KLM's new feeder service from Manston airport to its Amsterdam Schiphol hub illustrates a growing trend of connecting traffic being funnelled outside the UK in lieu of spare capacity at London Heathrow airport.
Manston in Kent, southeast England will become the 17th UK destination served by KLM on 2 April 2013, the airline announced this week. The route will be served twice daily by regional subsidiary KLM Cityhopper with 80-seater Fokker 70s.
Henri Hourcade, general manager for Air France-KLM in the UK, tells Flightglobal that he expects "about two-thirds" of passengers on the Manston-Schiphol route to be connecting traffic.
Heathrow's widely publicised capacity constraints are motivating increasing numbers of people to connect via hubs on mainland Europe, he argues.
"Saturation [at Heathrow] makes air traffic control difficult and it causes delays, whereas Schiphol is unsaturated," Hourcade says. "Schiphol is an easy airport for connections, and UK travellers know that. It's English speaking and it's a one-terminal concept."
Manston airport chief executive Charles Buchanan agrees, saying EasyJet's decision to base aircraft at London Southend airport underscores the growing appeal of secondary bases.
"This is the start of people looking at diversifying their point of service," he tells Flightglobal. "We've seen it at Southend and this is a similar move for Manston - a different type of service, but it's all part of the same picture."
Outlining the airport's expansion plans, Buchanan acknowledges that the withdrawal of UK regional carrier Flybe was a blow for Manston, but he says "regular dialogue" is continuing with a "whole range of airlines".
"We’re looking for organic, progressive growth to exploit the market south and east of London, rather than a big bang," the chief executive explains. "We want to grow, consolidate, and grow again. This is a very important first step.
"The vote of confidence from KLM will catch people's attention. They will recognise what opportunities there are in serving those markets without having to go through the main airport."
Alongside its Cityhopper brand, KLM also has a presence at London City airport through its Irish subsidiary CityJet, which is undergoing a strategic review by parent Air France-KLM.
Insisting the two subsidiaries fulfil separate functions, Hourcade says Cityhopper operates a "hub strategy" feeding Schiphol whereas CityJet combines a feeder service for Paris Charles de Gaulle airport with a secondary hub at London City.
Returning to the motivation for launching at Manston, he voices optimism about demand levels given the airport's densely populated catchment area.
"It's tough to reach the London airports from here," Hourcade notes. "For long-haul at Heathrow people leave four hours before departure because of the traffic risk on the M25 [motorway]. But 400,000 people live less than half an hour from Manston airport.
"In the whole of Kent there are 1.6 million people less than one hour away. With quick access to a hassle-free airport, cheap parking, and good quality connections at Schiphol, we are confident of attracting customers."