Airlines press Gatwick airport to improve performance to avoid winter flight disruptions

Aer Lingus and Ryanair both fly to Gatwick, the UK’s second biggest airport

Airlines are piling pressure on Gatwick airport to improve its performance after staff shortages in the control tower led to serious disruption over the summer.

Senior executives are pushing the UK’s second-busiest airport for assurances on how many flights it will be able to handle over the next year to allow them to plan their flight schedules.

Johan Lundgren, chief executive of EasyJet, the largest airline at Gatwick, told the Financial Times the issues experienced this summer “cannot be repeated next year”.

“The priority now must be that Gatwick and [air traffic controller] NATS work together to resolve the staffing issues,” he said.


Lundgren has written to NATS and the airport seeking assurances over service levels.

British Airways Irish chief executive Sean Doyle said it had been a “very challenging” time for Gatwick.

“It is very important it is resourced correctly ... for the second-biggest airport in the UK, we need to be doing better,” he said as the airline reported results on Friday.

Airline executives said absences in the tower had led to the airport imposing “flow restrictions” at short notice this summer leading to air traffic disruptions.

While the seasonal slowdown in flights over the winter should offer some respite, there is concern that there will be more disruption next summer unless the staffing problems in the tower are resolved.

Between September 25th and October 15th, Gatwick placed an unusual cap on flights operating from the airport because of sickness and other “staffing constraints” in its control tower.

The airport subcontracts operations in its control tower to NATS, the UK’s main air traffic manager, which in September said up to 30 per cent of its staff had been unavailable “for a variety of medical reasons”, including Covid-19.

During September, 46 per cent of flights from Gatwick departed on time, according to air traffic manager Eurocontrol. That compares with a Europe-wide average of 64 per cent.

Willie Walsh, the Irish head of airline trade body Iata and former chief executive of BA, this week said Gatwick’s performance had been “very poor” as he called on the airport to improve its staffing levels.

NATS took over the contract to run the control tower in October 2022, and pledged to improve its “resilience” after inheriting an operation where the number of controllers had fallen a third since 2016.

The company does not disclose details around its staffing, but there are about 30 controllers trained to work in the tower, according to a person familiar with the matter. Several have been on long-term sick leave, exacerbating the resourcing problems.

Airlines have privately questioned how the loss of just a handful of staff could lead to sweeping disruption.

NATS said resilience had “improved significantly” since it took over the contract a year ago, referring to staffing levels.

“We are training new controllers as quickly as possible and expect them to be able to join the operation in the spring. This is the plan that was agreed with Gatwick when we took over the operational service,” it added.

It takes up to nine months to train even experienced staff to work at Gatwick because of its complex airspace.

On-the-job training is set to resume in the coming days as airlines switch to quieter winter schedules, freeing up capacity in the tower. NATS executives are confident about staffing numbers being restored in time for next summer.

NATS has also faced criticism from airlines after its UK-wide air traffic management system failed in late August, causing the cancellation of more than 1,500 flights.

Gatwick said the airport “hit 99.6 per cent of all measured service level requirements” in the first six months of the year, a period that saw passenger numbers grow 40 per cent year on year.

“NATS ... have been addressing the staffing constraints as a matter of urgency to ensure they will be able to maintain service levels next summer,” the airport said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023