Opportunity Knocks

What will the change of ownership mean for London Gatwick airport, and in particular its ground handlers?

Christmas came early for London Gatwick airport. On Dec. 4, 2009, the gateway changed hands — moving from BAA to Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) for the princely sum of $2.26bn (GBP1.51bn).

According to Andrew McCallum, director of communications and external affairs, the airport finally had an owner that cared. “London Gatwick was just one of a group of seven airports under the previous owner,” McCallum says. “As far as the BAA strategy was concerned, Gatwick was a poor relation to London Heathrow. But we are making major investments.”

The sale was a long time coming. The UK Competition Commission’s initial ruling that BAA’s ownership of London’s key gateways was adversely affecting competition was given in August 2008. Gatwick naturally entered a period of limbo, and suffered from under-investment as a result.

But the drawn-out sale wasn’t without some benefits. Prospective bidders for London’s second gateway included improvement plans as part of their submissions. GIP consulted with all stakeholders, including the airlines, before finalizing its development blueprint.

“It means we’ve hit the ground running,” McCallum says. “It’s been a really hectic first few months, but we’re already beginning to see the results.”

Capital Investment Program
GIP’s Capital Investment Program identified some key areas in need of development, including check-in, baggage systems and security.

Check-in in particular needed urgent attention. The South Terminal at Gatwick is 52 years old; the North Terminal is 26 years old. Both are in desperate need of modernization, especially when it comes to the latest check-in technology. “We’re already working on implementing a host of new systems, which will have a dramatic impact on ground operations,” McCallum says. “We will also put new baggage systems in place so there will be a big change and significant benefits for passengers and airlines.”

By 2013 the North Terminal will have been extended to accommodate the new check-in facilities. Extra baggage capacity, including a much bigger reclaim area and baggage sorter will have been added. For good measure, there will be a larger short-term car park and improved roads around the terminal.

Baggage facilities and check-in at the South Terminal will also be upgraded.

Closer in, a $66 million (GBP44 million) inter-terminal shuttle is scheduled to open in July 2010, part of Gatwick’s plans to cope with traffic levels forecast to reach the 40 million mark within the next few years.

McCallum also informs the airfield will be developed to maximize capacity, with alterations to taxiways and parking stands, which will again have a knock-on effect for ground handlers. “By increasing airfield efficiency, we will enable our handlers to be more efficient as well,” he says.

One very busy runway
One vital aspect affecting efficient airfield operations won’t be changing. Gatwick is, and will remain, a single- runway airport — remarkable for a facility that even now handles more than 33 million passengers annually. “We have already said that we don’t have any plans to add a second runway in the foreseeable future,” notes McCallum. “Our current configuration makes Gatwick’s single runway the busiest in the world, but we actually plan to get even more capacity from it.”

McCallum reveals this will involve improving runway occupancy times, investment in airfield infrastructure and collaborative decision-making. Close cooperation with the UK’s National Air Traffic Services, Department for Transport and Civil Aviation Authority will also help in developing surrounding airspace.

At the moment, UK government policy still requires Gatwick to safeguard land for a potential second runway, located south of the current one. That policy also states that a second runway at Gatwick will only come under consideration if a third runway at Heathrow is not possible, and even then there are legally binding agreements in place not to construct a second runway before 2019.

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