passengers can grab a bite to eat and a drop to drink at Frankie & Benny's, Est Bar Est, Krispy Kreme, Pontis and more.
The airport also boasts an executive lounge available to anyone travelling from gates one to 19 for a small fee. Travellers can take advantage of charged internet access from specific points, while family-friendly facilities such as baby changing rooms and gaming arcades are also on hand.
Of course, with the airport looking to expand, more facilities will be added when the space is available. "We're going for a £40 million project to extend the … arrivals side - more baggage and belts space for arrivals. We're basically making the whole process much smoother," a spokesperson for Stansted comments. The work is due to finish in 2008 - so look out for some brand spanking new services and facilities then.
Who flies from Stansted?
It's not just Londoners who use Stansted (the capital is some 30 miles away from the airport), thanks to the high quality of its transport links. "We have a lot of passengers travelling from the south-east - obviously from London, from East Anglia and the midlands," says the hub's spokesperson.
"Passengers don't mind travelling that extra bit to make use of the cheap fares. Actually, 40 per cent of our passengers travel by public transport - by coaches and buses and obviously the rail link into Liverpool Street station connects Birmingham and other cities around the UK. We have excellent links."
It's not just the airport that thinks so. The Airport Operators Association seems to agree. "Stansted's got the highest proportion of people arriving by public transport already," a spokesperson comments. "The coach services are excellent to Stansted. There's a lot of good stuff happening and the expertise is there to improve it even more."
Stansted expects to serve up to 35 million passengers a year by 2015 - and that's just on its current single runway. The hub is hoping to build a second runway that will be operational by 2013 - bringing even more passengers and, eventually, extra flights, airlines and destinations with it. This plan has courted its fair share of controversy for environmental reasons, but officials and MPs have argued that the expansion will be a boon for the UK economy.
"Not many people expected that [Stansted] would get as popular as it has, but clearly that's an old-fashioned way of looking at it because we have the infrastructure there - it seems foolish not to use it," the AOA representative explains.
"The demand is at Stansted and it's the most efficient place to put it."