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Sir Gilbert Thompson: Knight who went from baggage handler to aviation legend

The death of Sir Gilbert Thompson, airport CEO

Sir Gilbert Thompson, who left public elementary school in Belfast aged 14 and began his working life as a baggage handler at Aldergrove, has died after a fairytale career as the chief executive of Manchester Airport. He was 83.

"Gilbert's was a spectacular success story," says Dorothy Thompson, widow of his brother, Ivan. "Straight out of a little seat of learning in Donegall Pass, he worked for a year in the office of Noble, the coal people, before moving to the international airport."

The man from Prospect Street in Belfast, who was always determined to rise above his lowly position with British Airways, is today credited with guiding the Manchester complex to its booming international status.

He was CEO in Manchester for 12 years from 1981, after being head-hunted from BA, with whom by this time he had become a general manager.

Sir Gilbert's crowning moment – the one that earned him his knighthood – came in 1986 when the airport, now owned by the 10 town councils in the district, had an extension to terminal one opened and terminal two launched by Princess Diana.

His legacy today is a flourishing airport; a jewel in the crown, which he transformed from a small regional complex into a major player in aviation.

Always with the full support of his wife of 58 years, Dorothy, with whom he was living in retirement in London, Sir Gilbert was recognised as a charming boss, yet one with an obsession about cleanliness.

His weekly tours of the various areas were a feature of his time at Manchester.

"He leaves a wonderful legacy behind him," says Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley and Broughton.

"The airport continues to boom and grow and this year provided a £14.5m windfall for its council owners."

Sir Gilbert, who will be buried at St Mary Church of England in Winkfield, Windsor on Saturday, is survived by Dorothy and daughters Shirley and Fiona and five grandchildren.

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