The highs and lows of Gatwick airport

The world's busiest single-runway airport is pushing hard for a second. Will it take off?

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 30 Oct 2014

Formative years

As long ago as the 1920s there was an aerodrome at Gatwick, 30 miles south of London. At first little more than a field on the ancient site of Gatwik manor (the name is Anglo-Saxon for 'goat farm'), by 1936 it had gone commercial, thanks to a new outfit called British Airways (what happened to them?) flying to Paris.

After the war, however, it was Heathrow that won out as the site for the huge new London Airport. Gatwick was relegated to secondary use, not reopening fully until 1958. The rise of the package holiday and charter flights came to its rescue, but the David vs Goliath rivalry between the two airports continues to this day. In 1965 both Gatwick and Heathrow became part of the British Airports Authority.

Recent history

In 2009 Gatwick was snapped up by a consortium led by Global Infrastructure Partners after BAA (by now owned by Spain's Ferrovial) was forced to sell by the Competition Commission. GIP paid a bargain £1.5bn for an airport shifting 32 million passengers a year. Not bad.

The purchase was effectively a long-range punt on planning permission. By the noughties it was abundantly clear that the capital needed more airport capacity, but where? Third runway for Heathrow, second for Gatwick or Stansted, or brand-new Boris Island in the Thames estuary? The government appointed Sir Howard Davies to look into it and report back safely after the general election due in 2015.

If Gatwick gets the go-ahead, a new runway to the south of the existing one would enable it to handle more than 80 million passengers annually. It would cost around £8bn and aircraft noise would affect 'only' 10,000 extra homes - rather than the £16bn/240,000 homes estimate for Heathrow's rival plan.

The secret formula

Gatwick cannily makes its case appear low-risk and prudent. A revamped Heathrow, goes the argument, would be so dominant as to limit competition and push up prices. Boris Island might work but at £100bn, it is far too expensive. By comparison, Gatwick's proposal looks good value and good for choice too. But do passengers really want choice, if it means having to hare across town to catch onward flights at another airport?

Who's the boss?

Stewart Wingate is CEO, and he has set about winning over the public with some vigour - there are even adverts on the Tube, although the dedicated Twitter account @LGWobviously currently has only 1,059 followers.

Don't mention ...

Baggage handlers. Contractor Swissport took it in the neck during the summer after it left people to wait hours for their luggage, or sent them home without it. How much worse would the mess have been with double the number of passengers' bags to lose?

Vital statistics:
Passengers: 35.4m annually
Employees: 23,500
Destinations: 200

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