Germany’s state-owned airspace controller is vying with its principal British rival to land a 10-year deal to run air traffic services at the UK’s second-busiest airport.
Sky News has learnt that London Gatwick’s shareholders have been running a secret process to appoint a partner to run the airport’s air traffic control tower until 2025.
Sources said the final two shortlisted bidders were the UK’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS) and Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS).
A decision is expected to made imminently, with an announcement about the winner possible as early as Friday.
The contest represents the biggest UK airport to consider moving oversight of its airspace to a foreign administrator to date.
The Civil Aviation Authority’s approval would be required to approve such a change.
Gatwick handles 36 million passengers annually and has 55 air traffic movements every hour, making it the busiest single-runway airport in the world.
An aviation industry source said the tender process to run Gatwick’s air traffic services would prioritise capability ahead of costs.
The contract will be awarded at a time when expansion at London’s capacity-constrained airports is a serious political issue.
An independent commission chaired by Sir Howard Davies, the former head of the Financial Services Authority, is due to make a final recommendation about the location of new runways after next year’s general election.
If Gatwick is selected as the venue for an additional runway, construction would begin during the operation of the new air traffic control contract.
The competition between NATS and DFS is intriguing because the German group was bidding a year ago to buy a big shareholding in its British counterpart.
DFS lost out to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, a UK pension fund, despite tabling a higher offer for a stake in The Airline Group, which controls 41.9% of NATS.
If the German group was to win the Gatwick contract, which will come into effect when NATS’ existing deal expires next year, it would be seen as disappointing news for the UK operator.
Last month, it emerged that top managers at NATS had had bonuses withheld because of a December computer failure which caused hundreds of flights to be delayed or grounded.
NATS handles 2.2 million flights and 220 million passengers in UK airspace every year.
Gatwick could not be reached for comment on Thursday.