British Airways Prepares to Shift Its Gatwick Strategy Once Again

British Airways

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.

Data via Cirium, Maps generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

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

Data via Cirium

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.

Data via Cirium, Maps generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

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.

22 comments on “British Airways Prepares to Shift Its Gatwick Strategy Once Again

  1. Why is this strategy anti-competitive ? If BA/IAG is to keep the slots, then they still need to fly places…

    There is large (but not infinite) demand for travel from London to the Mediterranean… this ensures there is one sizeable extra player in the market instead of just Easyjet+Ryanair+Wizz… especially now that Norwegian will be flying from London just to the Nordic countries for the next couple of years. That extra player means more competition amongst airlines… and will force Easyjet to either sell at lower fares, or diversify onto more niche routes instead of just another rotation to Malaga or Mallorca

    1. David – I can see your point on this. The question in my mind is whether there’s more utility provided by having yet another “low cost,” and I do mean to put that in quotes, operator flying to the same destinations as everyone else, or whether it would be better for existing low cost carriers to have more slots to be able to expand their presence into more markets.
      For BA, this is a beachhead. It’s not about serving customer interest.
      It’s about preventing others from getting slots. In that sense, it’s anti-competitive. There is plenty of competition in the market in terms of number of carriers now.

  2. Good analysis. Do you know if the Cirium data makes a distinction between BA mainline and GB Airways operated flights? Their franchise ended in 2008 when EasyJet bought them, the same year BA’s longhaul USA services transferred to LHR – a lot of LGW hub ‘critical mass’ was lost in 2008.

    1. JAXBA – GB is included in the BA information. Of course, this was a conscience decision by BA to let GB go to easyJet since it had the right to buy GB as part of the franchise agreement and declined. So I don’t make a distinction between those routes.

  3. Side question on BA/LGW – do you think there’s any possibility BA will move TPA over to Heathrow?

    Presuming Wikipedia is current (always a leap of faith), it looks like other than seasonal service to MCO and LAS, TPA is the only US destination left at LGW, with MCO starting year-round out of LHR in October (all of this subject to COVID, I’d presume, as governor DeathSantis continues his efforts to make Florida COVID-friendly.)

    I know TPA is considered a leisure market, but so is MCO. Just a slot shortage? Pre-pandemic, LH was packing ’em in on TPA-FRA with a lot of business connecting traffic as well as leisure. (The German-originating leisure market on the west coast of Florida goes more to the Ft. Myers and Naples area nanyway, if not for COVID I’d expect Eurowings Discover would have started FRA-RSW for this winter season.)

    1. CraigTPA – I just assume Tampa is not high on the list for a Heathrow slot if BA were to free one up. Gatwick works well for destinations that are heavy London-origin for leisure. Tampa fits into that very well. Orlando and Vegas are all leisure destinations, but I’d imagine they have a much larger business/conference component in them as well. I don’t know for sure, but that’s just my speculation.

  4. I’m kind of surprised you waited until the last paragraph to get at what’s really driving this…fear of slot loss.

  5. Shaking my head at the idea of yet another full service airline who thinks that they can spin off yet another pseudo-low cost carrier and be competitive with the big players at that end of the market. The airline graveyard is full of these and for good reason: it’s a stupid idea. Amazing how we have graduates of top business schools, who should be so sophisticated, yet they come up with an idea that fails far more often than it succeeds. Why not use Vueling? Or do they wish to emulate LH Group with their endless brands that compete with one another and which confuse consumers?

    Lastly LGW serves a huge catchment area. An airline like BA has issues there because their actions tell everyone that LHR is where smart people want to be while LGW is for drunken tourists and is second class. It didn’t have to be this way; LHR’s location is perhaps more “posh”, but it’s not that much closer to many of the business centers in Greater London. LGW could perfectly serve areas of London and the southeast that are closer to it and you don’t have to market it as a package holiday and tourist airport. You could just market it as offering an alternate choice for people to whom LHR is less convenient.

    1. Agreed on the spin-off carriers, especially if you’re part of a larger group that already has a LCC subsidiary. The US carriers all gave up on this decades ago (anyone remember Ted? Continental Lite? Metrojet?) The way labour contracts work in Europe drives part of this, true, but I’d bet a million quatloos that a lot of European consumers have given up on trying to keep up with Lufthansa’s ridiculous multiple brands and just buy whatever’s cheapest…and a lot of the time that’s going to be an ULCC.

      As for LGW, I guess having a distinction made sense back in the days of British Airtours and other charter carriers, and Bermuda II. But depending on where in London you’re going, LGW can be just as convenient as LHR, a few minutes more at most. Unless they couldn’t get enough slots at LGW, I don’t understand why JetBlue is running a split operation instead of going with LGW and marketing it as an advantage if you’re going to the Southeast of England and no real difference to most of London.

  6. I’ve read that one factor against Vueling might be a lack of brand awareness in the UK, but if that’s true it’s nothing a strong advertising campaign couldn’t fix (perhaps combined with a campaign to help remove any remnants of LGW’s “Lets Go Wild” tag). So I suspect this is driven by labour issues. At the end of the day though, the primary value sits with the LHR slots and I suspect that’s where management attention has been, and then Gatwick can be used to try out new things like this proposal.

    I agree with CraigPTA re JetBlue. I appreciate there are a few companies with UK/European HQs west of London but there are still some south of London and Gatwick serves them well. They should also get into Stanstead, especially from Boston – there are strong links between tech firms and academics around Cambridge MA and Cambridge UK.

    PS good job with the animated gifs!

  7. An off-the-wall idea: Maybe British Airways should codeshare with Wizz at Gatwick and Heathrow. Its joint venture partner American just announced a codeshare arrangement with JetSMART, another Indigo Partners airline, so it might make sense to take advantage of its partner’s relationship with Wizz’s parent.

  8. Cranky, When Freddie Laker was around did he butt heads with BA at LGA? And if they did who won the fight?

    1. Angry Bob – Not that I know of. Laker shut down in the early 1980s so he wouldn’t have gone head to head with BA. Of course, he did compete with them flying from Gatwick while they were at Heathrow. And in the end, all the big airlines matched on price to try to push Laker out. And out he went after only 5 years flying over the Atlantic.

  9. I really don’t get why Heathrow is so preferred to Gatwick. Heathrow is 15-20 minutes by express train to Paddington (although the tube is a nice, much cheaper option at LHR); Gatwick 30-35 minutes to Victoria. It’s just not a big difference, and there are plenty of destinations in London for which Gatwick is faster. From my small town airport in western Canada, WestJet’s one-stop service via Calgary to LGW (non-pandemic times) beats the pants off of any of the options to LHR; saving a stop or even just 45 minutes at the connecting airport is a much bigger deal than LHR vs LGW to me when London (or Britain – for a trip to Newcastle last year, flying to LGW, then train-tube-train to Newcastle turned out to be significantly less bad than any other flight option given schedules) is the destination.

    But that’s not an argument for the London-hubbed carrier to serve LGW robustly; makes sense for them to pick an airport (and if you have to pick one as an airline, sure, LHR is better) and focus all their connectivity there, with point-to-point focused service at LGW.

    1. If the London area is your destination, I take your point. But for an airline, it is very different. Some years ago, somebody at Air Canada told me that one third of their passengers arriving at Heathrow are connecting onwards. Gatwick is a dead end in comparison. It’s the power of the hub and that’s why all the airlines would much rather be at Heathrow. The more routes out of a hub, the stronger is the magnetic attraction. Gatwick is more of a local airport for the folks who live in the area, much like Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh or Newcastle.

    2. Agree on the proximity point. LGW isn’t far from London and certainly not to a degree often made out to be. It’s just not that nice of an airport and lacks the global connectivity that LHR has. BA will never relinquish its grip on LHR. It needs a presence at LGW with a route map that makes sense. A fundamental problem is that a lot of long haul out of LGW for BA stopped making any sense after Bermuda II was scrapped.

  10. Three comments (!?):

    1. Cool animated gifs. NOT as cool as the Godzilla map but well done

    2. Ted raaaaarhhh

    3. Once upon a time I won a prize at a TravelAge West show: RT air on Sir Freddie’s boondoggle. It was, um, interesting. And smelly, stinky — a miasma of diverse body odors, a lifelong appreciation of the term “the unwashed”. I bought an AD75 ticket home on PA…

  11. A couple of things that you missed from this article that I think are relevant.

    1. In 2018 – BA increased its SH flying from LGW by c.30% and had a clear growth strategy for it’s SH business from LGW. This was to focus more on P2P leisure flying (mainly not routes served by BA at LHR) – where it could compete well with a differentiated product and get strong results.

    2. The reason IAG don’t use Vueling as the SH vehicle in LGW is twofold (1) Vueling does not have the same brand pull as BA in the U.K. market e.g. exec club / historical brand recognition and value; and (2) Vueling does not have a SH Premium cabin proposition – something that BA pax value and is a differentiation on longer med sectors e.g. Greece.

    3. Generally – running the model as described above with a lower cost base but offering a similar product should put BA SH in a decent position at LGW. Additionally – as mentioned – it allows BA to retain slots in London which is not anti competitive if BA can make returns from them…

    1. Anon – Though we don’t know the details yet, the assumption here is that any attempt to offer a ULCC will likely have to be single cabin and have a different brand. I can’t imagine labor agreeing to just have their own work siphoned off to another, cheaper airline to do the same thing. This isn’t Iberia/Iberia Express. So if that is the case, then any brand equity from BA doesn’t really matter. I suppose we’ll just have to see where this goes.

  12. I think the spin off thing is more to do with the Vueling brand and it’s closer association to Iberia than British Airways (personally I find BA’s brand and product positioning to be complete trash, but that’s just me). Vueling is an extremely complicated hybrid ULCC (has multiple codeshares and interline agreements, accepts E-tickets) that needs to be able focus on what it does best to continue to do well, and I highly doubt adding the complexity of a large foreign hub market would be wise. Add Brexit (and its nationalistic undertones) to the mix and you have most of the answer.

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