For the last 10 years, Manchester has been the UK’s second-biggest airport. Overshadowed by the London giants of Heathrow and Gatwick, it has grown at pace, but never quite caught up. However, since COVID hit, the northern hub has seen significant attention, and has overtaken Gatwick to become the UK’s second busiest airport.
The UK’s biggest airports
For a relatively small island, Great Britain has more than its fair share of major airports. London alone has six significant commercial airports, and there are numerous others dotted around the country from Glasgow to Cardiff. Outside of London, the biggest airport has emerged as Manchester in England’s northwest.
Heathrow has always been the biggest and busiest by far, handling over 80 million passengers in 2019. The next biggest airports are Gatwick, Manchester and Stansted. In 2011, Manchester overtook Stansted as the UK’s third busiest airport and continued to grow at pace. In 2019, Manchester grew by 3.9% year on year, compared to just 1% growth at the congested hubs of Gatwick and Heathrow.
Nevertheless, Gatwick has remained by far the busier airport. In 2019, for example, Gatwick handled 46.6 million passengers and 283,000 aircraft movements. Manchester, on the other hand, handled less than 30 million passengers and 202,000 aircraft movements.
As such, Manchester remained the UK’s third busiest airport; that is, until COVID came along.
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Leaving Gatwick like rats from a sinking ship
A year ago, when the aviation world was just beginning to ramp up towards spring, Gatwick maintained a healthy lead over Manchester in terms of aircraft movements. Throughout February and most of March, the London airport handled around a third more flights per day than its northern competitor.
When COVID bit and the UK entered its first lockdown in late March, the entire industry ground to a halt. But as it emerged from the lockdown, things started to look a little different. In early summer, Manchester became the busiest airport by quite some measure.
In the first week of July, it flew almost double the number of services that Gatwick did, making it the UK’s second busiest airport. While the gap narrowed, it held this crown for around four weeks, until Gatwick began to ramp back up again.
It’s hardly surprising, given some of Gatwick’s biggest airlines had either paused services or exited the airport entirely. For a time, British Airways didn’t fly from LGW, and Virgin Atlantic departed entirely. Norwegian pulled out too, and won’t be coming back, while major low-cost easyJet was forced to scale back services in the face of abundant travel restrictions.
By the height of the summer, things were looking up. Norwegian said it was coming back, BA returned in late July and foreign airlines, including Qatar, resumed service to the airport. Gatwick reclaimed its number two spot, but things wouldn’t stay that way for long.
Manchester creeps back to number two
The next time MAN would overtake LGW was in early October. The summer boom, or airlines’ attempt at it, had ended, the winter timetable was upon us, and airlines were trimming capacity and routes in a bid to rein in expense ahead of the slow season.
Throughout October and November, as the UK endured a second lockdown, MAN retained its position as the UK’s second busiest airport. By the end of November, it was operating double the number of flights that Gatwick was managing. Gatwick saw a bump over the festive period, as airlines attempted to maximize their holiday profit, but it was relatively short-lived.
With the UK now into its third lockdown, MAN has regained the top spot once more. Traffic is not quite as low as it was during the first lockdown last March, but it’s pretty poor. Nevertheless, it’s now been five weeks since Gatwick saw more traffic than Manchester did.
The news of Norwegian’s departure from the international circuit won’t be well received in Gatwick. Virgin is also not coming back any time soon, and while the London airport is hotting up as a low-cost carrier hub for Europe, it’s small compensation at the end of a challenging 12 months.
Manchester, on the other hand, is seeing plenty of reasons to be cheerful at present. Virgin remains committed to its home in the north, and Emirates has even been flying the A380 back to the airport. With Aer Lingus’ new transatlantic services ready to fly and other airlines keen to make a return, could 2021 be the year Manchester officially becomes the UK’s second-largest airport?