ROUTES: Gatwick enjoys new lease of life

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After years of being one of seven airports in the BAA group, three of them in London, Gatwick airport under its new owners is making a point of standing out from the crowd. Few can miss it at in the exhibition hall here in Vancouver, with a high-wire illusionist standing tall above its 120m² stand and its Streamliner gizmo measuring attendees' drag co-efficient.

It reflects the re-awakening of the south London airport since London City Airport owner Global Infrastructure Partners bought Gatwick at the end of last year. Chief executive Stewart Wingate says the airport suffered a bit from "middle child" syndrome sandwiched between BAA's other London airports of the network hub of Heathrow and the low-cost dominated Stansted. He points to the high spirits of staff at the airport and the energising impact of its new executive and boardroom teams. "We've got a fully energised group of people charging forward," he says.

The twin-track strategy of the airport is developing its relationships with the airlines, both existing operators and attracting new targets, together with developing the infrastructure.

"We are not just investing for the sake of investing," he says, citing moves to bring new infrastructure for less than under previous plans. And Gatwick has big improvements already underway at its two terminals, as part of an overall $1 billion investment programme. The South Terminal was built in 1952 and a raft of new projects are already under way to renovative it. This includes the new South Terminal Forecourt which will provide a new entrance to the terminal and improved access routes by the end of 2011; a new landside concourse; new baggage system and Pier 1 project and will see the old pier demolished. "Its not about adding to capacity, it is about making it more contemporary," Wingate explains.

For the North Terminal, projects are now underway to lift capacity by 10 million passengers including the north terminal extension and new multi-storey car park. "By summer next year, quite a lot of these projects will already have come to fruition," he notes.

It is also looking to develop its airfield operations, though with an emphasis on improving operational efficiencies at what is the busiest single-runway airport in the world, already handling 33 million passengers annually. "We are not rushing to build a new runway," he says. "We think just because it is the busiest, it doesn't mean it cannot be busier.

The airport envisions growing to handle at least 40 million passengers annually, and Wingate sees great potential. "We have the richest catchment area of any of the airports in the UK. Our investors are no mugs. They got it [Gatwick] for a competitive prices and there is room for us to optimise it," he explains. "But we are not obsessed with growing at any cost. We have a very vibrant short-haul business, the charter [business] has been constant and will start to grow, especially with the 787s [Thomson Airways takes its 787s in 2012] opening up further possibilities. On the long-haul, that's where were want to develop the business. We are reaching out to the East. For us [it is] a big opportunity.