Comparing The UK's Busiest Airports: Satisfaction, Frustration and 'The Great Runway Debate'

In the modern world, flying is almost as commonplace as driving and airports are as trafficked as the world’s busiest highways. As one of the biggest connection hubs between the Americas, Europe and Asia, the United Kingdom not only has a lot of airports, but also some of the world’s busiest. In fact, in 2015, Heathrow Airport ranked #6 in the world’s busiest airports, and #1 in Europe.
With so many airports, and so many people passing through on a daily basis, we wondered how the UK’s airports really stack up against each other. In order to do this, we decided to compare the UK’s top 5 biggest airports by passenger traffic. See them listed below in order of most to least passenger traffic:

  1. London Heathrow
  2. London Gatwick
  3. Manchester
  4. London Stansted
  5. London Luton

Using our social analytics platform, we looked at English-language conversations in the UK from January 2014 – August 2016 about these airports across Twitter, Facebook, forums and blogs to see how people within the UK perceive these airports, how they describe their experiences with them, and who uses them.
We started by looking at the share of voice, which depicts each airport’s share of the total conversation over time. Looking at the graph below we see that London Heathrow tops the competition with 38% of the conversation, while Manchester had by far the fewest mentions at only 8%.
These are not surprising findings given that Heathrow is the UK and Europe’s busiest airport, and Manchester is the only airport out of the five not located in London, the UK’s most populous city. What is interesting in this scenario, however, is Luton Airport. While it falls last in terms of passenger traffic, it came in second highest in terms of social conversation with 28% of total mentions. This could be a sign that, while less busy than the other airports, Luton offers a more memorable airport experience.
Using Crimson Hexagon’s sentiment analysis, which allows us to go beyond general volume of mentions to see the feelings behind them, we are able to analyse this further.
As you can see in the graph above, Manchester incited the most positive conversation overall, while Gatwick elicited the most unfavourable feedback, being the only airport out the five to receive more negative mentions than positive. What’s interesting here is that while Manchester airport is the least talked about of the UK’s airports, it appears to be providing the most positive airport experience. Luton, while it came second highest in terms of amount of conversation, in terms of sentiment it fell dead middle of the pack and was pretty evenly split in positive to negative sentiment. This is a signal that perhaps while some people are having a good experience at Luton, an equal number are having a bad experience, and that Luton airport should work on offering a more consistent passenger experience.
We are able to drill into these feelings even further with the platform’s emotion analysis, which allows us to see not only whether people are experiencing positive or negative emotions, but exactly what kind of emotions they are feeling.


Joy and anger were the biggest overarching emotions for all airports, with passengers at Stansted reporting the most joy and passengers at Gatwick reporting the most of anger.

Fear was also quite prominent among passengers at all five airports. When we looked at passenger posts, we found these feelings of fear stemmed mostly from a fear of flying and fear of the threat of terrorism.


We, however, also found, especially in the case of terrorism, that these fearful mentions were only noticeable when something of that nature had happened recently.
Gatwick vs. Heathrow: The Great Runway Debate
Finally, we can’t talk about airports in the UK without touching on what is being called ‘The Great Runway Debate’. In 2013, a five-member panel from the Airports Commission announced that after much research it had been determined that London needed an additional runway to help handle traveler capacity and secure the UK’s position as an economic power and international hub for aviation. Both Heathrow and Gatwick Airports submitted proposals and aggressively campaigned for this new runway, and this summer the Airport Commission announced its official endorsement for Heathrow to receive it. We’ve heard the commissions decision, now we’re curious to hear what the public had to say on the topic.
Looking at the emotional analysis for the airports below the overarching emotion for both is anger, followed distantly by fear and sadness. While Heathrow scored higher in feelings of fear and sadness, Gatwick outscored Heathrow significantly when it came to anger.
When we looked further into this, we found that these feelings of anger centered around frustration as to why the airports want a new runway when they couldn’t handle the ones they have efficiently at present. These feelings stemmed from delays, flight cancellations, lost baggage etc.
When we compare the the world clouds for each, these feelings of frustration are solidified even more, with language like delayed, delay, problem, waiting, cancelled, etc showing up prominently in both.
While this research only scratches the surface of the public opinion on this debate, it’s clear both airports have room for improvement. However, Heathrow seems to have a slight edge over Gatwick when it come to keeping its travellers happy, and perhaps is a reason why the commission decided to grant the runway to Heathrow.
This is only a small snapshot of the UK airport landscape, but we can already see that travellers have a very strong response to their experiences at each airport. It is also clear that although some airports in the UK are doing better than others, none of the airports are really ‘nailing it’ in terms of customer satisfaction. There are still plenty of opportunities for airports to be more engaged in and responsive to consumer conversations about their airport experiences.
If you found this interesting, check our latest e-book on the European airlines industry, Who Owns The Skies?: Using Social Analytics To Compare Europe’s Largest Airlines now!

Request a Demo

Ready to transform your business?

Get a walkthrough of Crimson Hexagon and learn how consumer insights can help you make better business decisions.