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What’s the future of Gatwick Airport with BA, Norwegian and Virgin Atlantic gone?

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Gatwick Airport is not having the best of times at the moment.  No airport is having a great May, obviously, but at least Heathrow knows that the high value of its slots means that airlines will do everything possible to run a full schedule once the Winter timetable starts.

As a reminder, the ‘use it or lose it’ rules on airlines slot use are currently suspended until late October.  From late October, airlines will need to use their slots 80% of the time over the following five months or they will be forfeited.  With Heathrow slots selling for up to $75 million per pair, this would be an expensive mistake.

Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have closed their operations at London Gatwick.

What is the future for London Gatwick Airport?

On the face of it, this is crazy.  Very soon British Airways will have to bring in strict rules about social distancing (ie restricting access) to lounges and other facilities at Heathrow ….. and yet the South Terminal at Gatwick, used primarily by British Airways, will be virtually empty.  The huge British Airways lounge will have no guests.

The ONLY reason for doing this is that both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have to protect their Heathrow slots at all costs.  If this means a scorched earth policy at Gatwick, then that is the price to pay.

Long term, both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are likely to return to Gatwick.  Unless both airlines are planning to be 25% smaller than they were in January 2020 forever,  they will require capacity at Gatwick to expand again.  Virgin Atlantic has said that it will try to retain its slots, presumably by leasing them – possibly with an inducement – to other airlines to allow a return in the future.

Norwegian is scheduled to restart long-haul flights from April 2021.  Whilst Norwegian now seems out of the woods, financially, you wouldn’t want to bet a lot of money on that happening.

What will happen to London Gatwick until then?

Aviation analytics company Cirium supplied us with some interesting usage data on London Gatwick, based on ‘scheduled’ seats for February 2020.  Before we start looking at it, I should mention that the numbers would be different if done during the Summer as many airlines only operate at Gatwick seasonally.

Virgin Atlantic operated less than 4% of Gatwick seats

Before Virgin Atlantic pulled out of Gatwick entirely, it wasn’t even in the top 6 airlines to operate at the airport. Unsurprisingly, easyJet comes out on top with 38% of the total airport seat capacity:

38% easyJet
17% British Airways
13% Norwegian
5% TUI Airways
4% Vueling
4% Ryanair

We can only assume that Virgin Atlantic operated less than 4% of the total capacity at Gatwick.  Logically, this makes sense although it may be surprising at first.  The top six airlines at Gatwick all have short-haul networks, which Virgin Atlantic obviously doesn’t.

Whilst one long-haul aircraft is tied up for almost 24 hours on a return trip to the US, smaller short-haul aircraft can fly many more times during the same period.  This increases the capacity flown when counted on the basis of seats. In this context it is no surprise that Virgin Atlantic flies significantly fewer seats than other airlines.

What is the future for London Gatwick Airport?

Gatwick capacity was already down by 11.6% compared to 2019

The collapse of Thomas Cook, WOW Air and Flybe all had a significant impact on Gatwick operations. Whilst Heathrow continued to experience growth, passenger capacity at Gatwick plummeted by 11.6%.

The collapse of three airlines lead to the loss of over 140 weekly scheduled flights, including:

84 Thomas Cook flights
38 Flybe flights
20 WOW Air flights

Despite an overall capacity reduction, some airlines substantially increased their presence at Gatwick last year.

Wizz Air increased its presence at the airport by 269%.  Last week, Wizz Air announced its intention to purchase further slots and build a base up at Gatwick so we can expect further growth, despite the current climate.  Wizz Air is already the largest airline at London Luton.

Here are the fastest growing airlines at Gatwick compared to last year:

Wizz Air – 269%
Air China – 136%
Air Malta – 43%
WestJet – 34%
Belavia – 33%

If, like me, you hadn’t heard of Belavia before, it is the flag carrier of Belarus! Clearly demand for connectivity between Gatwick and Minsk is up.

What is the future for London Gatwick Airport?

Gatwick continues with plans for a second runway

Despite an 11.6% drop in capacity in February 2020 vs 2019 and further huge softening as Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Norwegian fall away, Gatwick is ploughing on with its expansion plans.   The airport intends to turn its emergency runway, currently used as a taxiway, into an operational runway for short-haul planes.

The airport is expected to submit detailed proposals soon for the £500 million project which could see an additional 50,000 flights operate a year.

Whilst this may seem redundant in the current climate, most airlines are predicting a return to 2019 levels of traffic by 2024.  Any infrastructure investment now is simply paving the way for growth in the next decades.  With additional capacity always a touchy subject at UK airports, London Gatwick is seeking to press its advantage whilst it has the opportunity to do so.  History shows that there is an advantage in trying to get approval for massive job-creating construction projects during a recession.

Comments (100)

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  • Ian M says:

    I’ve flown with Belavia many times. Good airline! Still provide free food and drinks in economy, a hot meal on the longer routes like London!

    • Sandgrounder says:

      I remember getting some kind of lumpy potato dish for breakfast on Belavia. Nice to get something in economy though. I’d recommend visiting Belarus, Minsk is a bit short on tourist attractions, but it is great value, very safe and the have preserved more of their Soviet heritage than almost any other area of the former USSR.

    • Sandgrounder says:

      According to the FCO only 14000 Brits visit every year, so I not surprised by that. It’s a lot easier to visit now as you can get a visa on arrival quite easily if you fly in. You might need a bit of Russian to get by though.

    • the_real_a says:

      Belavia was pricing out at £200-250 return last year. A bit pricey for a weekend trip, when you can pick a Ryanair/Easyjet destination for £50. Still looking forward to a visit, unfortunately the visa free entry can only be got from entry via the Minsk airport currently.

    • Anthony Edwards says:

      I had a great long weekend in Minsk with a group of friends – this was in 2008 though and we got the train from Vilnius to avoid the expensive (at the time) flights.

      So much vodka.

  • Georgina says:

    First, I do not think the lounges at Gatwick have anything to do with any planning at BA whatsoever – they are small beer in the bigger picture, especially if airlines across the board restrict lounge access to business class fares only. Second, Gatwick is more an expanding regional airport as opposed to a Munich/Frankfurt type arrangement that Lufty has. Madrid is IAG’s Munich. Gatwick is not going to become the next Teeside if BA leaves for good.

  • Andrew says:

    Have BA made a final decision about leaving LGW post that initial Covid shutdown? My flight to Rome from LGW in September is still showing as operating – should I assume that is cancelled (regardless of any travel restrictions at that time still being in place).

    • Joe C says:

      Agreed, would like to know this – there’s been no official announcement, and my flights to Barbados in October still show as running

    • Michael C says:

      It could just be moved to a different London departure airport.

    • Secret Squirrel says:

      Probably be moved to LHR, they can do that.

    • Rhys says:

      It is currently suspended and likely to remain so until at least ‘meaningful’ flying takes place, ie. later this summer. They still haven’t announced their medium term intentions (unlike Virgin).

  • ChrisBCN says:

    “What’s the future of Gatwick Airport with BA, Norwegian and Virgin Atlantic gone?”

    “Long term, both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are likely to return to Gatwick”
    “Norwegian is scheduled to restart long-haul flights from April 2021”

    I agree, the future is that they are not gone!

  • Ken Rumph says:

    What about other london airports: do we still need six?

    • JAXBA says:

      For the next year or so, maybe not. But then we will again.

  • Andrew says:

    I think that current situation is that both BA and Virgin have “suspended” their operations at LGW, not “closed” their operations as the article states. No final decision about closing operations has been made by either airline, just a proposal.

    • Rhys says:

      Virgin has closed its Gatwick operations for the foreseeable future. We wrote about it when it was announced:

      • Andrew says:

        It’s a proposal, it hasn’t happened yet.

        • Rhys says:

          No, it’s not a proposal. It is closing its Gatwick base whilst retaining the slots to allow it to return in the future, if it so desires. But there are no plans to return to the airport until at least 2022, given they just announced their summer 2021 schedule and Gatwick is nowhere to be found.

          • Andrew says:

            And yet their website will still sell me a ticket to Orlando from Gatwick in August. As I said, it’s a proposal at this stage.

          • Lady London says:

            i think what’s “just a proposal”, might turn out to be that ticket in August 🙂

      • Chrish says:

        Rhys@ Always worry when ever anyone says “Foreseeable Future” heard it a lot in my 72 years lol
        Means could change in an hour lol after all can you see the foreseeable future

        • Rhys says:

          Whilst it’s true that anything is possible, the likelihood is quite slim 🙂

  • Planeconcorde says:

    (1) Publicly BA has said they are considering not immediately reopening services from Gatwick. It not definite yet from official information in the public domain. Is this just a negotiating tactic with the unions?
    (2) I have multiple flights booked with BA from Gatwick for later in the year. So far they haven’t been cancelled. I know that means nothing at this stage.

    • memesweeper says:

      I’ve got a flight with BA scheduled for 1 July from LGW and that’s not cancelled yet! Very little chance it will operate and certainly not from Gatwick.

    • Rhys says:

      BA is playing its cards close to its chest. I suspect it is waiting to see how things evolve before it makes any final decisions.

      Personally, I think it makes more sense to ditch T3 at Heathrow and keep Gatwick, but that will depend on whether it can keep the slots going there.

      You don’t write a press release about the closure of one of your bases without being 99% certain that it’s going to happen!

      • Andrew says:

        Ignore the above, meant for the Virgin thread.

      • ChrisBCN says:

        You do if it applies pressure to get your landing fees reduced….

  • Alex W says:

    I am guessing that Gatwick is banking on the Heathrow 3rd runway not happening. Which seems likely, given it was ruled illegal due to climate impact. And it’s opposed by the PM, who is probably not going anywhere soon as the general public thinks he’s doing a brilliant job.

    • Nigel says:

      With BA/Virgin apparently temporarily leaving, then perhaps that opens the door for others like LEVEL (easy to step into BA slots surely?) and Delta to step in for Virgin slots? European operators like Smartwings, Jet2 and Eurowings could benefit as well as outliers like Air Asia X if they fancy a return this way, as well as Air Canada Rouge etc. Be nice to see Westjet and Air Transat deliver more Canadian routes too.

      On the plus side, all that spare lounge capacity could see easyjet open their own lounge and test the waters for all those weekend city break types who can get nicely hammered in there rather than Wetherspoons. If Norwegian long haul ever return then I’m sure they would like a lounge facility given the number of routes and aircraft they had prior the crisis.

      • Rhys says:

        Norwegian used the MyLounge before it scrapped lounge benefits because it cost too much. I doubt they will be bringing lounges back…

        • Riccatti says:

          If lounges charge PP visitors at 15-25GBP charge, then an airline must be able to negotiate a cheaper rate wholesale.

          Vice versa, if the airline is captive to Gatwick lounges and pushed to pay the higher price for the guarantee of seats, it still should be in area of 30-40GBP.

          Norwegian Premium Seat to the US, often 600-900GBP.

          • Rhys says:

            Norwegian felt it wasn’t worth it when it was giving free lounge access to Premium passengers, despite using one of the cheapest lounges at Gatwick. I doubt it sees any money to be made in operating its own!

    • Andrew says:

      In my admittedly completely non-expert view I’d say the government and/or Heathrow would have a pretty good chance of overturning the decision if they chose to appeal. Taking the ruling at face value it would seem to make any decision which might increase carbon emissions illegal. Want to build a new road? No. Want to build an extra runway anywhere in the country? No. Want to increase flights to an under utlised existing airport? No.

      Provided it could be shown that reductions in carbon emissions elsewhere would more than compensate for another runway I suspect any appeal would be successful. The court already sided with the governement/Heathrow on the other causes of complaint (pollution, noise, traffic, cost). In a bizarre way the decline of Gatwick (and a corresponding decline in carbon emissions there) could make a third runway at Heathrow more likely.

    • BrightonReader says:

      It wasn’t ruled illegal at all.

      The court ruled that consideration of the climate change act requirements wasn’t up to snuff and needed to be looked at again.

      The court looked at the process in reaching the decision to have a 3rd runway not whether the decision to have a 3rd runway was correct or not.

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