This article was first published in the summer of 2019 as part of a 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse the full series of 100 stories in numerical order, by theme or by decade.
BA’s history at London Gatwick can be traced back to the original British Airways which was formed in 1935.
Whilst both British Airways had a limited presence at the airport in its early years, it wasn’t until BA acquired British Caledonian in 1988 and Dan-Air in 1992 did BA start to develop Gatwick into a second London hub.
The hub would be based in the new North Terminal, where BA operated the first flight, BA532 to Naples, on 22 March 1988.
BA transferred many routes to Latin America and Central & East Africa from Heathrow to complement those routes it inherited from British Caledonian. By the late 1990s all BA services to Africa, excluding Egypt and South Africa, and all services to the Caribbean and Latin America, excluding Mexico City, were served from Gatwick.
The aim was for Gatwick’s North Terminal to be “the hub without the hubbub”, as illustrated by this advert produced at great expense in a full replica of the North Terminal at Pinewood Studios.
BA, in a joint-venture with USAir, launched new routes to Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Charlotte. BA also subsequently launched its own services to Pheonix and Denver from Gatwick.
By the late 1990s profitability at Gatwick was proving elusive. The dual London hub strategy wasn’t working. The short-haul operation was coming under pressure from low cost airlines.
Gatwick was to be “de-hubbed” and focus on point-to-point traffic. BA began progressively switching long-haul routes back to Heathrow.
The process was accelerated after the events of 11 September 2001, which prompted BA to launch a review called “Future Size and Shape”. It rejected measures such as closing Gatwick or moving to single class on short-haul flights.
The move was to see from 1999 to 2003 the number of BA long-haul aircraft at Gatwick reduced from 33 to 11 and the number of long-haul destinations fell from 48 to 15. Similarly, on short-haul over the same period the number of aircraft fell from 54 to 35 and destinations fell from 54 to 34.
The last routes inherited from BCAL, Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston transferred to Heathrow after the liberalisation of the EU-US transatlantic market in 2008.
The significance of Gatwick is not just about BA. As a relatively accessible airport, it is one where BA has met new competitors in London which has led to many controversial moments in it history. From Freddie Laker’s “Skytrain” in 1977 to Virgin Atlantic in 1984, Norwegian in 2014 and WestJet in 2016.
To today, BA’s operation at Gatwick has been radically simplified with the Boeing 777-200 operating exclusively on long-haul routes and Airbus A320 family aircraft operating exclusively on short-haul routes.
BA is now dwarfed by easyJet at Gatwick which now has around 50% of slots at the airport. BA has indirectly assisted easyJet’s growth by letting it acquire its former franchise partner GB Airways in 2007 and Flybe’s slot portfolio in 2013.
The market remains highly competitive. Not all short-haul and long-haul route launches have been successful. Short-haul routes continue to be switched between Heathrow and Gatwick. That said, whilst BA will never regain its former presence it is now growing again. The long-haul route network is expected to grow as Boeing 777-200 aircraft are cascaded from Heathrow.
The airport also serves as petri dish for new initiatives such as “hand baggage only” fares and 10 abreast seating on Boeing 777 aircraft. If a new idea is launched at Gatwick, you can be confident it will soon follow at Heathrow.