Why Gatwick Airport’s new chief has Heathrow lined up in his sights

SOME people need to have a lot on their plates if they are to thrive – and Stewart Wingate, Gatwick’s newish boss, is clearly one of these.

The 39-year-old took up his post last December when the airport was bought by US investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) for £1.5bn from Ferrovial-owned airports operator BAA, which was forced to sell up for competition reasons.

Wingate has £1bn to spend over five years to upgrade an airport that was opened by the Queen in 1958. His role is to quickly attract new airlines and passengers to prove to the Competition Commission, and more importantly to his US owners, that he can open up a market between London’s three major airports – Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick – which have been publicly- or monopoly-owned for the last four decades.

Gatwick, the busiest single strip airport in the world, is projected to carry 32.5m passengers this year, similar to 2009. But this is still below its pre-slump 2007 peak when it carried 35m. And this is all a far cry from the target GIP has set for the airport, to carry 45m passengers by 2018.

“We are here to compete,” says Wingate, a heavy-set ebullient Geordie, who previously worked at BAA for seven years, including stints as head of Budapest and Stansted airports. “Gatwick has suffered from being the second child in BAA’s family after Heathrow,” says Wingate. “But it was never treated half as well in terms of management time and resources. But for us Gatwick is our jewel in the crown, and we have big plans for it.”

Wingate is speaking in a small meeting room in the firm’s on-site corporate block, which has floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides and offers magnificent views of the airstrip, its estate and the west Sussex countryside beyond.

The Gatwick boss plans to boost passengers by a variety of methods.

First, he believes the air traffic control technology he uses, which currently permits 52 aircraft take-offs or landings per hour at peak, can be upgraded “to slightly increase our numbers here.”

Wingate also wants to improve the consistency of take-offs and landings throughout the day. Currently Gatwick has three peak periods: between 5am and 6am, between 10.30am and lunchtime, and between 3.30pm and 6pm.

He wants to attract long haul carriers from the Middle East, the Far East and the Americas because “the times they are likely to fly into London will be in our quieter periods.” Currently only around 20 per cent of the airport’s flights are long haul.

Also, the firm has just spent £45m on new stands to accommodate the Airbus A380 superjumbo that will carry more passengers. And Wingate adds many of the airlines that use his airport are testing new configurations that fit more seats into the plane.

This is important for Gatwick because half of its revenues come from plane charges – for things like landing, parking and the number of passengers each aircraft carries. Most of the rest of the airport’s income comes from retailing and car park charging, with a small amount coming from rents from its property portfolio.

In the year to March the airport posted £475m in sales and made an underlying profit of £169m.

The Gatwick boss will not make forecasts for next year, but says the airline industry in beginning to pick up after a crippling slump and thinks passenger numbers at the airport will grow three per cent next year.

But before Wingate can really begin to add passengers he knows he has to boost the airport’s reputation for customer service, which like Heathrow, has flagged in recent years.

When the new Gatwick boss took up his post last December he inherited a £35m upgrade of the train shuttle service between its North and South Terminals, which was due to be completed in September.

He says: “That was after the school holidays had finished, missing our busiest period of the year. We got the contractors together and convinced them to finish the job 10 weeks early in July.”

Wingate adds: “In the past Gatwick has usually paid penalties to its airlines because of various customer service failures. But this year we were paid a bonus by our airlines because we did what we said we were going to do.”

The airport is working on a number of new infrastructure projects such as building new stands and a baggage system worth £156m in the South Terminal and a £76m extension to the North Terminal, the first phase of which is due to open next summer.

Some airlines that use the airport are impressed by the start Wingate’s team have made. British Airways’ general manager at Gatwick Alan Peever said: “We are encouraged by the improvements the new team has made on customer service areas at the airport, and we have started a strong working relationship with them.”

But another airline general manager says Wingate’s plans for 45m passengers by 2018 are “overly ambitious” partly because of the “unique” status of Gatwick.

No other major airport in the UK has the mix of airlines Gatwick has. Its largest customer is budget carrier easyJet, which carries 10m passengers, but it also is used by full service airlines like British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, as well as a range of charter airlines like Thomas Cook and TUI.

By contrast, Heathrow has no budget airlines, while low cost carrier Ryanair provides Stansted with the majority of its passengers. “The different types of airlines at Gatwick require very different levels of service,” said the airline manager. “To satisfy all of them may prove difficult as well as costly.”

So far only three airlines, including budget carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle, have left their old bases for Gatwick, but the airport says more will come once its customer service changes and infrastructure improvements begin to show through.

Currently, 80 per cent of Gatwick’s passengers travel for leisure, leaving only a fifth as business flyers. But GIP’s other airport in the capital, London City Airport, is by contrast dominated by business travellers. Wingate says he and his opposite number Richard Gooding at London City do not have a particularly close working relationship.

The Gatwick boss says: “We don’t operate as a group. We are two competing airports, although Richard has a unique business market and quick check-in offering.”

But Wingate adds: “There is a lot of attention to detail employed at London City, which we are now using here.”

So much so that Wingate poached Scott Stanley from the smaller airport and made him his chief operating officer.

GIP has been busy clawing back some of its investment since it bought Gatwick last year. It sold a 15 per cent stake to Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, for around £125m and a 12 per cent stake to South Korea’s National Pension Service’s for about £100m in February. More recently in June it sold a further 12 per cent stake to California Public Employees’ Retirement System for £100m.

And the US fund is reportedly in new talks to sell another stake in the business.

But Wingate says: “GIP have said they will keep at least a 51 per cent stake in the business and that means they will retain control, which will allow them to push ahead with their plans.”

When Wingate took over Gatwick he pledged to honour an existing agreement not to push for a second runway until 2019.

But after this all bets are off. “We are capacity constrained at Gatwick. And we will never rule out the option of a second runway,” Wingate says.

The coalition government has torn up the previous government’s aviation commitment to build a third runway at Heathrow and a second at Stansted. This suits Wingate because when the coalition government begins to draw up a new aviation policy in 12 to 18 months time he believes he will be on a level playing field to lobby for growth.

But in the meantime Wingate is knee-deep in the everyday struggle to build customers back up to their 2007 levels, let alone the 10m-plus passengers the airport wants to put on in just eight short years. Long-suffering air travellers, meanwhile, will be hoping that Wingate’s welcome extra investment – and the first real competition ever in London airports – will soon start to make their lives a little easier.

CV | STEWART WINGATE
Age: 39

Work: Began his career as a graduate apprentice in 1988 at Black & Decker, where he worked in a variety of posts in the UK, Germany and the Czech Republic. Joined BAA in 2004 and was chief executive of Budapest Airport and managing director of Stansted Airport. Recruited by GIP in 2009 to become chief executive of Gatwick Airport.

Education: University of Northumbria and University of Newcastle upon Tyne, degree in electrical and electronic engineering and an MBA

Family: Married, two daughters

Hobbies: Mountain biking, skiing and golf