Graveyard Gatwick: The ghostly sight of one of the world’s busiest airports in paralysis… and the chilling question: how can it survive in quarantine Britain?
From a helicopter hovering high above the Surrey countryside, it feels like I’m looking down on the biggest, most elaborately laid-out collection of Airfix model planes ever assembled.
Directly below me, eight miniature British Airways jets encircle a hub.
Beside them, dozens more tiny aircraft from the nation’s flagship carrier are parked in zigzag formation, Union flag tailfins glinting in the sun.
Further along the tarmac apron, the pattern turns bright orange as a flotilla of 50 or more EasyJet shuttles comes into view; beyond them lies a squadron bearing the sky-blue livery of Tui, the country’s foremost package holiday carrier.
Photographed from a helicopter, the standstill at Gatwick is graphically illustrated by whole fleets of aircraft sitting idle around the airport
I counted 114 planes standing idle at Gatwick Airport on Wednesday.
They filled almost every bay at the North Terminal, which has been closed for weeks since the coronavirus pandemic killed off virtually all British air travel.
Mesmerising as it may have looked from 1,000ft up, it was a depressing and deeply worrying scene that symbolises the catastrophe besetting the country’s £106billion tourism industry, and the fears of the 2.6million people whose livelihoods depend on it.
It also encapsulated the disappointment of millions of families still clinging to the hope of an overseas summer break to shake off the misery of lockdown.
My doom-laden impression of the airfield is supported by statistics.
On the first Thursday in June last year, 146,000 passengers thronged through the airport on 889 incoming and outbound flights.
This Thursday, a grand total of 600 people passed through on seven flights – four departures and three arrivals.
At least that was an improvement on last week when, on one day, 23 people landed at the still-open South Terminal.
Within three months Gatwick has turned from the world’s second busiest single-runway airport – its volume of traffic surpassed only by one in Mumbai – into a kind of aviation mausoleum
With the concourses silent, the skies empty and scores of motionless jets, Britain’s second busiest airport might be renamed Graveyard Gatwick.
Matters might be less dire if the Government could see the imperative of opening up our airways and relaunching the travel industry, albeit with stringent safety measures, like other European nations such as Portugal.
Next week, however, Gatwick – which has borrowed £300million to improve its liquidity, furloughed 90 per cent of its staff and made many others redundant – faces yet another monumental setback.
It is one that could send its hopes of a speedy recovery – and indeed those of every other UK airport – into a tailspin.
On Monday, despite vociferous protests from travel and hospitality bosses and Tory backbenchers, the Government will activate its new hardline quarantine law.
With some exemptions for essential travellers, it will require everyone who enters the country – whether they are Britons returning home or foreign visitors – to self-isolate for 14 days.
Those who disobey face a £1,000 fine.
Leaving aside the fact that it contains so many caveats that it seems unenforceable – checks will be made on the whereabouts of only one in ten incomers, for example – many health experts say the law has little or no scientific merit.
It has come too late, they say, to have any meaningful effect in reducing infection rates.
Indeed, it emerged this week that the Government drew up the two-week quarantine rule without consulting its own scientific advisory group, Sage.
Said to have been forced through on the insistence of Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, it has reportedly caused a bitter Cabinet split, with the Home Office and Department of Health broadly in favour, but the Treasury and Department for Transport opposed.
A summer-long quarantine rule – relegating air travel from unappealing to intolerable for many – would cost our tourism industry a staggering £19.7billion, according to the Government-funded agency VisitBritain.
On the first Thursday in June last year, 146,000 passengers thronged through the airport on 889 incoming and outbound flights. This Thursday, a grand total of 600 people passed through on seven flights – four departures and three arrivals (file photo)
It would also force the closure of thousands of businesses that are dependent on a healthy flow of tourists and throw hundreds of thousands out of work.
Steven Freudmann, of the Institute of Travel and Tourism, described it as ‘an unmitigated disaster’, adding: ‘You might as well put up a sign saying “Britain is closed”.’
Wandering around the ghostly South Terminal this week, it seemed the nation’s doors had already been bolted.
Gone were all those harassed parents struggling to contain toddlers as they waited to board flights to the Costas.
Gone, too, were the tattooed men downing breakfast pints at Wetherspoons; and the floppy-hatted culture vultures browsing WH Smith.
The car park was empty but for a couple of cast-aside luggage trolleys.
All the shops and cafes, barring Boots, were closed. There were far more staff than passengers. The place was quieter than a cathedral.
On the electronic walkway – silent and stationary – the only people I encountered were a travel assistant pushing an elderly man in a wheelchair.
Through his mask, he told me was returning home to Jersey after being flown to London for emergency heart surgery.
By the end of March, BA – which uses the airport 29 miles south of London as its second hub after Heathrow – had grounded its entire fleet (some of which are pictured top left), laying off thousands of staff. An empty runway is pictured right
‘We’ve only got three flights coming in all day,’ said the assistant, shaking his head. ‘And compared to some days this is busy. It’s eerie, isn’t it?’
It was. Within three months Gatwick has turned from the world’s second busiest single-runway airport – its volume of traffic surpassed only by one in Mumbai – into a kind of aviation mausoleum.
The sky began to fall in on the airport in the first days of lockdown.
By the end of March, BA – which uses the airport 29 miles south of London as its second hub after Heathrow – had grounded its entire fleet, laying off thousands of staff.
Then Virgin Atlantic suspended its operations and axed a third of its employees. Soon all but a handful of the 50-plus airlines that have slots there ceased to operate.
Ironically, it came just as Gatwick’s fortunes were soaring.
Passenger numbers and revenue had been rising, terminals have been upgraded, and more investment had been planned.
Now those plans have been deferred ‘for the foreseeable future’, says Gatwick.
Although the airport believes its cost-saving measures should effect a quick recovery after the pandemic, it does not expect passenger numbers to return to their previous level for between three and four years.
And unless the quarantine law is speedily abandoned, the bounce-back will surely take even longer.
In the towns and villages around Gatwick, many are already paying a heavy price for its inertia.
Half a century ago, before cheap foreign package holidays transformed it from a small airfield into a major international hub, life here was almost entirely rural.
Today, it is a thriving community centred on the relatively new town of Crawley.
Dozens of companies – from mighty Boeing to small, independently owned workshops – provide services to the airport.
Their success has fostered the development of high-tech industrial estates such as Manor Royal, where Amazon and Virgin, among many others, have HQs. It has also seen the construction of shopping malls, leisure centres and gleaming office blocks.
But as I saw this week, the area is suffering the ripple effect of Gatwick’s demise.
Outside the depot of Alpha LSG, the on-board catering, retail and logistics company, more than a dozen lorries were parked up.
With few aircraft to service there was a similar lack of activity at its rival Gate Gourmet.
Such companies are the lifeblood of a huge, once highly prosperous swathe of southern England.
Were the airport to remain dormant for many more months, the social and economic consequences would be grim.
Matters might be less dire if the Government could see the imperative of opening up our airways and relaunching the travel industry, albeit with stringent safety measures, like other European nations such as Portugal
Alive to the danger, Crawley MP Henry Smith, whose constituency includes Gatwick, is among Tories urging the Government to rethink the new law.
‘If Gatwick was going to be quarantined they should have introduced this two months ago, at the beginning of lockdown, not just as a lot of restrictions were being lifted,’ he said.
‘It doesn’t make any sense in health terms and it prolongs the delay in getting the travel industry up and running again.’
Mr Smith fears the law, if it continues for months, could result in an entire year of foreign tourism being written off. This would indeed be an ‘unmitigated disaster’.
Flying over Graveyard Gatwick, it seemed clear Mr Johnson must hit the reverse-thrust and abort this quarantine law.
Anything less and most of those planes will surely stay grounded.
Meanwhile UK PLC will stay closed for business, sunshine holidays will remain a distant dream, and an industry that creates 10 per cent of our gross domestic product could nosedive into oblivion.
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