THERE are some big employers in Sussex – Amex in Brighton, Rolls-Royce in Goodwood and the Body Shop in Littlehampton to name but three.

But the best place by far for jobs is Gatwick Airport which in good times has more than 20,000 staff.

Crawley was a funny spot to stick an airport between the wars with plenty of competition from rivals such as Croydon and Shoreham and lots of fog and frost.

And it took some time to soar with the official opening by the Queen taking place as recently as 1958. It became the largest single runway airport in the world and only Heathrow was bigger in Britain.

Going right back to early days, Gatwick had a secure relationship with British Airways, the national carrier which dubbed itself the world’s favourite airline. At the same time, it encouraged smaller firms to base themselves there and some of them have also turned out to be big.

Sir Freddie Laker thrived with his cheerful cut price flights until the major operators ruthlessly saw him off.

British Caledonian lasted longer and Sir Richard Branson started a firm relationship with Gatwick for his Virgin planes.

For many years British Airways seemed invincible. When Gatwick formed a second terminal BA almost took it over completely. But BA suffered when a new brand of cut-price airlines started with EasyJet the leading light. It soon supplanted BA as the major operator, taking over a terminal.

Gatwick had some other intractable problems. It wanted a second runway but could not get this past the Government which opted for another runway at Heathrow instead.

Environmental campaigners constantly claimed that Gatwick was in the wrong place, blighting nearby towns such as Crawley with noise and pollution. Neighbours were also persistent and managed to get a ban on night time flights implemented. But Gatwick was able to host a new generation of greener, quieter aircraft and there was even talk of developing planes powered by electricity.

Gatwick was early to forge rail links with London and with many towns in Sussex. It was quick to have its own station right next to the South Terminal and its own operator, the Gatwick Express. The station now looks small and shabby while the fares structure is awkward and confusing. But work is well under way to provide a replacement. Building the M23 and M25 improved access by road

There is no doubt that Gatwick has served the South, and particularly Sussex, well. Crawley has consistently had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the county. Even Brighton and Hove, more than 20 miles away, sends more than a thousand people to earn their living at the airport.

Gatwick has been pretty smart at getting rid of competition or in managing to live with it. But along with all other airports and airlines, it is currently facing the worst foe ever. The virus crisis has grounded more planes than any other emergency ever and looks as if it will cause havoc even when the immediate carnage is over.

British Airways is sacking thousands of people and sees no hope of resuming at anything like its former state. There has also been talk of abandoning Gatwick altogether so that it can concentrate at Heathrow which would be a hammer blow for the Sussex airport.

It will be hard if not impossible to run profitable air services within the social distancing rules.

Trains will be far better equipped to do this, being larger and more flexible, and the new high speed link from London to the north will provide stiff competition to domestic flights from Gatwick. It is already being built. Heathrow and Gatwick are also lagging behind some of the continental airports such as those serving Amsterdam and Frankfurt. The gap is getting wider.

Gatwick has always relished a contest and has usually come out as the winner. But this latest scorching attack may be too hot to handle. Crawley has already been earmarked as the town which will lose most from the virus and this will also affect other areas of Sussex.

Even people who don’t like flying may be sad to see all those grounded planes at Gatwick and the two terminals strangely silent. Already there have been casualties in the last few years with Thomas Cook and Flybe among the big names to go. The virus does not discriminate and affects all airlines equally. Only the fittest will combat its malign influence and win.

And Gatwick, which until recently seemed impervious to damage, will have to be at its brilliant best simply to survive let alone thrive.