Gatwick's Stewart Wingate is confident he'll get the new London runway

THE MT INTERVIEW: Gatwick's CEO is lobbying hard for the green light to build London's new runway. Has he made locals an offer they can't refuse?

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 01 Jul 2015

Where should London's extra runway be built? The Airports Commission isn't due to make up its mind on this most vexed of national planning issues until safely after next year's general election, but as far as Stewart Wingate is concerned, there is already only one answer: 'It's got to be Gatwick.'

Of course, as Gatwick Airport's CEO, you'd hardly expect him to back Luton, but the boss of what is already the world's busiest single-runway airport makes his £8bn case for laying another 3,300m strip of concrete across the Sussex countryside with candour and his own brand of remorseless operational logic. It helps that - foursquare and blokeish, looking like he'd rather be in jeans than suited and booted - he's a regular guy. Not a sharply dressed lobbyist trotting out a line.

Gatwick plus point one: location. 'Heathrow is in an area that is already overheated - you have aircraft flying over one of the most densely populated parts of the entire planet. Expand there and it will affect about 350,000 people. But Gatwick is in a sparsely populated area - expand here and it will only affect 30,000 people.'

Plus point two: the days of the European hub airport are over. Hubs will remain successful only in the Middle and Far East, where they can be built cheaply in remote spots, he says. 'There is no need any more for airlines to congregate in hubs in western Europe.'

Why not? Because transatlantic distances are less of a technical challenge to modern aircraft, so point-to-point flying is set to dominate long-haul (just as it does budget short-haul operators such as easyJet and Ryanair), he reckons.

'Now you can fly point-to-point to anywhere, from anywhere. A Dreamliner (Boeing's new, smaller long-range aircraft) could fly from Gatwick to Perth. It's a gamechanger.'

Plus point three: costs. 'Heathrow's landing charges are already the most expensive in the world, at £22 (per person). Expand there and you've saddled yourself with charges that will rise to around £40, trying to compete with the likes of Dubai, which charges only £7.'

His charges, he claims, would rise only from £9 to £13 per person. What's not to like?

By now, even the thickest-skinned of interlocutors would be getting the message: why would any government shoulder the cost (some £14bn to £19bn) and potential electoral fallout of the Heathrow scheme, when his airport can do it with so much less fuss and disruption?

Gatwick might look like the country cousin by comparison - its public spaces are being revamped, but like Wingate's utilitarian office they remain short on glitz - but it has other virtues. Perhaps chief among them being, politically, that it's the least worst choice remaining. 'Which of the remaining options is the most deliverable? It can only be Gatwick.'

He has plans to tackle passenger gripes such as the express-in-name-only Gatwick Express (and the airport's other rail services), in conjunction with Network Rail and the train operators. There will be new rolling stock, new platforms and a tripling in seat capacity. By 2030, a train - not all of them expresses - will run every two minutes to London, he says, swiftly firing his next barrage of facts and figures.

Besides, glamour isn't everything.

'The South Terminal is 50 years-old, but it beats Heathrow's Terminal 5 in our survey of customers,' he says. 'When you get out of the car park, it takes seconds to get to check-in. And 98% of the time, people queue at security for less than five minutes here. Simple things like that are what really appeal to the passenger.'

But he is going to have to work hard to ensure that expansion doesn't kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Gatwick handles around 37 million passengers a year and has just reported its busiest ever September, shifting 3.8 million punters.

Its pair of ageing terminals are already full - a recent survey by online consumer group Flightright found that Gatwick was the worst airport in the UK for delays this summer, accounting for four of the five routes with the longest hold-ups. Those baggage handlers' strikes don't help either.

A new runway (handling up to 80 million passengers) would ease the bottleneck, but won't they swamp the ground facilities? 'We've invested £1bn, and we're investing another £1bn over the next seven years for the end users' benefit.'

He talks fast in a soft Geordie accent, and there seems to be no objection that he hasn't run the numbers on. If there is a hint of the zealot in his delivery, it's only because he wants you to be as convinced as he is himself.

And without such a single-minded leader, it's unlikely Gatwick's prospects would have risen this far. The questions of whether to build another runway in the south-east have been regularly dusted down, peered at and then put away over the past 30-odd years. Every time, the debate has ended up being framed around Heathrow as the only serious option.

Until now. Here we are in late 2014 and Gatwick is suddenly one of the last two remaining bids on the Airports Commission's shortlist, being spoken of in the same breath as Heathrow for the first time.

It's partly down to the so-called 2019 agreement, dating back to the opening of the North Terminal in 1979. This stipulates that no work on a new runway can start at Gatwick until 2019. 'The last time this was looked at seriously was 2003, and anyone who said then the answer was Gatwick in 2025 would have been laughed at. But here we are 10 years later - 2025 doesn't seem so far away.'

But the other big change that has taken place since then is the break-up of BAA and the desire of the powers that be for more competition. Wingate used to work for BAA - first as customer services director at Glasgow, then as CEO of Stansted - and one thing he clearly relishes about this job is the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with his old rival, Heathrow.

'At Stansted, I realised that the closer you got to Heathrow in the BAA network, the more it dominated your life. There was absolute control on Heathrow, lots of control on Gatwick and less on Stansted. But none were empowered to drive their own businesses. It wasn't healthy and passengers suffered.'

The situation came to a head when the Competition Commission forced BAA's Spanish owner, Ferrovial, to sell off not only Gatwick in 2009, but also Edinburgh and Stansted airports, too, in 2012 and 2013.

Gatwick was sold to Global Infrastructure Partners, a private equity fund set up by Credit Suisse and GE, for £1.5bn, and Wingate was offered the CEO role.

He jumped at it. 'We had the remit to compete and do it the hard way by making things better. But it was daunting. You had the shareholders and stakeholders - the CAA, the Competition Commission - wanting competition to give a better outcome. All of them were asking: "Well, is this a better outcome?"'

Born in Bishop Auckland in County Durham, Wingate left school at 16 for an engineering apprenticeship with power tools business Black & Decker. An ambitious and competitive kid, he decided against going straight to university, which caused some consternation. 'The headmaster said to my parents: "What on earth are you thinking about?" I knew I was a high achiever, but I wanted to do it that way.'

It served him well. 'It was a great grounding. Before my mates had started university, I'd spent time in the finance department, HR, R&D, the test labs, manufacturing.'

Thanks to day release and evening classes, he got his degree anyway: a first in electrical engineering from Newcastle, sponsored by Black & Decker. 'At 22, I was back at work, a front-line product supervisor managing 100 people on the shopfloor.'

An MBA followed, and when he was just about to go to work for MFI, an ex-colleague who had become MD of Glasgow Airport recruited him as customer services director. 'My entry into airports was part of an experiment led by Mike Clasper (then CEO of BAA). He felt if you brought people in with FMCG backgrounds, they would be more focused on the customer.'

In 2005, Budapest Airport was privatised and BAA bought it. Wingate flew out to run the show. 'I went for three years because I thought it would be far enough away from Heathrow and the corporate head office to be able to get on with it, which is what I personally treasure.'

In the event, both the Hungarians and Wingate himself got a taste of how quickly things can change: BAA was itself bought, and one of Ferrovial's first decisions was to get rid of Budapest.

'Budapest was exciting but demanding. I had to privatise an ex-public asset in a former Communist state bought by a foreign owner. Later, I had to explain that because a Spanish company has bought the British company, the airport has to be sold on again to the Germans. Oh, and you don't speak the language. But it's going to be fine.'

The experience left him very keen on approachability. 'My biggest lesson is having an open door. If I'm walking through the airport, no matter who you are, you can stop for a chat.'

He is ready, he says, for the public scrutiny that will come his way during the next phase. But what about his family? He is married with two daughters, aged 14 and 13. 'My eldest daughter, Maddie, hears the discussion and could articulate the Gatwick case pretty well. I try not to hide things from them - if you do get dragged into some controversy, it's no good trying to shelter your children.'

He lives locally, in Surrey and under the flightpath. But while there may be 10 times fewer people affected at Gatwick than Heathrow, 30,000 irate neighbours is still a lot.

So he's got a final ace up his sleeve: anyone affected by noise, including those whose houses aren't in the 57-decibel noise contour area around the airport - but would be with a second runway - will get their council tax paid.

'There will be people acutely affected, but that will be to the benefit of the majority. So the majority should help. We're going to do that by compensating some of the affected.'

He can't resist adding a final dig. 'Funnily enough, Heathrow hasn't matched that - they couldn't afford to. But we can.'

THE FOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGES FACING WINGATE

To convince the travelling public as well as the government that Gatwick is the best place for a new runway

To make Gatwick's facilities fit for the 21st century and twice as many passengers

To be very nice to his neighbours...

WINGATE IN A MINUTE

1971: Born in Bishop Auckland, County Durham
1988: Leaves school aged 16 for engineering apprenticeship with Black & Decker
2002: Operations director, Black & Decker
2004: Customer services director, Glasgow Airport
2005: CEO, Budapest Airport
2009: CEO, Gatwick Airport
2014: Gatwick joins Heathrow on Airports Commission new runway shortlist

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