Could Gatwick airport ever persuade one of the “Big Three” airline alliances to defect from Heathrow?

Yesterday’s (Monday) Financial Times featured an interesting story where the Chief Executive of London Gatwick, Stewart Wingate, postulated (known in politics and the press as “kite flying”) that if a second runway for Gatwick was approved, one of the “Big Three” airline alliances could be persuaded to defect from Heathrow airport.

Is there any mileage in this?

Put simply, I don’t think so.

Heathrow is a stronghold for Oneworld (a point acknowledged by Gatwick), with British Airways alone operating roughly 50% of slots. BA has tried in the past a dual hub strategy at Gatwick without success (marketed as “the hub without the hubbub”) and has conceded too much ground to easyJet to make any meaningful fightback at Gatwick.

This leaves Star Alliance and SkyTeam. The former is due to move into a new Heathrow terminal almost exclusively dedicated to Star Alliance next year. One of its most influential members Lufthansa has been badly scarred by its disastrous acquisition of bmi and is unlikely to make another go of the UK market. As far as SkyTeam is concerned, one of its principal members, Delta has a nascent joint-venture with Virgin Atlantic.

More broadly, the three aviation alliances are essentially marketing agreements and achieving the relatively simple co-ordination of benefits and provision of reciprocal frequent flyer benefits is hard enough. It seems inconceivable that all members of one alliance could agree to divest of their Heathrow slots (much to the delight of their competitors) and purchase a one way ticket from Heathrow to Gatwick.

Clearly a lot of work has been put in by Gatwick over the past couple of years to improve the passenger experience and attract new airlines to the airport (with very mixed results), but this suggestion seems fanciful at best.

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