For an airport with only one runway
, Gatwick is pretty damn big. It handles 30 million passengers a year—half the population of the UK—and is planning terminal expansions to allow it to handle 40 million. No other single-runway airport in the world is as busy or important as Gatwick.
Gatwick is located in Surrey, 28 miles south of The City. One Morris Jackaman purchased the Gatwick Airport site for 13,500 pounds in 1933, received a permit from the government to operate a civil airport there, and put shares of Gatwick Airport up in an IPO in 1935, selling over 800,000 at 5 shillings apiece. His best move was linking Gatwick to the rail line from Victoria Station to Brighton, which is and always has been the best way to get to the airport, especially now that the Gatwick Express is running.
The Royal Air Force borrowed Gatwick during the Battle of Britain, and gave it back in 1946. During the 1950's, Gatwick closed down and was extensively rebuilt in an attempt to make it a viable alternative to Heathrow. When it reopened in 1958, it was one of the most impressive airports in the world: the first based on a pier design, rather than having a box terminal with buses to take passengers across the tarmac.
Gatwick's main runway has been extended several times and is now 3,256m long (10,165 feet). A second pier was opened in 1977, and in 1983 the old pier was replaced by a circular satellite pier. At the same time, work began on a new North Terminal, which opened in 1988 and was expanded in 1991. One of the UK's first automated people movers was built to connect the two terminals. Like Heathrow, Gatwick is eternally under construction, and by the time you read this writeup it will probably be out of date.
Its main role is as the UK's backup gateway to the Americas: transatlantic traffic, primarily on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic but also on carriers that didn't make the Bermuda II Agreement, accounts for 25% of Gatwick's passengers. Charter carriers flying to the Channel Islands and Balearic Islands also account for a large portion of Gatwick's traffic, especially in summer.