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Heathrow and Gatwick: The worst airports in the world?

“Hi Simon,” the message began. “You very kindly agreed to receive occasional emails from us when you told us you were travelling for business on the myGatwick website.

“At Gatwick we pride ourselves on using your feedback to improve your airport experience.”

The polite request asking for comments went on to say how I might win an iPad in return for my time, and that “your privacy will be respected and your responses will remain anonymous”. 

Well, I can save time and trouble for the researchers canvassing views of the Sussex airport. Because someone with more than six million Twitter followers posed a salient question – and many people responded.

“As I’m bored, is there anyone who prefers Gatwick to Heathrow?” tweeted @JeremyClarkson last Saturday.

The responses to the Grand Tour presenter arrived faster than inbound planes at Britain’s two busiest airports.

Opposing the motion, Piers Baron tweeted: “If I owned a house airside at Gatwick I would still prefer every other airport on earth.” 

Paul Headey claimed: “It’s chav central to hen parties and stag dos.”

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Speed Monkey asserted: “You have to drive round the M25 to get to Gatwick from the civilised world, which means you’ll miss your flight.”

And Jeremy O’Donoghue concluded: “The only thing worse than flying from Gatwick is putting your hand in a V8 powered blender.”

But plenty of other people aimed their virtual vitriol at Heathrow – which, says Joe Paso, “was not designed. It merely fell from the sky and the Brits decided they’d just muddle through”. @biffabeau said: “Unless you live in west London, Heathrow is a congested hell hole to get to”, while Marcus J Swift added: “Heathrow is just too big. You could do with a car to get to your plane.”

@SKSurpal was more nuanced, and pointed out that not all terminals are alike: “Gatwick vs Heathrow depends on if you are flying BA or not. T5 great, others crap.”

The “As bad as each other” option was covered by John MSV: “No preference as long as they’re in the rear view mirror.”

Asking for responses on Twitter is not the most systematic of surveys, but there seems an abundance of loathing for both Heathrow and Gatwick.

Given the strength of feeling, then, how did they become respectively the busiest two-runway and single-runway airports in the world? Because whatever passengers might say, we desire what these airports offer. And we are prepared to put up with queues and crowds to get to the destinations they serve with such frequency.

By a mile the best airport I have used all year – probably all century – is Campbeltown in south-west Scotland, but that is because it is the polar opposite of the two main London airports. For the only flight of the morning, I was one of just 15 passengers. That’s the same number who pass through Heathrow in six seconds or Gatwick in 10 seconds.

But to ask “Why can’t all airports be like Campbeltown?” is fatuous. If they were, our marvellous freedom to fly would have vanished. From CAL, as the airport is coded, you can fly to exactly one destination: GLA. And while the views over the Kintyre Peninsula, the isle of Arran and the Firth of Clyde were magnificent, the fare I paid for the 63-mile hop was £54. At that rate, flying from London to Sydney and back would cost over £18,000, rather than the sub-£600 return deals that are around for the next few months.

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A successful airport is all about scale: the more passengers they attract, the more aircraft are deployed and the more routes are developed. Considering their size and constraints, Heathrow and Gatwick are excellent airports. But Vicky Gregory’s comment “That feels like asking if I prefer to marry @piersmorgan or live with @realDonaldTrump” is more fun.

Passengers don’t get the airports they deserve — they get the airports they demand.


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