Gatwick Connects is an initiative by the airport to encourage passengers to use it as a connecting hub.
It has two forms: firstly, it allows anyone arriving and departing from Gatwick with the majority of airlines on the same day to move through the airport, quickly, even if they have checked baggage which needs collecting and then re-checking.
In that situation you collect your luggage from your arriving flight and go to the Gatwick Connects desk in baggage reclaim where you are checked in and taken from you. You then exit through Customs, head straight to security and through to departures. Gatwick says over 300,000 passengers have used this since 2013.
The second part of the service is Gatwick Connects Protected Service, which is where the tickets are bought through Gatwick Connects, and for an additional charge the connection is protected, meaning that the airport will ensure any costs related to a missed connection are protected by the airport. Gatwick says some 10,000 passengers have booked their flights through this new service.
With the news that more airlines are considering connections between low-cost airlines and traditional airlines, we spoke with Guy Stephenson, Gatwick airport’s commercial director, about why he thinks connecting traffic will increase this year, and about the terminal moves at Gatwick.
Why did you decide to start Gatwick Connects?
When you look at our network at Gatwick we have a very diverse range of destinations and airlines operating here. We have a full spread of business models from full service network carriers who interline with each other and come to arrangements in respect of connecting traffic, and we have regional and low cost airlines, that may not choose to do so.
As an airport, we think there is a role we can play to facilitate connections, for the benefit of both the long-haul carriers, full service or low-cost and the short-haul carriers, whether full service or low-cost. You need to be an airport of scale to do this. We have set up in each of our baggage halls – domestic and international – with four different desks, the ability to check customers in, in the baggage half itself.
And this has been around for a while?
The baggage service has, yes. The idea of the baggage service is that anyone who arrives on a service into the airport who is connecting on a separate ticket, can avoid the added time and possible confusion if they aren’t used to the airport, of getting to the check-in desk landside and then find their way back airside. So it speeds up and facilitates for those who book separate tickets.
And because we have such a high density of low cost airlines travelling short haul, they typically won’t be interline passengers. So they might be flying on with Easyjet, for instance. We take responsibility for their bag so they can go out through customs and then back through security.
But now you offer something more than that?
Yes. The baggage service is all very well, but people will only know about it if they find it when they arrive or if they habitually use it. So we wanted to see if we can encourage people to look at Gatwick as a connecting airport. This adds a whole degree of complication beyond a check-in baggage service, because what you’re having to do in order to get ranked in the metasearch engines alongside other interline products is you need to offer the customer the protection that if their inward flight was delayed inbound then we will take care of feeding them and finding them a ticket for their onward connection.
This is the Gatwick Connects Protected Connection and without that protection, the meta search wouldn’t independently pick up that connection of an Easyjet onto a Norwegian, for instance. But if we protect it when the airlines don’t do it, then we can see our potential connections being ranked alongside interline opportunities, flying from A to C via wherever B is, Amsterdam or Paris. We launched with Skyscanner as our partner with the ability to book two flights together that otherwise weren’t bookable together. So you could book Inverness to New York by booking Easyjet and then onwards with Norwegian.
How do you market it?
How it works is people will type these flight searches into the search engine and the metasearch engines will come up with solutions. We don’t want to compete for traffic with the metasearch companies, so we built a booking engine and a website capability under that and if you look for certain connections we will rank alongside anyone else as a competitive offering, but only because its protected. As well as Skyscanner we are also now on other engines such as Kayak, Momondo and Dohop.
Typically on these metasearch engines, you would choose your flight and pick a travel operators website to book the flight, but in our case, you would click on the Gatwick Connects logo. What happens then is you get three confirmations, one from each of the airlines who will confirm your tickets separately, and we will also send you a confirmation representing our service to you.
How long have you been offering this?
The booking service has been in place since the end of 2015. It’s been a longer journey getting the booking service set up [compared to the baggage service]. We have 16 airlines participating in the baggage service which covers 90 percent of all our departing passengers, but until now only six airlines are involved in our booking service: Air Europa, Aer Lingus, easyjet, Norwegian, TAP, Wow Air..
That’s more to do with the integration of the IT. Easyjet is involved, but British Airways integration has been complicated. Virgin Atlantic has just done a significant change in their own and now that has happened we hope they will come on board, and the same with Westjet. It’s a question of where it sits in their priorities.
Does it help you attract new airlines to Gatwick?
Strategically, there is no question that it’s an interesting part of the conversation we have with long-haul carriers. But if you’re talking to Asian carriers most of them have very low single digit transfer figures out of London anyway. It tends to be a destination market, and they don’t have relationships to take the traffic on, and that applies at Heathrow as well, it’s single digit connection traffic. Some are larger than that, depending on the alliances, but it’s still small.
The beauty of Gatwick Connect is it doesn’t cost them anything. We do all the work for them. They simply supply us with the API connection and we train our customer service agents. It’s a light touch for the airlines. We take all the risk.
Has it been worth the effort?
The reason we started Gatwick Connect is that my view has always been we should get ahead of the game. It is inevitable that the low-cost carriers will be providing feed traffic to long-haul in some form. It has to be caveated in that way because clearly they want to preserve as much of the simplicity of what they do and evaluate between themselves and any other carrier who takes the risk.
That is where the debate is being had between those low-cost carriers thinking about it and the carriers they are potentially partnering with. My view is they will overcome the problems. Whether they get to a place where they are doing through-baggage is another question which remains unresolved. Therefore if you are trying to mimic through baggage interline we are still a little way from that. Ultimately technology will overcome these obstacles.
Remember we already have our own flight connection service. If you are a British Airways connection we can keep you airside so we are fully geared up to offer codeshare or interline in the traditional sense. But this is recognising that there is a market out there which is quite significant and which if it is made easy for them we can help grow that market. We are providing the ability to buy two single tickets in a single transaction because we have presented it in a metasearch engine.
Where is next for it?
When we did the research on this we thought it was a significant potential market, and the fact that Ryanair and Easyjet are now talking about connecting to traditional carriers demonstrates we were ahead of our time.
But if they do a through-baggage interline end to end they won’t use this?
If they value what we are doing in the baggage halls then it is a separable part of the service that can add value to the customer journey. Whichever way connecting traffic happens it’s good for them and good for us. And if it helps non-aligned and legacy airlines connect more effectively because they can connect to Easyjet that’s in our interests because we want them to be successful. If it flows more easily then that’s fine by me.
Ultimately this isn’t a big money play for us. It’s more strategic to stimulate a new market in connecting travel between all the players who want to participate in it. We have many airports around the world looking at it and asking, “How do you do it?” So it’s something that’s helping other airports and the industry think about its own business model.
Will the terminal changes help?
As you know, the moves are going to be on January 23-26, 2017. There is no question that for our North Terminal airlines, having Easyjet consolidated in there, and quite a lot of our long-haul airlines in the North Terminal, it provides an interesting opportunity for them.”