British Airways will scale back its operations at Gatwick under a radical transformation plan to bounce back from the pandemic, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
Sources said that new BA chief executive Sean Doyle will operate fewer flights from Gatwick once the airline emerges from the crisis.
BA will shift business to Heathrow, where it will counter the drop in business travel by ramping up premium leisure flights to long-haul holiday hotspots such as Bermuda and Barbados.
British Airways has cancelled all its short-haul flights from Gatwick until March next year, leaving it with 12 long-haul routes from Britain’s second-biggest airport. Shrinking the airline’s Gatwick operations will form part of a wide-ranging new strategy under Doyle, who replaced Alex Cruz last week.
Doyle’s 22-year career at BA includes a job running the airline’s business unit at Gatwick. It is understood his immediate priority is to get travel moving again by working with the rest of the industry and governments in the UK and abroad to agree travel corridors and remove quarantine restrictions.
But his strategy for steering BA through the pandemic will also look at how to contend with a significant medium-term drop in revenues from lucrative trans-Atlantic and business travel.
It is thought that focusing more on a ‘premium leisure’ business model, primarily based at Heathrow, would allow BA to attract affluent holidaymakers willing to pay extra for the convenience of flying from West London.
Last week, BA switched its Maldives flights from Gatwick to Heathrow and launched its first daily flights from Heathrow to Barbados for more than 15 years. Next March, it will launch its first flights from Heathrow to Bermuda for more than three decades.
John Strickland – an aviation analyst who previously worked as a network planner at BA – said: ‘It is not clear to what extent BA will stay at Gatwick, and it could potentially maintain part of its slot portfolio there by leasing out some slots to other airlines.’
Potential interested parties for BA’s Gatwick slots include budget carrier Wizz Air, which this week launches four new routes from Gatwick and has called on regulators to let it pick up rivals’ unused slots. Strickland said BA is also likely to re-evaluate the size of business class cabins on long-haul aircraft and consider whether their premium economy offering should be expanded or upgraded.
He said the airline would be forced to cut prices to attract customers until the Covid-19 pandemic was no longer a major concern. ‘Tactical pricing offers are likely in the short term to fill the excess capacity in premium cabins,’ he added.
It is going through its own major restructuring after making a £321million loss for the six months to June due to the collapse in passenger demand.
Previously, BA flew from Gatwick to around 65 short-haul destinations a year, with around 48 departures on a peak day. But in April, the managing director of BA Gatwick, Adam Carson, hinted in a letter to staff that BA could pull out of Gatwick permanently.
Last night, Stewart Wingate, Gatwick’s chief executive, said: ‘I know Sean is aware of the immense value that Gatwick adds to the airline’s network from his days running BA’s operations at the airport.
‘I’m looking forward to welcoming back the airline’s short-haul services as soon as possible.’
But Strickland said: ‘Heathrow is always going to be the strategic priority.
‘I would expect [Doyle] to continue the ethos of being cost-focused and using his network experience to be increasingly flexible and creative in the way they schedule their fleet.
‘As BA adapts, there is likely to be a lot more experimentation and trial and error in the strategies they adopt until some clarity emerges about what will be the new normal in travel markets.’
Under Cruz, BA cut costs and reshaped the airline, cutting around 10,000 jobs and shrinking the size of its fleet, including retiring its 31 747 jumbo jets.
BA wants the aviation industry to introduce a pre-flight testing programme for passengers up to 72 hours before departure.
It is calling on the UK Government to work with the US to set up a travel corridor between London and New York – normally one of the busiest airline routes in the world – with pre-flight testing replacing the blanket quarantine.
It is currently flying to New York twice a day, compared with up to 12 times a day before the pandemic.