Gatwick Airport at 80: How such a large-scale business is run

PUBLISHED: 11:02 14 June 2016

A 747 parked by the air traffic control tower (Photo courtesy of Gatwick Airport)

A 747 parked by the air traffic control tower (Photo courtesy of Gatwick Airport)


This year Gatwick Airport celebrates 80 years serving residents of Sussex, Surrey and all over the UK. Steve Roberts visited to find out how such a large-scale business is run

Eighty years ago, on 17 May, the first scheduled flight left Gatwick Airport, bound for Paris Le Bourget.

The Secretary of State for Air, Lord Swinton, opened it officially on 6 June.

To find out what makes this place tick, Sussex Life spoke to head of terminals and passenger services Nikki Barton. Nikki was born and bred in Sussex and has been a part of Gatwick for 27 years, so she is the perfect person to give the inside track on a place that is a town in its own right – an exciting, vibrant mini-metropolis with 2,500 employees, but 10 times that if you include those with ancillary jobs which depend on Gatwick.

Departures account for the capacity of Old Trafford on a daily basis – around 75,000. “Gatwick is about people and we’re only as good as their last experience,” says Nikki. “About 30 companies are involved in just one departure and if anything goes wrong in that end-to-end process, Gatwick’s reputation is affected. We’re always working hard to get things right and to find ways of making a positive difference to the customers coming through.”

The experience I had travelling with my wife earlier this year reflected this. There was a lot we could do ourselves, printing off a boarding-pass and a baggage label and we were able to check one bag into the hold without queuing or fuss. “We have service levels to minimise queue and wait time, so passengers have more quality time to themselves; we’ll have the largest bag drop area in the world when it’s fully open.”

Things will not always go to plan, of course. Incidents will occur and there will always be passengers who find the whole thing a struggle, but the airport’s ethos is to keep improving. Complaints inform the airport’s future plans, but that is not the whole story: customers do write in with compliments too. Passengers will notice their suggestions taking shape; who was it who wanted interactive entertainment for the children and who was it who wanted facilities for phone charging? These kinds of things matter to people and providing them does make a difference. Layered on top of all this is the paramount concern of safety and security.

Change is ever-present at Gatwick. The pace of change in the airline industry dictates that airports have to keep adapting. Bigger planes, like today’s giant, the double-decker Airbus A380, have to be accommodated, and Pier One is a £120m project, which is seeing six new stands built. A serious amount of money has to be spent to keep Gatwick big enough for the demands of the early 21st century and beyond, so there is a rolling programme of both capital investment and maintenance, which has to happen in as transparent a fashion as possible, making full use of off-peak periods.

“We also have Westjet coming in from May,” says Nikki. “They’ll be flying to Canada from the North Terminal. Having long-haul and feeder flights presents challenges and we’re working to ensure the connections between these flights.”

Nikki has noticed changes in passenger profile and behaviour. “Friday is becoming our busiest day, as there are more and more people heading off for long-weekend mini-breaks – it used to be Saturday/Sunday. There are so many destinations to choose from. We have an increasing number of savvy, multi-travel, internet-aware passengers. They expect to be able to travel easily and conveniently, like hopping on a bus. Passenger growth is strong.”

Nikki’s long association with this part of Sussex has enabled her to observe first-hand the changes that have been taking place. “Some industry has been lost, but unemployment hereabouts is low because of the Gatwick effect, which spreads further than you might think – for example, right down as far as Brighton.”

Gatwick’s place at the heart of its community is never forgotten. There is a Community Relations Team looking at ways to support local schools, for example.

Of course, living near an airport is not great for everybody, but Gatwick aims to minimise aircraft noise, engaging with local communities all the while. The airport has rolled out a three-year £7.2m scheme whereby potentially more than 2,000 local homes will receive customised insulation to mitigate against aircraft noise. The UK’s first community ‘noise-lab’ – an online tool – enables local people to more accurately monitor aircraft noise. An independent review of arrivals commissioned by Gatwick highlighted 23 further measures that could be taken to reduce the noise impact on local communities, all of which have been accepted by the airport.

There has to be a downside to working in an environment such as this. Looking out from picture windows, high up on the South Terminal’s 7th floor, at aeroplanes departing just below, could be it, as Nikki confirms: “It can be frustrating looking out of the window sometimes. There are so many places to go, so little time.”


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