Businessman who transformed Manchester airport from a regional hub into an international one serving 20 million passengers a year
Sir Gil Thompson, who has died aged 83, was responsible for transforming Manchester airport from a sound regional player into a serious international operation during his 12-year tenure as chief executive, from 1981. Behind his charming smile and immaculate suit was a sharp mind and steely ambition, which drove complex negotiations with Margaret Thatcher’s government. He also oversaw the spread of the airport’s ownership from Manchester city council to all 10 Greater Manchester authorities.
Soon after Gil took over at Manchester, passenger figures passed 5 million for the first time. Today, the airport handles around 20 million passengers a year, third in UK terms after Heathrow and Gatwick, and serving 180 destinations worldwide. With a second runway in place and development land available, its growth potential is the envy of London’s overstretched four airports.
London was Gil’s target. He could not understand why Manchester’s transatlantic passengers should be shuttled to Heathrow and Gatwick when there was a market for direct flights from the north. Following a sequence of missions and submissions to the aviation authorities, Gil broke the capital’s monopoly on scheduled long-haul destinations, and in 1986 American Airlines became the first US carrier operating direct transatlantic flights to Manchester. Also in 1986, Manchester’s dedicated world freight terminal was opened.
Detail mattered to Gil. Legend has it that he once banned WH Smith branches in the airport terminals from selling chewing gum following problems removing gum from carpets; and as a keen Manchester United supporter he ordered that a banner for Sharp (then team sponsors) should be redone because it was in the wrong shade of red.
Shortly after the Gulf war, a journalist told him that he was known by local environmentalists opposed to the airport’s expansion as the Irish Saddam Hussein. “No”, Gil replied, “That’s not correct, I’m much worse than him.”
Gil was born in Belfast. He left Donegall Pass school at the age of 14 to work in a coal merchant’s office, then as a baggage handler at Aldergrove airport (now Belfast International), before starting in 1950 as a trainee in the Belfast office of British European Airways. He worked for BEA and BOAC in the UK, Ireland and the US before becoming BA’s general manager in Manchester in 1974.
Gil successfully fought government regulations hindering local authorities from raising development capital on the financial markets. Funding of Manchester’s terminal 2 led to proposals for a controversial second runway, which involved filling in part of the Bollin Valley and was completed in 2001. Gil was made an OBE in 1985 and knighted in 1993, the year he retired.
In the 20 years since, Manchester airport has continued to fulfil most of Gil’s ambitions, yet somehow has lost its sparkle. The company’s acquisition of East Midlands, Humberside and Bournemouth airports turned it into a sort of regional behemoth, while Liverpool and Blackpool have both attacked its local market. Gil lived nearby and maintained contact. As president of the airport’s strategic planning group, for instance, he foresaw the impact of 9/11 on airport and airline security measures.
He and his wife Dorothy, whom he married in 1954, had recently moved to Hampshire to be closer to their family. Dorothy survives him, along with their two daughters, Shirley and Fiona, and five grandchildren.
• Gilbert Williamson Thompson, aviation executive, born 1 March 1930; died 1 October 2013
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