It's hot, it's crowded, it's a shopper's paradise (and we haven't left Gatwick)

Wish you were here? Raymond Whitaker joins the stranded tourists
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The Independent Online

'With the proportion of leisure travellers we have here," says Steven Gargaro, duty manager at Gatwick's south terminal, "passengers are easier to deal with than at some other airports. They feel that their holiday has already started, so they're in a different frame of mind."

This is fortunate for Mr Gargaro, whose funereal suit and tie distinguish him starkly from the flood of holidaymakers engulfing the departure lounge on a hot Friday afternoon. A coach drivers' strike in the Balearic islands is causing problems with flights to Palma, Mahon and Ibiza. Tourists arriving there cannot get out of the airport except by taxi or on foot, and although tour reps have chartered fleets of cars to shift them to their hotels and apartments, delays are starting to accumulate.

At Gatwick, extra holiday company personnel have been brought in, armed with colouring books and crayons for younger customers. Children's entertainers have been put on standby in case things get worse. There is already a "landside hold" for passengers on some flights to the Balearics: they are not allowed into the departure lounge until there is some prospect of their plane departing.

This gives them more time to sample Gatwick Village, an ever-expanding array of retail and fast food outlets which includes a nail bar, an internet café, a Manchester United store and the only betting shop in a British airport. "People often ask us if they can bet on how long their plane is going to be held up, but we don't do that," says the lady behind the counter at Corals.

Every year 32 million people pass through Gatwick, only 10 million of whom are on business. In the peak summer season, Mr Gargaro and his fellow terminal managers must get up to 8,000 people an hour through the airport. It is a constant juggling act, during which they have to deal with people such as Earl Norman, a remarkably hale 74-year-old who has just flown in from Omaha, Nebraska.

Mr Norman plans to spend six weeks cycling round "the whole of Great Britain", and is reassembling his bike in the middle of the arrivals hall, taking the components from a huge cardboard container. He is in no hurry, explaining that he forgot to bring the name of his London hotel, for which he has already paid. He is waiting until his landlady in Omaha wakes up. Then he can ask her to go to his apartment and find the piece of paper on which he wrote it down. In the meantime, however, he is a major obstruction to arriving passengers and their baggage trolleys, and a member of Mr Gargaro's staff asks him to move.

According to the Association of European Airlines, nearly a fifth – 19 per cent – of flights from Gatwick were late in the first quarter of this year, up from 14 per cent in the same period of 2000. The average delay jumped from 33.4 minutes to 41.8 minutes. At least 15 other airports were worse, including Heathrow, where a quarter of flights were late. These figures have been taken as evidence that a "summer of misery" awaits "millions of holidaymakers jetting off to the sun", in one tabloid's words.

In his double-glazed office overlooking Gatwick's only runway, however, David Cumming argues it is not that bad. "A few years ago delays of three or four hours were far more common than they are now," says Mr Cumming, Gatwick's operations manager. "The main cause of delays is technical problems with aircraft, but today's planes are more reliable."

Gatwick can cope with 49 take-offs and landings an hour, but to meet airline demand at the summer peak, there would have to be 75. Rising incomes and ever-lower fares are increasing traffic pressures all the time, but Mr Cumming says the airport has no plans for a second runway, reckoning it can squeeze through up to 40 million passengers a year with just one.

The world's busiest single-runway airport is always looking for ways to prevent delays. It spent £5m on a new taxiway to get arriving planes off the runway a few seconds faster. One widely imitated measure is a committee which monitors "slot performance": if flight XY123 to Rome on Tuesdays is always late, the airline will have to explain why. If it fails to convince a jury chaired by Mr Cumming, it risks losing a slot that could be worth up to £1m.

The operations manager admits that a strike by controllers in France, say, or Spain or Greece would rapidly fill Gatwick's floors with sleeping holidaymakers. But there is no sign of that this summer – so far. For the moment the Spanish coach drivers are the biggest problem.

On Friday Gatwick had 26 flights heading for the Balearics, just over half of them to Mahon, the airport for Menorca. Two flights due to leave at 2.30pm were still on the ground at 4pm, with the departure screens promising further information around 5pm. By 5.30pm, however, there were five Mahon flights backed up, and passengers on one of the 2.30pm flights were being told to expect more news at 8pm. The strike, and the problems, were all due to last weekend.

In Zone C two middle-aged couples from Reading, the Budgens and the Beazleys, are already queueing two hours before their flight to Palma is due to start checking in. They are well aware of the potential delays, but Brendan Budgen is philosophical. "We see the airport as part of the enjoyment," he says. "We have a drink and a bite to eat, look through the shops..." "And have another drink," laughs Lynda Beasley. If Mr Gargaro was looking for passengers to fit his thesis, this foursome would be ideal.