There was a period of time where London Gatwick Airport, LGW (IATA: LGW, ICAO: EGKK) provided one of the most exciting concentrations of super-jumbo jets from around the world. The airport seemed to be a 747 mating ground and due to its small physical size and limited runway space, it felt like the most chaotic airport I had ever been to.
I remember landing in Gatwick for the first time on an American Airlines 767 from Raleigh Durham and having to deplane onto the tarmac because there wasn’t a gate available for us (being able to actually walk next to the plane as a wide-eyed 10 year old gave me a great appreciation for just how big they really are).
It is the busiest single-use runway airport in the world and due to previous restrictions at London’s larger airport, Heathrow, many long-haul international flights were forced to use Gatwick.
Thanks to new open skies agreements between the U.S. and Europe, most of the long-haul international traffic that use to serve Gatwick has been shifted over to the much-larger Heathrow airport on the western outskirts of London allowing Heathrow to expand its lead over Gatwick as the world’s busiest international airport ever since.
And while today many traveler’s first introduction to Europe comes when they step off the plane at Heathrow, there was a time where Gatwick, although still much smaller than Heathrow, was a prominent international airport and was many travelers first sight upon arrival after a long overnight flight.
According to the Gatwick Aviation Society, Gatwick’s history as an airport began in the late 1920’s and was solidified in the early 1930’s when the airfield was used as a flying club for Londoners looking to take pleasure flights around south London. By 1934, the UK’s Air Ministry issued its first license to Gatwick, opening the airport up to public use.
By 1958, the modern version of Gatwick was officially opened as London’s second airport
and commercial carriers started flying to the airport located 30 miles south of London. It wasn’t until the 1970s however, that runway improvements and extensions began to entice transatlantic traffic to the airport and Gatwick began to play a role as a prominent international hub.
The 1980s saw a large increase in international travel as London became a focal point both as an important world financial center and as a well-positioned connection point between Europe and North America.
By 1987, Gatwick was handling more international passengers a year than any other airport in the world except Heathrow, surpassing JFK in New York for second place. Flights from around the globe served Gatwick despite the fact that the airport could only operate one of its two runways at a time and didn’t have gate space to handle the increasing traffic.
By the mid 2000s, Gatwick’s international passenger traffic started to decline as a new Open Skies Agreement between the U.S. and Europe opened up access to Heathrow allowing many carriers to switch over to the larger airport. Today, Gatwick is still the twelfth busiest international airport in the world although that number has continued to decline as Gatwick shifts to being more regionally-focused. After being a hub for British Airways which use to operate nearly 40% of the slots at Gatwick, the airport is now more evenly split between British Airways and budget carrier easyJet among many other regional airlines and some remaining international carriers.
In 2009 Gatwick was sold by BAA, a company which operates Heathrow and London’s Stansted Airport, to Global Infrastructure Partners. Global Infrastructure Partnerts is now looking for ways to further increase the airports capacity, possibly adding a new runway after a ban on runway expansion expires in 2019 according to London newspaper The Times.
An additional runway and increased passenger capacity could signal a large increase in passenger totals at Gatwick especially since Heathrow has struggled to to get a new runway of its own approved. London’s Mayor Boris Johnson recently proposed either building a new airport near London or doing a massive expansion of Gatwick as a remedy to the near-capacity passenger traffic in and out of London.
Despite being around for more than half a century, Gatwick remains a critical airport in England’s airport infrastructure and with a new operator and possible expansion plans on the horizon, Gatwick’s long-term future is secure and promising.