After decades of being London’s ‘bridesmaid’ Gatwick is enjoying something of a revival, though the current lack of political support for airport development is affecting all UK airports. Tom Allett reports.
Despite being the UK’s second busiest airport, over the last few decades Gatwick has often been dubbed by industry observers as a ‘bucket and spade’ airport, primarily serving the leisure market.
I feel sure that the majority of those readers who have known the airport for a long time would agree that Gatwick looked ‘tired’ in the latter stages of its BAA years.
The opening of its North Terminal in 1988 certainly boosted the airport’s reputation from a passenger’s point of view but, in my opinion, it proved to be a false dawn. Despite a superb air traffic management job being done to enable Gatwick to maintain its world’s busiest international single runway operation status, it was often a different story for the passengers in the terminal. In the last decade the situation was greatly excasserbated by the need to introdce enhanced security measures into ageing terminals. Of course, this particular problem affected virtually all airports to some extent but widespread accusations that BAA was putting profits before customer service at its major facilities contributed to the UK Competition Commission’s call for some airports to be sold off. As a result of the CC’s inquiry into the competitiveness of the South East England airports’ market, BAA put Gatwick up for sale in October 2008. On December 4, 2009, a consortium led by Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) purchased Gatwick for £1.51 billion (US$2.44bn), thereby introducing the first real competition in the London airports’ market since privatisation in the 1980s.
Today Gatwick’s ownership is spread amongst a group of global investment funds comprising GIP (the largest stakeholder), the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the Korean National Pension Service and the Future Fund of Australia.
The consortium pledged to reviatlise Gatwick’s facilities and service levels.
As the busiest point-to-point airport in Europe, which handled 33.8 million passengers in 2011/12, it wasn’t going to be easy. Nevertheless, recent investment in equipment and infrastructure got the new GIP era off to a good start. A significant extension of the North Terminal and a major purchase of snow-clearing equipment are just two examples of recent investments that have brought back the ‘feel good’ factor that some long-serving Gatwick staff felt had been missing for a while. It’s not that the staff are anti BAA – indeed many owe their entire careers to the airport’s former owner – it’s just human nature that wherever you work, when a new owner comes in and makes a big investment to improve things, it gives everyone in the team a morale boost. As it approaches almost three years under new ownership, GIP has already delivered large parts of its £1.2 billion Gatwick investment programme and it proposes to invest a further £1 billion in the airport, “from 2014.”
Master plan 2012
To say that that there has been a lot of political manoeuvring concerning airport development in the south east of England in the last few months is an understatement. A third runway at Heathrow and talk of a Thames Estuary airport have captured most of the headlines, but the reality is that even if the latter ever makes it past the computer-generated image stage, it’s unlikely to be completed in our lifetimes.
Nevertheless, London’s airports cannot afford to stand still and Gatwick has produced its vision of how it needs to prepare for the expected traffic levels of 2020 and it doesn’t include plans for another runway. Gatwick’s management team has made a huge effort to explain its forward-looking environmental sustainability plans to its neighbours and business partners as it gears up to handle future traffic levels. However, now that Britain’s coalition Government has effectively sidestepped the whole airport capacity issue by setting up an independent inquiry that will report back to Parliament in 2015, it’s no surprise that Gatwick has no current plans for a second runway. At the moment, the bottom line is that no new runways are going to be achievable anywhere in the UK for, at the very best, a decade; but perhaps for a generation, so Gatwick has to content itself on making, as the Master Plan says, “the best use of its single runway and two terminals”.
Gatwick is already famous for being the busiest single runway airport in the world. Given that; bigger aircraft could be used and; small increases in peak hour movements might be possible; and extra flights could be added during off-peak periods, the plan’s authors say that Gatwick could grow to handle 40 million passengers a year by 2021/22. Gatwick could, they predict, handle around 45 million passengers a year by 2030, at which point the airport, “would be full”. It would seem that all of the south east’s major airports are heading towards that same scenario.