LONDON — Until last year, there was little reason for Bostonians to think about London Gatwick Airport. All direct flights from Logan landed at Heathrow. Gatwick was the airport reserved for tipsy Brits taking EasyJet flights to Ibiza.
At least, that’s what I always thought. Before the pandemic, I had a series of odd connections through Gatwick. I was under the impression that the terminal was a bit dodgy and perpetually packed with sunburnt faces and naughty children screaming for sweets. Once, I spotted a woman with a surprisingly large walking stick carved from a branch chanting indecipherable mantras loudly at the gate. How she got that stick through security, I’ll never know. Another time, a young man who clearly enjoyed very strong cocktails approached strangers, accusing them of stealing his phone.
“This airport is worse than Newark,” I thought. A feat I didn’t know was possible.
But then JetBlue changed the game by launching direct flights from Boston to Gatwick in 2022. Norse Airways followed earlier this month with another Boston to Gatwick direct. Gatwick is suddenly a viable option for Bostonians headed to London.
Can I let you in on a secret? I’ve had a change of heart about Gatwick. I now prefer it to Heathrow. The leadership at Gatwick has not kidnapped me or paid me off to write these words, nor is the woman with the large walking stick threatening to hit me with it. Whenever I’m at Heathrow, I feel like Jonah inside of the whale. But Gatwick is far more manageable. Sure, Gatwick may not have shops like Fendi, Cartier, or Gucci, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. Also, I’ve never shopped at any of those stores.
My monogamous relationship with Heathrow is over. I’m now a London (airport) swinger.
This week, I landed at Gatwick after a redeye from Boston and thanked my lucky charms for the diminutive scale of the airport. I got off the plane, took a series of moving walkways to passport control, cleared it in about three minutes, and then was free to get my luggage. The process from stepping off the plane to clearing passport control took about 15 minutes (caveat: I’m a speed walker).
Although the airport’s website warns that wait times can be up to an hour at passport control, mine has never been more than 10 minutes. You have an option of paying £10 (about $12) for expedited service, but I can’t imagine needing it unless your name is the Flash.
It’s also fortunate that I’ve come to love Gatwick because, according to Stephanie Wear, vice president of aviation development at Gatwick, I’m going to be spending more time here.
“London’s a constrained market,” Wear said. “Heathrow’s full. Gatwick is going to be your future.”
There’s good news for those who share my affection for Gatwick. According to Wear, the airport’s North Terminal is getting a $12 million makeover and is expected to be finished by early next year. It will offer more options for food, shopping, and seating. That’s on top of the nearly $50 million that’s already been spent to expand and modernize Gatwick’s train station. The idea is to make Gatwick a truly international airport.
“Some people have an incorrect perception that Gatwick is simply a European leisure, low-cost airport,” Wear said. “But that’s so far from the truth. There are so many exciting things about Gatwick, and frankly, the passenger experience is a million times better here than at Heathrow. It’s a smaller airport, it’s less congested. We get all of our passengers through security in under five minutes. It’s a message we’re trying to get out there. I think probably 80 percent of the American population thinks ‘Heathrow’ when you talk about travel to London.”
Wear was preaching to the converted. As someone who can’t sleep on planes, I appreciate Gatwick’s efficiency. The ability to shuffle off a plane in a Zombie-like state and out of any airport with such speed is a rarity. But is Gatwick really “a million times better” than Heathrow?
“Everyone talks about the Heathrow Express. But the train at Gatwick is so much better,” Wear said, further building her case. “The Heathrow Express doesn’t actually take you into central London. It takes you to the outskirts, and then you have to take the Tube to get into Central London, whereas we have two trains. One takes you right into Victoria [Station], and the other one takes you right to London Bridge, both in under 30 minutes.”
And it seems that Gatwick is just getting started. In 2022, Gatwick served 32.8 million passengers with just one runway. It also happens to be the busiest runway in the world. But, according to Wear, it’s a little-known fact that Gatwick actually has two runways. Currently, the second runway can be used only for emergencies.
She’s working on changing that. Wear said by moving the emergency runway by roughly 40 feet, it can be used as another full-time runway. That would give Gatwick the potential to double its capacity. The airport still needs permission to make this change, but the propellers are already in motion.
Coincidently, Heathrow, which served 61.6 million passengers in 2022, only has two runways. In order to accommodate more London flights, Gatwick will become the most viable option.
I’m glad that Gatwick has a bright future, and I’m hoping it sees the growth and gets the recognition it deserves. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy my five-minute security screenings and three-minute passport scans at Gatwick as long as I possibly can.