There’s a joke that British Airways should change its name to London Airways since that’s the only part of Britain it cares about. (And like all good jokes, it has a ring of truth to it.) But it might be fair to say that the airline should actually be called Heathrow Airways since the other London airports tend to be afterthoughts, and none more than Gatwick.
BA has had a long, tortured history at Gatwick, and it has changed its strategy several times. Now it is preparing to change yet again as it considers dumping the short-haul network into a separate low-cost operator.
Despite its convenient location to much of London, Gatwick has played second fiddle to Heathrow for decades in the British Airways network. It really wasn’t until the late 1980s that BA even became much of a player at Gatwick. That’s when it took over British Caledonian (moment of silence, please), and operated long-haul flying from the airport. When Dan Air and Air Europe failed in the 1990s, BA built up a short-haul hub at the airport as well.
If we compare BA’s short-haul operation in 2019 right before the pandemic to 2003, the first year of Cirium data, we can see some stark differences. There is far less flying in eastern/central Europe as well as the UK. The big shift has been toward the Mediterranean.
But just comparing those two years does a disservice to all the tortured efforts by BA to create a viable strategy in between. So, let’s take a walk through the years and start with this look at the number of short-haul destinations served by BA from Gatwick each year.
British Airways Europe/North Africa Destinations from London/Gatwick by Year
In 2003, the Gatwick hub was heading toward its peak. Not only was there a robust short-haul hub, but there was also the US operation. After all, the US-UK bilateral agreement severely limited the number of flights and airlines that could fly between the US and Heathrow. BA used Gatwick to serve Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Orlando, and Tampa. Outside of American and United, all US airline service was at Gatwick as well.
By 2005, BA had decided to end flying to some larger cities that had Heathrow service like Athens and Lisbon, but it started making a push into Eastern Europe. The idea was presumably that with all the migration within the growing European Union from east to west, there would be significant opportunity to carry passengers. That push continued until 2007 when cracks started to appear. Then in 2008, the wheels fell off.
Leading up to 2008, BA’s position was already becoming more difficult. The old charter carriers that flew leisure runs out of Gatwick were still there in some form, but the more efficient ultra low cost carriers had moved in. By 2008, easyJet had nearly doubled its flights at the airport and it was hungry for more. In 2004, it had operated about 29 percent of the number flights that BA operated. That was 91 percent by 2008.
There was a lot that happened in 2008 to make BA rethink its strategy beyond the rise of easyJet. First, we had the Great Recession which hurt demand. Then we had the fuel price spike that year. And lastly, we had the implementation of the EU-US open skies agreement which lifted the restriction on serving Heathrow. Gatwick’s role immediately shifted.
BA started by canceling underperforming routes, and there were a lot of them. This accelerated in 2009 when it left the Canary Islands entirely and most of North Africa. In 2010, BA abandoned Krakow, which doesn’t sound all that important except that it was the last of its eastern European destinations.
The next few years saw BA sit on its hands and make only a few tweaks here and there. Gatwick became primarily a feeder for locals going from London to southeast Europe. In 2009, easyJet first passed BA in terms of flights with 135 percent of BA’s schedule. By 2013, that had ballooned to 240 percent. Norwegian had begun building up as well.
With this backdrop, 2013 saw BA begin to try to build Gatwick back up. It returned to the Canary Islands that year and added a couple more leisure routes. It also finished abandoning the domestic market within England with the end of Manchester service. Only Glasgow and Edinburgh remained as destinations in the UK.
Then in 2015, the airline made its move. That year, BA added a significant number of new leisure destinations in the southeast, including Greece. The shrunken leisure strategy seemed to have worked for BA, so now it was looking to expand that reach into similar destinations. With the exception of a couple of secondary German markets like Cologne and Nuremberg, BA continued to add entirely around the Mediterranean.
And that is where we ended up in 2019. I’ve created this animated gif showing the progression by year. Green is a route added that year while red was canceled. Gray did not change.
When the pandemic hit, BA went into hibernation at Gatwick. The entire short-haul network was grounded by April 2020, and it still has not restarted. As of now, Glasgow is scheduled to return on September 24, but that may very well be delayed.
The long-haul network has seen a few flights here and there. The summer of 2020 saw the return of destinations with close ties to Britain like Antigua, Barbados, Bermuda, Jamaica, and St Lucia. Toward the holidays, more Caribbean destinations returned since Brits could actually visit them more easily than going somewhere across the Channel.
Only since the COVID rules started to loosen have other flights returned. Mauritius came back on August 13 while Orlando and Tampa are scheduled to come back at the end of September, tentatively. But short-haul? That’s not happening anytime soon.
By 2019, easyJet had 2.5 times more flights than BA from Gatwick. Norwegian had more than half of what BA operated, and Wizz had joined the party. Though the pandemic saw Norwegian all but disappear, Wizz stepped in and will be growing the airport in a big way to complement its operation at Luton on the other side of town.
BA’s focus for long-haul has shifted over time from any sort of connectivity to a London-based leisure operation. And short-haul? Well it just doesn’t have a good answer for what to do there with all the better-equipped competition. So now… a plan.
The idea that’s being floated is that BA would keep Gatwick long-haul but then siphon off the short-haul operation into a new low-cost carrier that would somehow compete with all the other low cost carriers that are already doing it well.
This makes little sense on multiple levels. First, why not just have sister carrier Vueling — both are owned by IAG — fly it? Vueling already has a presence at the airport with flights to several cities in both Italy and Spain. I assume the answer to this is one of three things. Either there’s some ownership issue where BA will need a partner that has more UK-based ownership than EU-based IAG — which seems unlikely since BA is already holding slots owned by IAG — or there’s some labor issue here. Then again, maybe Vueling just wants nothing to do with a money-losing proposition.
I asked BA for comment on this, but like everything else at the airline, the PR team has reduced hours and put people on leave, or so the out of office reply said. I did not get a response.
Ultimately this seems like BA wants an insurance policy. It can’t make short-haul at Gatwick work, but it doesn’t want to let those slots go and create opportunities for more ULCCs flooding the market. So instead of squatting on slots itself, it can save money by creating a whole new subsidiary that will have rock bottom costs. I find that to be a frustrating and ultimately pointless anti-competitive strategy, but that seems to be the current way forward for an airport that has never really fit in the British Airways network.