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London City (Airport code LCY) is the best-kept secret among London's air travellers. Unlike the other, large airports serving London and the UK, London City is small, effective and minimises delays. In short, it is the frequent flyer's favourite airport.

The Debutante says, "Shhh! We like to keep this one quiet! (Although I recently had the worst landing I have -ever- experienced, and I've flown more times than I've had hot dinners, when coming home from Edinburgh.)" And adds, "Perhaps we should just resolve to found the LCY appreciation society?"

It is located in the old Docklands area, right on the River Thames in the East End of London, with good links to the London Transport system. Unlike other London airports, London City has few queues, short walks from check-in to departure to gate and plenty of seating.

Passengers can check in 10 minutes before scheduled departure time, and with on-line check-in, there's no need to arrive at the airport until 10 to 15 minutes before the plane is due to go. Getting to the gate takes a maximum of about 10 minutes from the moment the doors open on the DLR car. That includes check-in and security and passport checks.

On arrival, it's not unusual to be out of the airport just 10 minutes after the wheels hit the tarmac.

The drawback (if you can call it that) is that the single runway is short and in a residential area, so the airport's licence permits only small, quiet aircraft. That means the airport deals mainly in relatively short-hop flights. Business destinations such as Brussels, Amsterdam and Frankfurt are typical, but there are flights to Milan and Stuttgart. From May 2008, services to Warsaw and Barcelona will begin, while in 2009 the airport is due to launch a limited business-class only service to New York. Currently, 12 airlines use London City, serving over 30 European destinations.

Prices for return trips are often in the £100 - £200 range, but it's not unusual to find them as cheap as £80 (of which £60 - £70 is tax) -- or as expensive as £1000.

Shopping opportunities at the airport are limited, but for frequent flyers, this is no penalty.

Enough praise. Here's the user guide.

Flying into London City

Final approach to London City is not as spectacular as the approach to Heathrow. You get to see some of east London, but not the big sights.

But who cares? We're using this airport for the convenience, not the views. The planes are small and light compared with the large, wide-bodied jets found at larger airports. They can get blown around a bit in high winds. The approach is also fairly steep and the last few hundred metres are over water. Nervous flyers might get a little panicky, especially if the weather is stormy. Nevertheless, the vast majority of passengers are frequent flyers, rather than tourists or first-timers, so the atmosphere on board is bored, rather than excited.

archiewood says, "It's also interesting to note that due to the surrounding buildings and associated terrain clearance issues, the glide path for the airport is steeper than usual so there is more capacity for the aforementioned bad landings, and aircraft must be specifically certified to fly the steep approach."

The plane lands and then within minutes is at the gate. There are no umbilicals at City airport, so de-planing means walking down the steps and then a few yards across the tarmac into the terminal building.

Since the planes are small, there is often not enough space for normal-sized cabin baggage. Rather than check the bags in, passengers can carry them to the plane and have them stowed in a separate hold. On de-planing the bags are on a cart adjacent to the plane. Simply pick up your bag and walk the few steps into the terminal building. Usually only half a dozen people take advantage of this, so there are only a few bags to choose from.

Immigration, baggage collection and customs

There is a hundred-yard walk inside the terminal down to immigration. There are no moving walkways and the corridor is a bit narrow, but it's not really a big deal. Immigration is normally pretty quick. There are usually only one or two desks open, but the worst I've had is about a five-minute queue. Normally it's only a minute or two.

Immediately after immigration is the single baggage carousel. Most passengers are business people carrying hand bags only, so the carousel is rarely in use. When it is, the bags are there within a few minutes of getting through immigration.

You barely even notice customs and I've never been stopped, or seen anyone stopped. My guess is that the customs team there sees a lot fewer attempts at smuggling than the people at Heathrow or Gatwick.

Leaving the airport

Once through customs, the passenger emerges directly into the check-in area. There's a bar there, if you need a drink, but most people head straight for the exit.

There are officially a lot of choices for leaving the airport, but only two realistic ones.

The DLR is the only realistic option, unless you live locally. The station is adjacent to the airport and trains go every 10 minutes or so. Black cabs are not as outrageous as from Heathrow, but it's still expensive for a single traveller. Shared between three or four, the price is a bit less scary. Allow £20 to £30 to use a black cab into central London. A lot less if you want to get to Canary Wharf, or elsewhere in the Docklands area.

Using the DLR, the unmanned trains go first to Canning Town, and then Canary Wharf, and then into Bank. Personally I get off at Canning Town and use the Tube from there to London Bridge, but a lot of people use the DLR all the way into Bank. From there it's into the main tube system. Allow 20 to 25 minutes to get to either London Bridge or Bank.

Flying from London City

This is why I love City Airport. If you have checked in on-line, then you only need to arrive at the airport a few minutes before departure time. I allow 30 minutes, which is more than enough. I don't worry unless delays cut that down to 10 minutes. Even then, the adrenalin doesn't really start to pump until five minutes before the plane is due to go.

Getting there

City airport used to be difficult to get to. No longer. In December 2005, they extended the DLR out to the airport and beyond. This is now the best way of getting there. Alternatives include a black cab, bus and river boat.

The DLR line runs from Bank, Canary Wharf and Canning Town. Personally, I use the Jubilee line out to Canning Town, and then up one level to the DLR, taking a train destined for King George V. From Canning Town, the journey time is approximately seven minutes and the trains run at 8-15 minute intervals.

If the DLR is not running, then there is a bus station at Canning Town, which goes to the airport. The airport is served by London Bus services 473 and 474.

At the airport

Check-in desks are still open 10 minutes before departure time, but most of the carriers now require passengers to use automated check-in terminals. The desks are there mainly for bag drops, or unusual situations. Queues are always short.

Once through check-in. it's up the escalator to security. Again, the queues -- if they exist -- are short. Most passengers are frequent flyers so they know the routine. Liquids in a plastic bag; all metallic objects through the X-ray and be prepared to remove shoes and belts.

Apollyon says, "/me nearly got arrested for terrorism at London City - we were doing a project on Lufthansa aircraft and needed to talk to business flyers so we (me and my atheist Indian friend) went to London City as it was the nearest airport. The check-in was so fast we couldn't interview anyone, so we decided to have a coffee before leaving. This apparently was suspicious behaviour, and in retrospect it did seem like we were casing the joint. Take it from me, two armed policemen jumping out at you is a little disheartening. It was mostly because the airport was so efficient that we got suspected. I think the armed police just wanted an excuse to do something!"

From there to the lounge. Once again this airport scores over its larger rivals. The seats are all individual, leather-covered armchairs. There are two large bar/cafe areas selling decent food, as well as a series of stalls doing fresh sandwiches and other food and drink. Prices are not cheap, but the quality is usually pretty good.

There's a book shop; a pharmacy and a travel goods shop in case you failed to bring an adapter for your mobile phone or laptop. There's also an upmarket clothes shop, if you need a spare shirt or blouse.

When the flight is called, passengers walk towards the gates. There are only nine gates (as I recall) all arranged along one long corridor. The furthest gate is just a couple of minutes' walk away.

The gate area is, to be honest, a bit cold and can be draughty. Then it's onto the plane. Because there are no umbilicals, it means a short walk across the tarmac before climbing the steps to the plane.

With small planes, there is often not enough room to stow cabin bags in the overhead lockers. In common with a lot of small, regional airports, LCY has a system whereby you can place bags on a cart next to the boarding steps. These cases are stowed in a special baggage hold on the plane and can be retrieved upon disembarkation at the destination.

And that, my friends, is it. London City works. It's fast, it's uncrowded and it's actually a pleasure to use.

Some history and background

Significantly, London City Airport is not owned or operated by BAA. It is run as a private company under managing director Richard Gooding, who joined in 1996. The airport and associated business is owned by a consortium of financial institutions including AIG Financial Products Corp. and Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP).

London City has been voted the UK's best airport for the last three years by readers of the 'Wanderlust' publication. The airport handles around 3 million passengers each year, rising at 23 percent annually.

The company website says, "London City Airport is the only airport situated within the M25 with a London postal code. The airport is only two miles from the site of the 2012 Olympic Games; three miles from Canary Wharf and six miles from the City of London." It continues, "The Airport opened in 1987 and specialises in delivering the travel needs of the City and East London. The focus at the Airport is very much on the business traveller."

Apollyon says, "You forgot to mention how good the place smells! The Tate and Lyle factory is outside and the aroma of cooking syrup is divine! I think I got fat just from breathing it!"


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