Exeter Airport was forced to close earlier this month because of flash flooding. As much as 12cm of rain fell in the Taunton and Bridgwater area on September 24: more than the average rainfall for the whole month. Video on social media showed passengers wading through water on the terminal floor.
The floods capped two years of trouble at aviation hubs after Covid lockdowns ended, from queues to cancellations, ground staff strikes to IT meltdowns. Is there any hope that Britain’s airports might raise their game? Well, whisper it softly – this is Britain, where we don’t seem to be able to build a new railway line north of Birmingham after all – but there are signs of life.
Southampton airport is currently the envy of Heathrow and Gatwick. This month it managed to increase its runway capacity by lengthening the existing air strip by 164 metres. Heathrow and Gatwick have been trying to build new runways for years – and failing.
Steve Szalay, outgoing operations director at Southampton Airport, says the extension means the airport will be able to increase the number of flights it handles and destinations it serves because it will now be able to handle larger jets. New services are much needed following the collapse of Flybe – which provided 89 per cent of the airport’s passengers. Easyjet has already announced two new year-round routes from Southampton to Belfast and Glasgow, which will take off next month.
An hour’s drive away, Gatwick airport – currently restricting flights due to staffing issues in air traffic control –is also in expansion mode. Its boss Stewart Wingate has submitted plans to convert its “reserve runway”, which is currently used for emergencies, into a second northerly runway. The move would not only improve punctuality but also increase capacity by 60 per cent, enabling the airport to handle 75 million passengers a year, up from 46.5 million in 2019. It would also create 13,000 jobs and inject £1 billion a year into the local economy, he says.
A snazzy new £185 million railway station at Gatwick, with twice the capacity of the existing one, will open later this year. For those who prefer to drive to the airport, electric chargers for up to 36 cars using low cost, renewable net zero carbon energy generated by Gridserve solar farms, are being built in a new “net zero forecourt”.
Most passengers use airline apps for booking and check-in, so Wingate is “working with the airlines to see whether the apps can also enable passengers to print bag tags and drop bags”. New facial recognition technology will help to speed up boarding because passengers will no longer need to show their boarding pass and passport to an agent but use eGates instead.
The moves may tempt new carriers to fly from the Sussex airport. Norse Atlantic, the Oslo-based low-cost long-haul operator, recently started flying from Gatwick to the US and the Caribbean. It may be followed by the nascent Global Airlines, which aims to offer a premium service on Airbus A380 superjumbos across the pond. Although Virgin Atlantic has pulled out for now, its chief executive Shai Weiss – whose office is at Gatwick, because that is where Virgin started out almost 40 years ago – says the carrier will return if demand picks up.
Heathrow, too, is benefitting from new investment. I landed earlier this month at Terminal 3 on Qantas flight 1 from Sydney via Singapore and the immigration queues were shorter than usual because the airport has increased by 50 per cent the number of eGates.
More travellers can use them, too. A change in government policy means anyone over 10 years of age can suffer the agonising “will it recognise my passport?” feeling. (The lower limit used to be 12.) New security scanners that mean we will soon no longer have to take our liquids, laptop or iPad out of our hand luggage are being rolled out starting with Terminal 3.
London City airport has already installed the new security scanners making it the quickest for departures. Luton airport – or London Luton as it prefers to style itself, stretching the conventions of geography – is investing £30 million to improve service after handling 3.3 million passengers in the July-August summer peak. A new £8 million two-storey restaurant with room for 500 diners will open next year. A £20 million refurbishment of the airport’s security hall is already underway. New body scanners will speed up processing times.
Manchester Airports Group has announced a £440 million project to complete its new Terminal 2 building. The plans show that the new check-in area is vast – as it needs to be to get passengers through to security quickly. There appears to be a decent amount of natural light, something often forgotten.
Alas, the rest of the palace looks like a Westfield shopping centre with runways attached. Manchester’s designers have learnt nothing from Stansted’s fate. So many shops have been crammed into Norman Foster’s glass pavilion in Essex that its bright elegance has been lost to Claire’s Accessories. There is still time to go back and have another go.
Birmingham airport has enough land for a second runway and the government has confirmed that the HS2 link will be built as far as the city, with a fast driverless train link to the airport. This raises the prospect of more flights from Birmingham serving both the north and south. Before long, arriving passengers may hear the words: Welcome to England Central…
The airports that could do better
Manchester airport is not just battling criticism of the new design of Terminal 2. It had the worst overall rating in a recent Which? review of Britain’s airports. Nearly 4,000 travellers were asked to rate their experiences at 24 UK airports and terminals over the past year. At Manchester Terminals 1 and 3 customers “faced a long and poorly signposted walk from the car park, followed by horrendous queues at bag drop, at security, for the (insufficient) toilets and at (overpriced) food outlets,” the magazine reported.
“When they weren’t queuing, there was nowhere to sit; staff were rude and the terminal needed a good clean in places.” Its verdict: “Avoid, if you can”. In a statement Manchester airport’s operator said: “We are committed to providing a great experience to all passengers.” It dismissed the Which? survey as “based on a tiny and unrepresentative sample of the 25 million passengers who travel through Manchester airport every year”. It continued: “We surveyed 840 passengers in July and August this year, and 94 per cent rated their overall satisfaction with the service they received as either good, very good or excellent.”
Stansted airport’s bag-drop, security and passport control queues all received a poor two-star rating from Which?. Readers complained of “electronic passport gates not working”. Many also said that there was nowhere to sit. “Overpriced and overcrowded,” was the conclusion. However, the airport’s operator said in a statement: “The survey is out of date – covering June 2022-June 2023 and not including the majority of this summer season – and is also based on a tiny and unrepresentative sample of the 25 million passengers who travel through London Stansted each year.”
Edinburgh airport has been hit with problems lately. Its sole runway has been closed twice this month for emergency runway repairs. Technical problems with security check-in gates have led to huge queues that have stretched outside the airport. In a statement the airport’s operator said: “A busy summer at an international airport is not without its issues. We’re glad that any issues we’ve faced recently have been dealt with quickly and effectively and have not impacted our passengers’ safety whilst causing minimal delays or frustration.”