Heathrow or Gatwick? At least someone has made their mind up!

Garuda have become the latest of many airlines to move from Gatwick to Heathrow. There is a well-established pattern for foreign airlines to test the waters on the UK market at Gatwick and then, as soon as they can get slots, move to Heathrow. Better transport, a wider and wealthier catchment area and connections all over Europe and the rest of the world make Heathrow the aim for any airline flying to the UK.

Gatwick appears to work well for budget and leisure flights but that is it. Even the airlines who are succeeding at Gatwick at the moment, do not want a second runway because they fear they will have to pay for it.

The logic for a third runway at Heathrow is overwhelming but what would happen if the government took the easy option and decided in favour of Gatwick? No airline would willingly give up their position at Heathrow. Reduced charges at Gatwick probably would not tempt them either since they do not at the moment. If existing airlines at Gatwick were faced with higher charges to pay for the runway they might be forced to move all or some of their flights to Stansted or even Luton.

The pull of Heathrow is so strong that the only way to break it would be to close the airport completely. Clearly that s not going to happen.

Garuda know what they are doing – we must hope the government does too.


Gatwick’s Image Problem

I have to admit I find landing at Gatwick Airport a miserable experience. There are plenty of reasons to dislike Gatwick but what really depresses me is the almost traditional announcement from the cabin crew welcoming passengers to “London Ga’wick”.

Can you imagine French airline staff mispronouncing the name of a French airport? Listen to a Greek steward or stewardess rapidly enunciate every syllable of Athens Eleftherios Venizelos as a sort of macho challenge to foreign passengers to do better. And no German airline employee would dare mispronounce any German airport name.

The fact that airlines operating at Gatwick tolerate their staff calling it “Ga’wick” is as much a throwback to the lazy, couldn’t-care-less culture of 1960′s Britain as the brutal architecture of the South Terminal and the unlovely railway station. Britain has moved on but Gatwick feels stuck in a rut of mediocrity.

The best chance you have of landing at Gatwick and being welcomed to the airport correctly is if you arrive on a foreign airline.

Sadly, the lack of care starts at the top. Stewart Wingate, the CEO of Gatwick, was interviewed on BBC Breakfast last week. He gave out the usual story that Gatwick is increasing its longhaul flights and is a real rival to Heathrow, carefully ignoring the fact that the growth is actually coming from shorthaul budget flights, and he kept referring to the airport as “Ga’wick”.

No company will let a CEO near a television camera without media training. Whoever trained Mr Wingate clearly neglected to persuade him to pronounce the name of his airport correctly. How can a company have someone as its CEO who does not know there is a “t” in his company’s name? Aviation is an international business. If we do not use English correctly, who will? 

Major airports do not always welcome foreign passengers in the best possible way but most of them at least know what their name is.

Gatwick’s campaign to build a second runway and be treated as an equal of Heathrow is probably doomed to failure anyway but it cannot be taken seriously until customer-facing staff, and its executives, have been taught to pronounce its name correctly.

EasyJet to Heathrow? – It’s not going to happen!

Whatever easyJet’s CEO Carolyn McCall has been telling the Daily Telegraph, it is highly improbable that the airline is going to move its Gatwick operation to Heathrow. Much more likely is its consolidation of its Gatwick services all under one roof at the North Terminal. The airline already operates 45% of flights out of the airport, but they are currrently split between the North and South terminals. A move to the North Terminal would require  British Airways to shimmy over to the South Terminal to be next to LGW rivals Virgin Atlantic.

Airports and shopping

Some businesses might be struggling but consultants seem to be thriving. Whilst there are some who know what they are doing and understand the field they work in, there are too many who seem to think the more they complicate an issue, the cleverer they will appear.

I am just recovering from reading a tedious report on the sale of slots at Gatwick by flybe to easyJet. Lots of graphs, charts and complicated theories as to the the precise strategies of flybe, Gatwick and easyJet almost completely hide the real reason for the sale.

- Flybe has been losing money badly for several years. They have now embarked on a turn-around plan which is, almost, their last chance. Gatwick was not central to their route network and if someone is going to offer £20 million for the slots, you grab the cash with both hands.

- Flybe blamed Gatwick’s discriminatory pricing which hits smaller aircraft but other airports discriminate in a similar way. The simple fact is that flybe badly needed the cash – though obviously they could not say that.

- You might have thought that Gatwick, with its stated ambitions to be a rival to Heathrow, would actually want to keep flybe because of the domestic feeder traffic, but economics come before lofty ambition. Even ignoring the money they receive from each take off and landing, Gatwick wanted bigger aircraft because bigger aircraft have more passengers and more passengers means more business for the shops. Also, international passengers spend more than domestic passengers. Gatwick could surely have done a deal with flybe had they wanted to but their departure suits them very well – the choice between 80 passengers going to Newcastle and 180 going to Athens is a no-brainer. The airport will gain a little from increased landing fees with the bigger aircraft but it stands to gain much more from the additional retail revenue.

Simple – no graphs or pie-charts required.

Airport retail is hugely important to all travellers. Those who complain about the crowds of shops disturbing airport terminals really need to consider how much their tickets would cost without the income. No passenger is forced to shop – but we all enjoy the benefits.

And Heathrow has just announced a very interesting new benefit – free wi-fi. Once again, the press manage to miss the point. Almost every story I have read on the subject says the airport will be offering 45 minutes free wi-fi use each day. Some then pontificate about the aim of Heathrow to appear to be offering more, but they ignores the crucial part of the deal. You can actually get 90 minutes each day – all you need do is enter your Heathrow Rewards card number. Linking the free wi-fi to their shopping reward card is a very clever move. Anyone using the free wi-fi is going to be tempted to sign up to get the extra minutes – and if they sign up, the airport will have their email address and be able to hit them with lots of profitable add-ons.

Airports and shopping – the two are inextricably linked.


Goodbye Malev

The closure of the Hungarian flag-carrier, Malev, this morning had, like that of Spanair last Friday, long been predicted by Inside Traveller. Even so, it is still a sad event. The airline was never particularly good and needed radical restructuring and much better customer service if it was to have any chance. The best hope is that the Hungarian government can now come up with a new “Hungarian Airlines” to take over the good parts – in much the same way that Swiss was created from the ashes of Swissiar.

Meanwhile, we note that the Gatwick Airport website remains silent on the matter. On the list of this evening’s arrivals, they merely show “enquire airline” next to the Malev flight from Budapest. Is it asking too much to expect the airport to offer some sort of information on its home page?

Gatwick’s Fast Track to Cloud-Cuckoo Land

“Watch out, Heathrow as Gatwick goes to war” was the headline in this weekend’s Sunday Times Travel Section. The article says that Gatwick has hired a “leading PR agency” to launch a propaganda war against Heathrow. One initial success seems to have been in persuading The Sunday Times to publish several pro-Gatwick pieces over the last few months.

According to the PR puffery so willingly reprinted by The Sunday Times, “increasing numbers of airlines are already moving to Gatwick and British Airways is adding more routes”.

BA is constantly switching routes between Heathrow and Gatwick in an effort to make the best use of its slots at Heathrow. It will never move routes away from Heathrow unless it has to.

It is true – as Inside Traveller has on occasion reported, that Gatwick has gained some new airlines – Air Berlin has moved some flights from Stansted, Norwegian Air Shuttle has moved all its service from Stansted and easyJet is growing at Gatwick in preference to Luton.

In contrast, the airport has lost two of its last remaining well-known international airlines as both Etihad and Qatar have retrenched at Heathrow. This leaves Gatwick as the London home of such world-leading foreign airlines as Cubana, Air Zimbabwe and United Airlines of Bangladesh. The days are long gone when the airport was a major centre for US airlines as they all left for Heathrow some time ago.

The principal achievements of Gatwick under its new owners appear to have been paying shareholders a particularly large dividend and taking credit for improvement works begun by the previous owners, BAA.

This silly war could be dismissed as harmless PR nonsense but there is a slight worry.

Gatwick has no chance of ever competing meaningfully with Heathrow. The concentration of business there is simply too great. The airport can compete very successfully with Luton and Stansted – which is where it has had most success. To succeed in this, its charges have to be kept very competitive. Hiring expensive PR agencies and spending too much management time and money in a battle against Heathrow which they cannot win, risks the last remaining strength of Gatwick’s business. They need to concentrate on the customers they have – not the ones they would like but can never get.

Dangerous Promises at Gatwick

The new owners of Gatwick are not doing themselves any favours with foolish announcements about how they plan to transform the airport. They are promising a much-improved passenger environment and “no queues”. They claim that passengers at their other airport, London City, never have to queue for more than three minutes.

Firstly, they do not mean “no queues” at all – they are simply referring to Security queues. Unless airlines and their agents employ scores more staff, there will still be plenty of queues to check in.

Secondly, how do they hope to achieve this miracle? London City is Britain’s most expensive airport for both passengers and airlines. The company has already paid a heavy price for Gatwick and further investment will have to be earned through increased revenues. At the moment, the majority of the South Terminal’s flights are budget and charter flights – these airlines want to pay less, not more. Most of them do not really care too much about whether passengers have to queue for Security for three minutes or ten minutes.

It is noticeable that already some of Gatwick’s airlines are sounding nervous about the new owners.

They will have to be a great deal more professional in the way they communicate their intentions in the future or they could be heading for a major PR disaster – and a serious loss of airline traffic.