'It is so quiet': 21 passengers leave Gatwick in one day as air traffic halts

Archie Bland

On a typical day, 60,000 people fly out of Gatwick airport. Last Saturday, there were just 21.

Across the three flights that took off, that means an average of seven passengers. Gatwick says that the figure – even lower than the 24 initially reported – is an outlier, but with a typical day currently falling anywhere between 100 and 400 passengers, the airport remains a ghost town.

Just seven flights were scheduled at the airport on Tuesday, to and from Jersey, Dublin, Kingston, and Sofia. At about 2pm, in one major thoroughfare that normally bustles with passengers, staff and whiteboard-wielding cab drivers, there were six people, or one-fifth the number of hand sanitiser stations.

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Even stranger than the emptiness was the silence: with almost no passengers, the usually ubiquitous tannoy announcements had been muted completely.

As the lockdown begins to lift, the desertion of Gatwick is a reminder of the vast challenges that remain for the aviation sector, with the announcement of a 14-day quarantine period from 8 June, and continuing advice to only travel when necessary, meaning that services will be restored at a glacial pace. 

The airport fears that the quarantine rules will have “a significant impact on our ability to restart”, a spokesperson said, adding that the airport would be lobbying for the guidelines to be regularly reviewed.

In the meantime, a single branch of Boots is all that remains of the usually rich retail offer. There were no queues. “I’ve got no idea how long it’s been like this now, honestly,” a cashier said. “One day just merges into another.” 

In an even quieter corner, a man with no plans to travel was being told to stop using the free internet and go home. “If you come back within 24 hours you are liable to be arrested,” a bored-sounding police officer said. “You can’t just come here to get online. This is not an internet hub.” He paused, then added: “I appreciate it isn’t particularly busy.”

Sarah, who asked that her last name not be used, had just returned from Jersey, on the first Blue Islands flight into Gatwick since lockdown began. She had been stranded after visiting home for Mother’s Day. “I kind of preferred being there,” she said, adding that the tiny propeller plane she had come back on had been packed, with no gaps between passengers but precautions including masks for all and no cabin service. “But with things starting to get more normal I had to come back for work.” 

Jason Harris was one of those headed the other way, having secured permission from the island’s immigration service and facing a coronavirus test on arrival, followed by two weeks in isolation if the result was positive. 

A teacher who had been stranded on a trip back to his South Wales home, he was unable to delay his journey any longer if he was to be back in time for the restart of school. 

“When I left, there were 10 of us on the plane, the airport and the station were dead – it was quite upsetting,” he said. “I thought it would feel different coming back – but going through the station again today, and it was still dead – it was upsetting again.”

Pharmacist Zahar Ali was going to Jersey from her home in Brighton, having volunteered to help fill an urgent staff shortage on the island. 

“I just thought … why not?” she said, as she smoked a cigarette next to the drop-off zone (one police car, three empty airport vehicles, nothing else). “It’ll be different. But it’s really strange being here, it’s normally so packed.”

Although staff appear to heavily outnumber passengers, the underlying figures are devastating, says Unite regional officer Jamie Major. “So many businesses are dependent on the decisions the airlines take,” he said. “It’s a massive chain of dominos. For every plane taking off, it’s got to be cleaned, catered, ground-handled, the bags have to be screened – and it’s not happening.”

One company had recently celebrated an uptick – to just 5% of typical business last year. “I’ve got 11,000 members and I get calls every day saying I don’t know what’s going on,” Major said. For those few who do work, “a lot of them are scared. No one’s sure about distancing, about the PPE … and then there’s the sense of doom about what’s just around the corner.”

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The local area, where 36,000 jobs rely on the airport, is likewise in limbo. “The truth is you don’t really notice the flights one way or another when you’ve grown up around Crawley,” says the local Labour council leader, Peter Lamb. “But to some extent it’s a bit unnerving because it is so quiet. We all have friends and relatives who work in aviation.”

While the area has been somewhat insulated from the airport’s struggles by the government’s furlough scheme, Lamb fears that many people are yet to understand the extent of the impact that lies ahead. 

“The big problem is that the public don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve woken up to the reality that what’s been the most significant part of local industry isn’t going to be viable for a decade.”