LONDON — For decades, London’s Gatwick Airport, situated some 28 miles south of the UK’s capital, has played second fiddle to Heathrow.

Traditionally, the image of Gatwick was as a ‘bucket-and-spade’ airport, a jumping-off point for families heading abroad on summer holidays. Heathrow, by contrast, just 15 miles west of central London, was the business executive’s departure and arrival point of choice.
Even today, several scheduled long-haul carriers only use Gatwick because runway-constrained Heathrow simply does not have the available slots to accommodate them.

Gatwick has done much to improve its standards in recent years, notably since it was bought in 2009 from BAA – formerly the owner of London Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted – by a group of international investment funds, of which the largest is US-based Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP).

The new owners have pumped in £1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) of investment since taking over, with another £1 billion planned for the next five years. Now, it makes much of the fact that it hosts flights to 47 of Europe’s busiest business destinations and that 20% of its passengers are travelling for work reasons.

Some 40 million passengers used Gatwick in 2015, a figure that is anticipated to keep growing. For some years, it has claimed the record for being the world’s busiest single-runway airport.

However, the significant phrase in that last sentence is ‘single-runway’. More capacity is needed and Gatwick would dearly like to have a second strip of concrete.

The airport’s current design capacity with that single runway is 45 million and Gatwick is constantly rejigging its internal layout to improve passenger flow. One recent development, for example, gave the airport the world’s largest self-service bag-drop zone. But these developments are really at the margin. A second runway – depending on the configuration chosen – could boost capacity to as much as 87 million.

Gatwick’s owners fought long and hard to convince the Davies Commission – the official body set up by the UK government in 2012 to decide on the best location for a new runway for the crowded southeast of England – of its merits but that body last summer came down decisively in favor of a third runway at Heathrow, saying it would bring the greatest benefits for UK Inc.

However, with the UK government yet again dithering over making a decision, and having called for another environmental study into the subject – despite the Davies Commission having taken that into account in its deliberations – Gatwick is continuing to push its case.
It argues that it will be impossible for Heathrow to have a third runway without breaching European Union pollution standards and notes that, unlike Heathrow, it already has enough land in which it can create a new runway without demolishing a nearby village. (Although, in the densely-packed southeast of England, even the less-traumatic Gatwick option would mean diverting a major road and a river.)

And, in an obvious ‘sweetener’ to government, Gatwick says it will take care of the environmental costs itself, whereas at Heathrow the multi-billion pound environmental bill would be borne by the taxpayers.

There is another reason why Gatwick feels this is its moment. A 40-year pact with the county council in whose territory it lies not to push for a second runway runs out in 2019.
Given this opportunity, plus the length of time required for any major airport project to wend its way through the UK’s labyrinthine planning procedures, Gatwick has just launched an exercise to appoint framework consultants to assist in the future development of the airport. That includes a possible new runway, 1km south of the existing one.

Ryanair, Europe’s largest and most successful low-cost carrier (LCC) and a rapidly-growing player at Gatwick, would certainly like to see a new runway there. In mid-February, Ryanair’s rumbustious CEO Michael O’Leary said that he would favor a second runway at both Gatwick and Ryanair’s stronghold of London Stansted, an LCC-heavy airport northeast of London, as well as a third strip at Heathrow.

That way, he said, the three airports could compete with each other and let the market decide which it favored.

However, most Brits interested in the country’s future economic health and weary of the interminable vacillation of successive governments, just want someone to take a decision and start building a new runway. Somewhere. Anywhere. But soon.