London-Gatwick Airport (LGW) is the second largest airport in the United Kingdom and the world’s busiest single-runway airport.
Traditionally overshadowed by the larger and more congested London-Heathrow Airport (LHR), Gatwick underwent radical changes in the decade that followed its sale in 2009 to Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) (the firm that has since sold a majority stake to VINCI Airports), and until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following a massive investment program, London Gatwick has not only improved service standards, but also serves a diverse mix of airlines and destinations.
The 15 million people living within an hour of its two terminals and its excellent rail and road connections have made Gatwick the airport of choice for many carriers looking to establish or ramp up their presence in the London market.
In an exclusive interview with AeroTime, Gatwick Airport’s CEO, Stewart Wingate, talked about his tenure as the head of the airport during this eventful and transformative period. He also shared his views about the challenges and opportunities LGW continues to experience as it recovers to pre-COVID traffic levels and returns to the growth trajectory that led it to become one of Europe’s leading airports.
Who is Stewart Wingate?
Wingate began his professional career outside the aviation industry, as an executive at toolmaker Black & Decker. But it was a friend’s suggestion nearly two decades ago that led him to apply for a managerial role at Glasgow Airport (GLA).
His time at the Scottish airport was followed by stints as managing director at Budapest and Stansted airports and his appointment as the CEO of Gatwick Airport, a post he has held since 2009.
Today Wingate is one of the most experienced executives at the helm of any major European airport.
Making Gatwick a world-class airport
Wingate landed his role at Gatwick shortly after the change of ownership that followed a decision by the UK’s competition authority to force airport operator BAA to divest from several of its assets.
One of the first tasks that the airport’s new managers set for themselves was to change a number of known issues, such as inefficient and slow security procedures, that had been hindering the airport’s performance and its image among the public and airlines.
Reflecting on those times, Wingate said: “We took the reputation of Gatwick from probably being one of the poorest airports to travel through in terms of the passenger screening experience to, in very short order, probably one of the best in in Europe.”
Dealing with COVID-19 aftershocks
The number of passengers at Gatwick climbed from just over 30 million in 2009 to more than 46 million in 2019. This more than 40% increase was driven by the growth of low-cost and hybrid airlines and the establishment of new long-haul links to regions such as North America and the Middle East.
Then COVID struck in early 2020, a shock from which Gatwick has not yet fully recovered.
“We’re serving practically all of the destinations from a short-haul perspective that we served before the pandemic,” Wingate claimed. “And I expected that probably the area where there was a little bit more concern and doubt was on the recovery of the long-haul routes.”
Wingate added that the airport has only recovered to 70% of the total traffic volume, with the busiest month seeing around 90%. “So, we [have] still got a little way to go before we get back to the pre-pandemic volumes,” he said.
Growth opportunities at LGW
Wingate was adamant that interest from the airlines is not lacking, with most of the pre-pandemic operators flocking back to Gatwick as soon as circumstances allowed.
He highlighted the commitment of easyJet, the airport’s largest operator, as well as British Airways, which has been adding back flights, and Wizz Air, which had already earmarked Gatwick as a growth opportunity before the pandemic.
Looking at the long-haul market, he pointed to the return of Gulf carriers, such as Emirates and Qatar Airways, the launch of the first nonstop routes to India, the arrival of JetBlue and the fact that Norse Atlantic Airways has partly filled the gap left by Norwegian’s withdrawal from the long-haul segment.
Wingate said: “As we started to recover from the pandemic, we saw a number of airlines grow and a number of new entrants into Gatwick emerge.”
COVID aside, the long-term upward trend in passenger numbers has been backed by considerable investment in infrastructure, including rail connectivity. But how much more can Gatwick grow before running into capacity issues?
“I think it’s incredibly important that we have growth plans,” Wingate said. “And we’re very fortunate that we have two pathways to growth that we publicly consulted on in our master plan back in 2019. The first one is all about investing in the current runway to incrementally increase the peak hourly movements from 55, which is where they currently stand, to 60 movements per hour.”
A little-known fact about Gatwick is that it does have a second runway, although it is not used due to its close proximity to the main runway. Could this underused asset be a vector for further capacity expansion? Wingate sounded optimistic when talking about this matter.
“The second pathway for growth is to routinely use our existing standby runway. This is a program of works that we started back in 2017,” Wingate said. “And we now have an approach which has been designated as being safe and meeting the highest safety standards by the CAA.
“We’re in the final stages in preparing our plans, which will be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate. We’re going through what’s called a Development Consent Order, because this needs to be scrutinized by the Planning Inspectorate.”
Wingate believes there is room to “progressively grow” to up to 80 million passengers per year if these capacity improvements go ahead. But is this growth compatible with sustainability commitments and the path to achieving net zero?
Wingate was also adamant about the capability of the industry to deliver on this front. Concerning the airport’s own operations, the pledge is to bring forward the airport’s commitment to reach net zero carbon by a decade.
“As we now move into the second decade of change, increasingly, we’re working on this agenda,” he said. “We’re now taking forward plans to work with our airlines to, for example, introduce SAF [sustainable aviation fuel] into the fueling of the fleet, which I think is incredibly exciting in this current decade.
“Hopefully, the following step will be electric planes or hydrogen planes. I think that’s really, really important. But we’re also looking at an airport, ourselves and our emissions. So, we’re really pleased that we’ve now accelerated our commitment to get to net zero by 2030. Previously, we were targeting to get to net zero by 2040. That’s a 10-year acceleration. And I think there’s no bigger statement that we could make at this particular junction than to do that and take a leadership position on emissions.”
Wingate concluded the interview by making a passionate appeal to young people from all backgrounds to consider a career in the airport industry.
“You can be the pilot, you can be the air crew, you can be the ground handling crew. You can also work for the airport planning, or regulation, or finance or retail or property. You can work in the Border Force, you can work in the police force, you can work in our fire service on our airfield ops areas, or even on our surface access areas. There’s just so many different roles, which are really important in their own right, but all interlink and play together to ensure that passengers have a safe and a secure and good experience as they travel through the airport.
“So certainly, from my perspective, I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending [that] young people take a look at the airport or airports or the companies that operate here, because it is quite a unique place to work.”