London City airport is the smallest of the 5 airports traditionally classified as serving London, although Southend could now probably be classified as the sixth and bump City up to the second smallest. Originally built in 1987 as part of the Docklands regeneration, the airport’s runway was extended from 1080m to 1500m in 1992. At the same time as the runway extension the glideslope of 7.5° was reduced, however the new 5.5° glideslope (compared to 3° at most airports) and short runway continues to limit the size of aircraft able to land and make London City one of the more challenging airports for pilots.
Just 15 minutes from Canary Wharf and 25 from the City of London, London City airport was initially opened for Business travellers and although this is still the airport’s main demographic, progress has been made in recent years in attracting airlines to serve leisure destinations as well. Due to its urban location, the airport is closed 2200-0430 every night and, more importantly if you’re planning on spotting, is also closed from 1300 on Saturdays until 1000 on Sunday mornings. With King George V dock to the north and Royal Albert dock to the south, London City is an ideal airport for aviation photography as the water barriers replace the need for high chain-link fences.
My usual area for spotting at London City is on the south side of the Royal Albert dock, a location that provides uninterrupted views of aircraft movements on both the apron and runway. Due to the airport’s location, aircraft have to back-track along the runway when either landing on runway 09 or departing from runway 27, which generally provides good side-on views of taxiing aircraft. This spotting location is just a 30-second walk from Royal Albert DLR station. This station provides direct links to Beckton, Canning Town, Poplar & Tower Gateway with connections also linking it to Stratford, Woolwich Arsenal & London City Airport, Bank, Canary Wharf & Lewisham. If visiting this location after arriving at London City airport, take a DLR train towards Bank or Tower Gateway and then change at Canning Town for a train towards Beckton. Alternatively, the spot is about a 25-30 minutes’ walk from the terminal building via the western end of the runway.
London City is served by a small selection of 10 airlines ranging from British Airways and Flybe to LOT Polish Airlines and TAP Air Portugal. Of the 10 airlines, seven primarily use Embraer E-Jet series aircraft, with Flybe & Luxair using Bombadier Dash8 Q400s and Aer Lingus flights generally being operated by CityJet Avro RJs. Whilst the variety of aircraft types and airlines is limited the bright colour schemes of some of the visiting airlines does add colour to the grey skies on the day of my visit.
Unfortunately, as with Heathrow’s Myrtle Avenue (read that review here!), due to it being an unofficial spotting location there are no facilities at the Royal Albert spot itself. However, there is a small refreshment kiosk at the DLR station and various coffee shops and restaurants at the nearby hotels on Dockside Road. If you fancy a break from spotting, a short DLR ride further east takes you to the end of the line at Beckton where there is a large ASDA supermarket and other retail outlets.
On the day I visited in May it was unseasonably cool and windy, meaning I cut short my stay after about 90 minutes, however in that time I was able to see over 20 aircraft and all but two of the airlines that serve London City. Although compared to Heathrow this is a very small number of aircraft and the variety of aircraft types is limited, I feel the quality of photographs available (especially of aircraft on the ground) and the chance of seeing one of the ever falling number of BAe146s in action makes London City well worth the visit if you’ve got a couple of hours free and you’re in or around London. Of course, during the summer, you could always combine your visit with a visit to Heathrow and after seeing the Saturday morning activity at London City head west to see the afternoon and early evening arrivals at Heathrow.
Viewing location 4* Charge (free) 5* Facilities 0* Variety of Traffic 2* LCY (Royal Albert) Overall Score 2.5*