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By 1983, BAA was handling 50 million passengers a year through seven airports and was an attractive candidate for privatisation.
Payne welcomed the prospect of commercial freedom, but argued against suggestions that the business should be split up, with separate owners for each of the major airports.
His unit was flown into northern Burma at Myitkyina to provide engineering support for the American force there.
"Norman eats airlines," a BAA colleague once observed.
Revered by his own managers and well-regarded by a succession of transport ministers, Payne served as chairman of the Nationalised Industries' Chairmen's Group, and was at one stage tipped as a front-runner to run British Rail.
Although the site was 55 miles from central London, air traffic projections were alarming."The need for Maplin is imperative," Payne declared after he became chief executive of BAA in 1972.
Maplin was to have included a container port and a new town as well as an airport, but the economic crisis of 1973-74 put paid to the entire scheme.
He joined the firm of Sir Frederick Snow, becoming a partner in 1955 and serving as resident engineer for the main construction phase of Gatwick Airport between 19 – his reputation as a hard taskmaster had its origins in the story that, as project deadlines loomed, he demanded contractors' attendance at Sunday-morning site meetings.