Sir Gil Thompson: Baggage handler who rose to change the face of long-haul air travel

He banned branches of  WH Smith in his airport terminals from selling chewing gum

A vitalising force in British aviation, Sir Gil Thompson enjoyed a fairy-tale career. From humble beginnings as a baggage handler, he went on to become chief executive of Manchester airport. There, his visionary zeal dramatically transformed a moderate municipal facility into a major international transport hub. As a result it played an increasingly important role in the economy not just of Manchester itself, but of the North-west as a whole.

A native of Northern Ireland, Gilbert Thompson grew up on Prospect Street in Belfast. The son of a baker, he was educated at Donegall Pass Elementary School, leaving formal education at the age of 14 to work in a coal merchant’s office then as a baggage handler at the city’s Nutts Corner airport. A trainee in the local office of British European Airways, he quickly progressed to regional sales manager.

In 1965 he moved to BEA’s Los Angeles office as the airline’s troubleshooter for the western states, giving him the opportunity to hone his commercial skills in the tough world of American business. Spells in Scotland, New York and Ireland followed. It was the merger of BEA and BOAC in 1974 that first brought him to the North-west. Appointed general manager for the north of England, seven years later he was head-hunted to become the new chief executive of Manchester airport. His brief was simple: prepare the organisation for the 21st century.

Situated seven miles south of Manchester city centre and first opened in 1938, Ringway, as the airport was initially known, was then owned by Manchester City Council and run jointly by the city and Greater Manchester Council. Thompson would later take the opportunity to convert it from a municipal amenity into a commercial company. With 60 per cent of his passengers being shuttled to Gatwick or Heathrow to make connections with long-haul flights, he  set out to attract the major global carriers to Manchester.

An assiduous administrator with a keen eye for detail, from his rooftop eyrie Thompson was able to keep a close watch on his rapidly expanding empire. A keep-fit fanatic, he regularly challenged the airport’s firemen to race him up the stairs to his top-floor office. He knew all employees by their first name and was urbane and erudite, his gentle Irish brogue hiding a steely resolve. He was a stickler for keeping the airport clean and tidy: in 1990 he banned branches of  W H Smith in the airport terminals from selling chewing gum.

As the through-put of passengers and freight rapidly increased, Thompson embarked on a £20m capital investment programme. A new operational control tower was installed, extra piers were added to increase the capacity of the international arrivals hall and a new £7.5m cargo centre with direct access to the neighbouring M56 motorway was built. A fleet of nine, multi-engined air taxis, including Learjets, became available for the business passenger. With as many construction vehicles as aircraft regularly on the complex, Manchester, it was once said, was the only building site with its own airport.

Throughout the 1980s Thompson led the fight by a consortium of northern authorities objecting to the development of Stansted at the expense of regional airports. It resulted in a revolt by Conservative MPs and a defeat for the Government when the Stansted scheme came before the House of Commons early in 1985. For the first time ,the needs of the northern traveller now had a powerful voice in defining the future of civil aviation in this country. Even so, it was 1986 before Thompson finally broke the capital’s monopoly on scheduled long-haul destinations. That year, American Airlines became the first US carrier to operate direct transatlantic flights to and from Manchester.

Twelve months earlier, tragedy had struck when, in August 1985, 54 passengers on a packed holiday flight to Corfu were killed on the airport runway. Just as the British Airtours Boeing 737, Flight KT 328 with 131 passengers and six crew was taking off at 7.13am, a turbine blade in the port engine broke from its cowling, entered the fuel tank and severed the main fuel line. Hundreds of gallons of fuel, ignited by the engine, sprayed along the fuselage, creating a burning inferno. Only the flight deck remained intact.

Fire safety remained a sensitive issue when, in February 1987, 52 fireman walked out in a dispute over manning levels, bringing the airport to a standstill. An uncompromising Thompson called a press conference and dramatically announced that if the striking firemen did not return to work and agree to the appointment of an independent arbitrator they would have to accept responsibility for the dismissal of 6,000 staff and the indefinite closure of the airport. The following day the men returned to work. He was no less forthright when, sometime later, baggage handlers threatened a similar strike.

With passenger numbers rising from 5 million to more than 11 million during his time in charge, by 1988 Thompson was able to list record-breaking results. Around 100 airlines were operating to 168 destinations around the world, turnover was up 26 per cent to £92m, and pre-tax profits before tax rose 50 per cent to £30.5m, thanks to a 51 per cent increase in cargo traffic and a 20 per cent rise in passenger numbers. The airport now had more domestic routes than any other airport in the United Kingdom, including Heathrow, and was rated the third busiest airport in Britain and the 17th in the world.

Twelve months later, a new £27m terminal for domestic flight passengers was opened. Construction was already well under way on a second international terminal, which would become one of the North-west’s largest ever civil engineering projects at a cost of £557m. This would increase passenger capacity from 12 million to 23 million a year. At the same time a new rail line linking the airport directly to the city centre was also approved by the Government, as were controversial plans to add a second runway.

Having proudly watched the Duke of Edinburgh open the newly completed Terminal Two in March 1993, Thompson took his leave of the airport later that year. Becoming the chair of the British Airports Group, he served as vice-chairman of Campbell and Armstrong and was a member of both the British Overseas Trade Board and the British-American Business Council. While his dream of bringing the Olympics to Manchester in 2000 never materialised, he played a pivotal role in securing the Commonwealth Games for the city in 2002.

Kenneth Shenton

Gilbert Williamson Thompson, aviation official: born Belfast 1 March 1930; chief executive, Manchester airport 1981-1993: OBE 1985, Kt 1993; married 1954 Dorothy Millar (two daughters); died 1 October 2013.

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