Magazine article Management Today

The MT Interview: Stewart Wingate

Magazine article Management Today

The MT Interview: Stewart Wingate

Article excerpt

The CEO of Gatwick is lobbying hard for the airport to be given the green light to build London's new runway. A self-styled people person, he may just have given locals an offer they can't refuse.

Where should London's extra runway be built? The Airports Commission isn't due to make up its mind on this most vexed of national planning issues until safely after next year's general election, but as far as Stewart Wingate is concerned, there is already only one answer: 'It's got to be Gatwick.'

Of course, as Gatwick Airport's CEO, you'd hardly expect him to back Luton, but the boss of what is already the world's busiest single-runway airport makes his pounds 8bn case for laying another 3,300m strip of concrete across the Sussex countryside with candour and his own brand of remorseless operational logic. It helps that - foursquare and blokeish, looking like he'd rather be in jeans than suited and booted - he's a regular guy. Not a sharply dressed lobbyist trotting out a line.

Gatwick plus point one: location. 'Heathrow is in an area that is already overheated - you have aircraft flying over one of the most densely populated parts of the entire planet. Expand there and it will affect about 350,000 people. But Gatwick is in a sparsely populated area - expand here and it will only affect 30,000 people.'

Plus point two: the days of the European hub airport are over. Hubs will remain successful only in the Middle and Far East, where they can be built cheaply in remote spots, he says. 'There is no need any more for airlines to congregate in hubs in western Europe.'

Why not? Because transatlantic distances are less of a technical challenge to modern aircraft, so point-to-point flying is set to dominate long-haul (just as it does budget short-haul operators such as easyJet and Ryanair), he reckons.

'Now you can fly point-to-point to anywhere, from anywhere. A Dreamliner (Boeing's new, smaller long-range aircraft) could fly from Gatwick to Perth. It's a gamechanger.'

Plus point three: costs. 'Heathrow's landing charges are already the most expensive in the world, at pounds 22 (per person). Expand there and you've saddled yourself with charges that will rise to around pounds 40, trying to compete with the likes of Dubai, which charges only pounds 7.'

His charges, he claims, would rise only from pounds 9 to pounds 13 per person. What's not to like?

By now, even the thickest-skinned of interlocutors would be getting the message: why would any government shoulder the cost (some pounds 14bn to pounds 19bn) and potential electoral fallout of the Heathrow scheme, when his airport can do it with so much less fuss and disruption?

Gatwick might look like the country cousin by comparison - its public spaces are being revamped, but like Wingate's utilitarian office they remain short on glitz - but it has other virtues. Perhaps chief among them being, politically, that it's the least worst choice remaining. 'Which of the remaining options is the most deliverable? It can only be Gatwick.'

He has plans to tackle passenger gripes such as the express-in-name-only Gatwick Express (and the airport's other rail services), in conjunction with Network Rail and the train operators. There will be new rolling stock, new platforms and a tripling in seat capacity. By 2030, a train - not all of them expresses - will run every two minutes to London, he says, swiftly firing his next barrage of facts and figures.

Besides, glamour isn't everything.

'The South Terminal is 50 years-old, but it beats Heathrow's Terminal 5 in our survey of customers,' he says. 'When you get out of the car park, it takes seconds to get to check-in. And 98% of the time, people queue at security for less than five minutes here. Simple things like that are what really appeal to the passenger.'

But he is going to have to work hard to ensure that expansion doesn't kill the goose that lays the golden egg. …

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