Gatwick’s journey from ‘beehive’ to airport used by 40,000,000 passengers

Where would you prefer to travel from? (Picture: Getty)

Sixty six years ago today, in 1958, Gatwick Airport as we know it today was opened by the Queen.

It had been an an airfield with some passenger flights and a terminal before this, but nothing like the major international airport it is today, processing 40 million passengers a year.

Those going through it in 2024 on the way to cities includingShanghai, New York and Dubai may think of it as fairly modern, even if the queuing systems could use an upgrade.

But if it was a person, the airport would be old enough to claim its pension.

We took a look at how it has looked through the years, from the first terminal which opened in 1936 and was known as the ‘Beehive’ to the modern travelators and self-check baggage drop we use today.

Building a connection hub

The main terminal building, opened in 1936, was known as the ‘Beehive’ due to its round structure and grid-like windows including skylights.

It was the first terminal in the world to offer covered access directly from a train station, through the airport, to the plane itself, and is now a Grade II listed building used as office space.

If planes came and went like bees taking off back then, the airport has grown to a behemoth now as the UK’s second largest, and the busiest single runway airport in Europe.

Workmen completing the main building at Gatwick Airport in Surrey with ‘windows’ in the roof to maximise sunlight. March 12, 1936 (Picture: Getty)

The construction site of the main terminal building at Gatwick airport in Surrey, September 6, 1935 (Picture: Getty)

Onlookers outside the Beehive watch a Folker aircraft get ready for takeoff to Bourget Airport in France (Picture: Getty)

Gatwick from above, pictured in 1938. The large runways still haven’t been built and the airport is more of an airfield (Picture: Getty)

The Beehive is now a Grade II listed building used as office space (Picture: Hassocks)

Tinsley Green Station being renamed a week before the opening of the new airport at Gatwick, May 29 1936 (Picture: Getty)

Passengers check-in at the airport offices of London’s newly opened Gatwick Airport, May 28, 1936 (Picture: Getty)

On June 9, 1958, the airport was reopened and massively expanded

It became recognisable as the airport we use today, and was officially launched by Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip in the same year as the first commercial jet airliner crossed the Atlantic, Britain’s de Havilland Comet.

After touring the airport, the young queen visited nearby Crawley in Sussex to mark the occasion.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visiting the Sussex town of Crawley after opening the new Gatwick Airport, June 9 1958 (Picture: Getty)

Comfy rows of seats at a lounge in Gatwick Airport, August 31, 1960 (Picture: Getty)

Check-in desks at Gatwick on August 31, 1960 (Picture: Getty)

Flyovers leading to and from the main Brighton Road at the soon-to-be-opened Gatwick Airport, May 29, 1958 (Picture: Getty)

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visiting the Sussex town of Crawley after opening the new Gatwick Airport, 9th June 1958 (Picture: Getty)

A cafe at Gatwick Airport where people could grab a cuppa or snack before their flight, pictured on August 31, 1960 (Picture: Getty)

Passengers queuing at the check-in counters at Gatwick Airport, July 26, 1966 (Picture: Getty)

Famous faces flying through Gatwick

Since the grand reopening, the airport has welcomed many celebrities and dignitaries.

It has seen presidents, pop stars, princesses, and even the Pope who kissed the tarmac in his landmark first visit to UK soil.

American president John F Kennedy arrives at Gatwick airport, greeted by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in June 1963 (Picture: Alamy)

Pope John Paul II kissing the ground in a traditional gesture after leaving the plane in May, 1982 (Picture: Alamy)

Princess Diana with Prince Charles meeting King Fahd and the Saudi Arabia royal family at Gatwick Airport for their state visit in March 1987 (Picture: Getty)

President Charles de Gaulle arriving at Gatwick Airport in Surrey for a state visit, April 5, 1960 (Picture: Getty)

Princess Diana listens to the dialogue of pilots as they come into land at Gatwick Airport during her visit to the Control Tower (Picture: Alamy)

George Michael of pop group Wham!, arriving at Gatwick airport on his return from China in April 1985 (Picture: Mirrorpix/Getty)

Singer Midge Ure spray paints a message on a water tanker in a promotion for Band Aid’s Caption ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ at Gatwick in March 1988 (Picture: Alamy)

President Kennedy with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan at Gatwick Airport in 1963 (Picture: Alamy)

Gatwick today

You may think the garish yellow signs and soldiers with guns look less romantic than the smartly dressed passengers of the ‘golden age’ of jet travel in the 1960s.

The era of cheap flights has brought with it long queues and jam-packed terminals, with long walks to gates as so many routes have opened.

Increased awareness of climate concerns, too, makes air travel less appealing.

But there are definitely improvements in experience for travellers today: you won’t be sat next to someone blowing cigarette smoke into your face at 30,000ft these days, for example.

A sign directing passengers to Departures at Gatwick Airport South Terminal in May last year (Picture: Getty)

People waiting in the departure lounge, Gatwick Airport North Terminal, London (Picture: Getty)

Strand jacking operation lifts in Gatwick Airport. Gatwick was the first airport to offer covered access from terminal to aircraft (Picture: Getty)

City Place at Gatwick, Gatwick, designed by architects Bennetts Associates (Picture: Getty)

The departure hall on the South Terminal with passengers waiting for their flights, pictured in July last year (Picture: Getty)

Aeroplanes seen at Gatwick Airport on August, 2006 (Picture: Getty)

Passengers using British Airways automatic bag drop facilities inside South Terminal (Picture: Geography Photos/Getty)

Two armed police officers on duty inside South Terminal (Picture: Geography Photos/Getty)

Air travel passengers head to Gatwick Train station for their onward journey on May 13, 2023 (Picture: Getty)

The welcome sign at the South Terminal with a list of airlines on display (Picture: Getty)

A bus shuttling passengers to and from long term car parks (Picture: Getty)

The duty free shop at Gatwick Airport North Terminal (Picture: Getty)

And the duty free shops at Gatwick South Terminal (Picture: Getty)

Charging zone in the South Terminal for travellers to charge up their electronic devices (Picture: Getty)

People queue to check in for flights at Gatwick Airport as air traffic controllers threatened to strike on July 7, 2023 (Picture: Getty)

Over the last 60 years​,​ Gatwick has grown from 186,000 passengers to over 40 million passengers per year.

With two terminals, it has capacity to park up to 186 planes with a total of 245 check-in desks, 123 self-service check-in desks and 119 self-service bag drop kiosks.

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