Gatwick CEO Urges Return of Virgin Atlantic Amidst £7bn Modernisation Effort

ByTravelling For Business

June 3, 2024
Stewart Wingate

Gatwick Airport’s CEO, Stewart Wingate, has urged Virgin Atlantic to return to the airport amidst a significant £7bn modernisation programme.

Wingate has also criticised the UK’s tourist tax, introduced by former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, for putting Gatwick at a “competitive disadvantage” compared to European rivals like Madrid, Milan, and Paris.

Wingate, who has led Britain’s second-largest airport since 2009, told The Telegraph that the removal of tax-free shopping has hampered Gatwick’s ability to attract affluent passengers and long-haul airlines. He stated, “We, alongside London and the South East, are at a competitive disadvantage because when passengers think where to go and which city to choose, part of the decision-making is whether they can shop tax-free.”

This criticism comes as Gatwick embarks on its largest expansion project in decades, costing £2.2bn. The airport, which saw 41 million passengers in 2023, plans to convert its emergency runway into a regular one, thereby increasing its capacity from 55 to 70 flights per hour. This expansion aims to boost the regional economy by £1bn annually and create 15,000 jobs, despite expected increases in emissions and noise.

Wingate highlighted that Gatwick’s expansion is essential given the stagnation of Heathrow’s third runway project. He emphasised, “At the moment, Heathrow is full, and Gatwick is operating close to capacity during peak summer months. This expansion is the quickest way to add significant peak hourly slots.”

The proposed Northern Runway project, which involves shifting the emergency runway 12 metres north, will be financed entirely by private investment from Gatwick’s owners, Vinci Airports and Global Infrastructure Partners. Wingate pointed out the project’s feasibility, noting it will be built on existing Gatwick land, avoiding the need to purchase additional property or interfere with local infrastructure.

Wingate, who previously led Budapest and Stansted Airports, expressed confidence in the project, which has been in development for seven years. If approved by the planning inspectorate and government next year, construction could begin immediately.

Despite this optimism, Wingate remains focused on enhancing Gatwick’s airline partnerships. He has been actively courting long-haul carriers and recently secured a deal with Singapore Airlines. Reflecting on Gatwick’s growth, he said, “When I first arrived, we had about 30 long-haul routes. Today, we service around 54 different destinations worldwide.”

Wingate underscored the importance of policy support to maintain London’s status as a global transportation hub. He suggested abolishing the tourist tax as a critical step, arguing that policymakers must recognise who the UK is competing against and what those competitors are offering.

In summary, Gatwick’s ambitious expansion and modernisation efforts aim to bolster its competitive position. However, Wingate’s call for policy changes, particularly regarding the tourist tax, highlights the broader challenges facing the UK’s aviation sector in an increasingly competitive global market.