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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 (102)

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  • Nick says:

    BA are selling flights from Italy to Gatwick in early July so they must be planning to run services. Norwegian also appear to be restarting CTA-LGW alongside EasyJet in late June.

  • Steve R says:

    Certainly like to know what BA are planning We are due to fly LGW – DLM at beginning of August

    • PeterK says:

      Belavia (to Minsk) has probably achieved the highest passenger load factor of any airline operating from a London airport over the past 2 months of lockdown.

  • Marcw says:

    Sometimes I think that all this decisions, like BA leaving Gatwick (or Virgin) is just to put pressure on airport operators (reduced fees, “free” parking fees,…) – airlines have a negotiating agenda.
    I don’t think BA will leave LGW. If the Mediterranean opens to receive tourists from July, BAs LGW operations will restart. BA is the second LGW operator.
    Don’t think Virgin sees a future in the short term at LGW.

    • ChrisBCN says:

      Absolutely spot on. All this talk of things changing for good is nonsense. Things will go back to exactly how they were before as travel resumes.

      • Ben says:

        Wishful thinking Chris. I’m not planning to get on a plane for at least a year, and I know many are thinking the same way. Why take the risk when I’m not required to travel?

        • ChrisBCN says:

          And then you will travel again. Things back to as they were, as I said.

  • Dave says:

    Visa free travel to Belarus opened up this country a coupe of years ago. One of the cleanest cities I have ever visited and there is plenty to do if you venture out of town. When I visited in 2018 the visa rules only allowed 5 days, now extended to 30. Belavia were fine on a busy flight.

    • Alex M says:

      I know a local guide in Belarus who does 2-3 days group trips outside Minsk if you happen in that part of the world – kayaking, bbq, vodka of course etc.
      His website is beladventure.by (I hope Rob doesn’t mind me mentioning him here).
      Mind you, I didn’t use his service in Belarus, but we climbed mountains together somewhere else and I highly recommend him. He also speaks English.

    • Lost+confused says:

      Belarus are one of the few countries that have not closed borders and are operating relatively normally (for example public events are still going on).
      Although they did introduce 2 week quarantine for travellers they are now going to waive this for people with a clear test result less than 48 hours old when entering the country. Perhaps that puts them in a good position to capitalise on pent up wanderlust?

      Minsk is a good city to explore for a long weekend and people are friendly, however with reported infections still on the rise I’m not booking for the family yet… it will be interesting to see how the new rules work when the details because clearer.
      Oh and if you are not covered by an existing policy medical insurance is available at the airport just before you enter the country…

    • ADS says:

      presumably Belavia increased from 3 to 4 flights a week. some statistics are pretty meaningless !

      i flew Belavia into LGW a few years ago (after being refused permission to fly to Moscow). Belavia were fine.

    • Ian M says:

      I’m based in Minsk, so if any headforpointers are thinking of a trip, feel free to ask any questions

      • Rhys says:

        How long would you recommend to stay? Long weekend?

        • Ian M says:

          Yeah 3 nights would be good. There’s 2 very nice Marriott properties here (Marriott and Renaissance). The Marriott location is nicer (next to the river) but recently went up to cat 3. The Renaissance is still a bargain at cat 2. Both have nice lounges. The Renaissance having a better range of food.

          The DoubleTree hotel is also very nice (far better than many Hilton’s I’ve stayed in) and the location of that is excellent.

          • Ian M says:

            I would also add that the Renaissance tend to be more generous with upgrades than the Marriott!

  • FloriGuy says:

    With the talk of the value of LHR slots, do Gatwick have enough demand to be able to sell slots or are they given away without payment?

    • insider says:

      the last bunch of slots (the Thomas Cook ones) were rumoured to have sold to easyJet for around £50m, similar to the BA Monarch ones a few years back.

      I reckon now they’d have very little value though, with maybe only a few carriers valuing them (such as Wizz, maybe Ryanair)

    • Dubious says:

      Airports do not sell slots.

  • John Muir says:

    BA have not pulled out of Gatwick yet, currently all their flights are suspended They said they may not return but currently they are still planning on flying from Gatwick. Flights are still bookable with BA next year. So not quite the same situation as Virgin.

  • Brian Jackson says:

    So who are possible new saviours for Gatwick?
    Jet Blue – US carrier looking to fly to London
    Jet 2 – never operated from Gatwick but then it never had slot availability until now
    Ryanair – could use the downturn to increase their presence

    What isn’t clear is how Emirates and Qatar Airways will continue services to Gatwick? Like Virgin and BA, they are all cutting fleets and services.

    And Stansted’s owners (MAG) are far more aggressive and successful in building and protecting their business.

    • John T says:

      I don’t think Jet2 care much about which UK airport they operate from provided they can keep their costs down (which is harder at Gatwick).

      It creates a fabulous opportunity for JetBlue though if they wish to build their UK presence quickly – plenty of empty check-in desks, gates, lounges. They could really customise their passenger experience quickly from Day 1 which many airlines don’t have the luxury of doing in the UK.

    • Rob says:

      Emirates and Qatar will move to Heathrow if you can. You can imagine BA letting Qatar ‘slot sit’ at Heathrow to avoid BA’s slots expiring.

    • Spaghetti Town says:

      I think Jet blue would operate 5 flights per day max. 3 JFK, 2 BOS?

    • Sam G says:

      Personally I think Wizzair are the only likely player to scale up Gatwick in a big way in the near term, with their lower cost base they can easily run rotations on the thicker Euro routes & holiday routes and do well, we’re already seeing it added out of Luton but Gatwick will attract a higher yield. They have a UK AOC now so could even see them on the domestics.

      They’re also someone I could imagine sitting on the slots that Virgin will want to keep (for a fee) – the early morning arrivals. They can easily transfer some of their huge Luton arrival wave (sometimes 25+ flights before 9am). Wizzair probably wouldn’t be that worried about having to move this out in a couple of years – those slots at Luton / Gatwick / Southend are unlikely to be taken by anyone else and airports love it as it fits in nicely with the gap after the based frames have departed between 6-7am.

      • The Jetset Boyz says:

        Wizz Air have already said they’re not interested in leasing Virgin’a Gatwick slots to grow, only to have to hand them back a year or two later.

  • Speedbird676 says:

    The only two flights that have been operating regularly have been the Belavia LGW-MSQ and Ryanair LGW-DUB. Aside from that all you really see are aircraft positioning flights, training flights and charter/rescues.

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