Gatwick is investigating the potential of using its emergency runway to boost capacity, as it waits in the wings for government to back expansion of the London airport.
In minutes from a November meeting of the Gatwick Airport Consultative Committee, the airport's chief executive Stewart Wingate said Gatwick will be looking at "the capability of Gatwick's main runway and the northern (maintenance/emergency) runway before looking at a new runway over the coming months".
As part of its planning for future growth, the airport will consider the possibility in its "master plan" showing how it intends to develop.
The emergency runway is parallel to the main runway at the airport, and during normal operations is used as a taxiway.
While Gatwick cannot currently use the two at the same time, the committee was told the 1979 legal agreement, which had prohibited concurrent use of the emergency runway, expires next year.
The airport has begun to explore how else it can improve capacity as it awaits backing from the government for a second runway. In October 2016, Heathrow got the green light for a third runway, with a vote on the government's airports national policy statement expected to go before MPs in the summer.
Gatwick says it remains ready to deliver a second runway, but is conscious of improving capacity with passenger numbers on the rise. For 2017, it welcomed a record 45.6m passengers and is already eyeing reaching a fresh milestone of 50m.
The airport said, in the meantime, the government had challenged airports to make the best use of their existing facilities, and this proposal was a way of doing that.
The committee underlined the importance of Gatwick engaging with local communities at "an early stage" in the process, as it examines options for maximising the use of its existing infrastructure.
A spokesperson for Gatwick said:
We aim to explore many different options to improve the resilience and efficiency of the airport.
It is very early in this process and, if any viable plans emerge from this work, including potentially making some use of our northern runway, we would of course publish and consult widely with the local community and politicians before any decisions are made on changes to operations.
One sticking point is that the northern runway is shorter and thinner than its existing runway – not to mention very close to it.
As such, Gatwick has noted, it could not be operated independently in the way a brand new second runway could, which it continues to push for as a "deliverable, phaseable and privately funded solution".
Gatwick has continually argued that expansion at one London airport should not rule out the possibility of a new runway at another, saying a policy progressing with both would allow the government "to mitigate the high risks associated with expansion at Heathrow, as well as ensuring that faster growing traffic demand is met in a timely manner, and the advantages of airport competition are secured".
Heathrow however, has said its rival should not automatically be next in line for expansion. In a recent submission to the Transport Select Committee, it said there was "not yet any policy basis" for Gatwick being higher up in the queue than the likes of Stansted and Birmingham.