Plane Talk: After plans for a lower-cost BA subsidiary at the Sussex airport collapsed, the airline has a range of options for its portfolio of take-off and landing rights
Aviation is usually pretty good at making dreams come true through connecting people. A good few of those hopes have been fulfilled with the help of London Gatwick – formerly the busiest single-runway airport in the world, handling 45 million passengers (plus their aspirations) every year.
Yet from an airline perspective, many dreams have unravelled at Gatwick. A generation ago, the Sussex airport was the great hope for British Airways as “the hub without the hubbub”.
BA duplicated a lot of its Heathrow network at Gatwick, with transfers possible on routes such as Copenhagen to Miami through the relatively new and shiny North Terminal – with a minimum connecting time of just 26 minutes, far less than at clunky old Heathrow where Terminals 1 (Europe) and 4 (long-haul) were a mile and a runway apart.
Aer Lingus opened a base at Gatwick in 2009, offering great fares to destinations across Europe – but in competition against constantly expanding easyJet and, indeed, BA, the overseas incomer had little chance. The base soon closed.
Norwegian built an almost globe-girdling network at Gatwick, linking Sussex with Singapore, Buenos Aires and half-a-dozen US destinations. And British Airways soldiered on through the 21st century, even though easyJet was expanding at every turn.
The trouble with all these cunning plans: they lost tens of millions of pounds, which is both annoying and unsustainable. British Airways has confessed that it lost money on short-haul flights at Gatwick right though the past decade.
At present it has no European network at all from the UK’s second airport (after Heathrow). BA wanted to restart operations in March next year with a new low-cost subsidiary.
But the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) could not get the assurances it needed from the carrier and withdrew a ballot on the project.
British Airways says it has scrapped plans for Gatwick short-haul operations (apart from a Manchester and Glasgow round-trip to connect with international flights) and “will pursue alternative uses” for slots it has.
A reminder: these precious permissions to take off and land are held by BA and other airlines on a “use it or lose it” basis. And while the coronavirus pandemic has allowed some freedom not to fly, the “slot holiday” cannot last.
British Airways is part of IAG, which now also includes Aer Lingus and Vueling of Spain. Either or both of these two airlines could move in at some scale, but history does not suggest that they would prosper.
One radical suggestion from the airline schedule analyst, Sean Moulton, is that British Airways could buy Jet2 – and bestow the Leeds Bradford-based company with a readymade presence at Gatwick.
“A partnership between Jet2 and British Airways could be done through a shareholding agreement or through the lease/purchasing of slots,” writes Mr Moulton in his blog.
“British Airways may want to hold onto their slot portfolio and having a shareholding agreement would allow them to lease the slots to Jet2 without them losing control at Gatwick.
“If the partnership was to work, Jet2 could base 12-14 aircraft at London Gatwick.”
Or we could be watching a power game play out, with British Airways waiting for the pilots’ union to blink.
Whatever happens, Gatwick’s departure screens will look very different next summer.