Sir Norman Payne: Head of BAA who led the British expansion in civil aviation

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The Independent Online

Norman Payne was Sir BAA. It was under his leadership that Gatwick and Stansted were created, as well as Terminal 4 at Heathrow and Gatwick North Terminal. In so doing Payne settled London Airports' capacity from the early 1980s until well into the present century, fuelling the opportunity for the UK's expansion in civil aviation. He was engineer, planner, Chief Executive, Chairman and leader. Of all the nationalised industry chairmen he was the most successful and longest serving. And in 1982 he saw through privatisation efficiently and against much political objection, holding the British Airports Authority together.

Norman Payne, who was born on 9 October 1921, came of humble stock, his grandfather – from Sudbury in West London – being a drayman operating out of the Cut in Waterloo and conveying goods by horse and cart to and from the station. His father joined the cement manufacturers, Blue Circle, and progressed steadily in the hierarchy. The young Norman won a place at the local grammar school, John Lyon in Harrow, where he did well and became Head of the School. In 1939 he entered the City and Guilds College, London to study engineering.

But the Second World War came and Payne promptly volunteered for the Royal Engineers. He was posted to the Sapper Depot and found himself bedded between two ex-convicts. He learned much from them! He passed out of the Sapper OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit) and was commissioned in 1941 and then posted to an Indian regiment. By 1943 he found himself on the Arakan front against the Japanese.

As a subaltern in the Royal Engineers he was in the jungle, one day having to build a bridge with timber cut down locally and dragged by elephants to the required site, the next day detonating another bridge further off. During this period he also learnt to construct his first airfield. He was contemptuous of the Americans who were waiting a week or more for mechanised bridge equipment while he, with his elephants, constructed bridges in 24 hours strong enough to take tanks.

The Americans developed some admiration for this Englishman, only 24 and promoted to captain – and not for the first time in his life. For his war efforts, much of it under Japanese bombardment, Payne was twice mentioned in despatches, and awarded the MBE (military).

On demobilisation Payne entered the Imperial College of Science and Technology, read Civil Engineering and got a First. Following graduation he joined the engineering firm of Sir Frederick Snow and Partners, becoming a partner himself in 1955. He built airports in the Middle East and then, under contract from the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, built Gatwick Airport.

He first looked at the Gatwick site in 1951, taking his wife Pamela up to the top of the old Racecourse Stand. Norman, looking at the racetrack below said "there'll be 30 million passengers a year here by the end of the century". Pamela said "Oh. Don't be so silly Norman". He was not far out. It was 32 million.

When the BAA was created in 1965 Payne was recruited as Director of Engineering, then promoted to Director of Planning, then to Chief Executive from 1972-77 and finally Chairman, the post he held from 1977 until her retired at the age of 70 in 1991. In this period he fought tenaciously for much needed airport capacity. Under his leadership BAA won the prolonged statutory enquiries into the creation of Stansted, North Terminal at Gatwick and Terminal 4 at Heathrow.

Stansted was particularly difficult – lovely North Essex rolling countryside and historic villages, and massive opposition. Taking a young civil servant round the Essex countryside at the end of the 1970s the civil servant said, "What beautiful countryside". Norman's comment was: "Lovely airport country" – always the planner, always the engineer.

The BAA's Stansted proposal was for two runways and a throughput of 50 million passengers a year. Eventually after two years of the statutory enquiry headed by Richard Eyre QC and the political machinations of Nicholas Ridley, then Secretary of State for Transport, BAA got one runway and 8 million passengers a year, increasing to 15 million. But the Payne solution will come.

Apart from the London airports, the BAA acquired or inherited Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Prestwick airports – all of which he made a great success. He looked at taking over from the government the Highlands and Islands Airports but was put off by finding that the air traffic controllers at Islay were more interested in growing tomatoes in the control tower than receiving and despatching aircraft.

Nor must we forget Payne the builder. As early as 1961 he built a house in Surrey with solar panels supplying under floor heating. He employed Norman Foster, then relatively unknown, to design and build Stansted Airport, one of the great buildings of the 20th Century. The BAA headquarters at Gatwick was another fine development.

Privatisation in 1982 was a seminal event. Payne changed staff ruthlessly to meet the new commercial regime. He fought off take-over attempts and expanded the activities of the company. Conscious that the organisation had skills and experience that could be exported, he gained airport management contracts all over the world – in the US, Australia, the Middle East and Naples. He bought Budapest Airport. Sadly, all these money-making assets have now been disposed of by the new owners of BAA, Ferrovial.

Throughout his life Payne was showered with honours and degrees. After the MBE in 1944 he was made OBE in 1956, advanced to CBE in 1976 and knighted in 1985. This last award was long overdue. As far back as 1978 it had been suggested in the Department of Trade that Norman should have a K. But the Permanent Secretary of the time said, "He's difficult enough already. Do you realise how difficult he'll be with a K?"

He was an FCGI, FICE, FREng, Hon Fellow Institute of Structural Engineers, Hon FRIBA, Hon D Tech Loughborough, President of the Institute of Transport, 1984-85 and a Commissioner of the Manpower Services Commission 1983-85. He was always a leader. As chairman of the board of BAA he was dominant, decisive and determined. I can remember opposing his proposal to give free parking to members of the House of Lords and Commons at all BAA airports. I got short shrift.

Payne retired in 1991 to Guernsey and for the next 17 years of his life devoted himself to local issues and charities and to the interests of his large family. He was always the planner: after his death the family found a file marked "the final plan" dictating how he wanted his funeral service in his beloved Guernsey and a Memorial reception later in London.

Patrick Shovelton

Norman John Payne, engineer and business executive: born 9 October 1921; Chief Executive, BAA plc (formerly British Airports Authority), 1972–77, Chairman, 1977–91; MBE (mil.) 1944, OBE 1956, CBE 1976, Kt 1985; married 1946 Pamela Wallis (died 2006; one daughter, four sons); died 7 February 2010.