The news that Qatar Airways is pulling out of Gatwick airport is another setback for Gatwick’s owners, GIP, who have been very focused on attracting long-haul, premium airlines to the airport since they took over in December 2009.
Qatar is just the latest Middle Eastern airline to exit, following earlier departures by Etihad and Oman Air. Of the Middle East carriers, only Emirates remains committed to Gatwick.
Qatar said it was leaving “due to commercial reasons”. In other words: it couldn’t sustain the route with just the leisure passengers who were travelling via Doha onto further flung destinations like Australia. Aircraft regularly left Gatwick with the front of the plane empty, making it a non-profitable route for Qatar.
Gatwick, London’s second largest airport, has always been popular with low cost airlines, hosting the likes of EasyJet and Ryanair, as well as full-service carriers offering long-haul leisure destinations. Gatwick always loses to Heathrow when it comes to business travel and a lot of that is down to its location 40km south of central London, outside of the London orbital system (M25). Put simply, Heathrow has better access and is better located for business travelers, particularly those residing in west London.
Despite the latest Qatar setback, it’s in GIP’s interests to keep fighting for the business of full-service carriers. Just yesterday, GIP’s Michael McGhee told delegates at an ACI airport economics conference that LCCs will easily switch to regional airports where they benefit from low exit barriers. Clearly, the unpredictability of LCCs is not of interest to GIP.
What are Gatwick’s options? With Heathrow at full capacity, there are little options for carriers wanting to open new routes or increase frequency on existing destinations. The disastrous decision by the UK’s Coalition Government to cancel Heathrow’s third runway means that capacity issues are not going to ease any time soon. Gatwick stands to benefit from this decision as long haul leisure destinations are forced out of Heathrow to make way for more profitable business routes.
So while Gatwick may have had to say “ma'a salama” to Alkbar al Baker, it should be able to fill the slots with other routes that can’t find a home at Heathrow. And as demand starts to pick up again, as predicted today by IATA, there may even be some overflow business destinations on the cards for Gatwick.