Business airports practise their winning smiles

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Business aviation in the UK is set for a busy year in 2012, according to Brandon O’Reilly, CEO of TAG Farnborough Airport. The Olympics follow closely on the heels of the Diamond Jubilee from 2 to 5 June, celebrating the Queen’s 60 years on the throne, and the Farnborough Airshow on 14-15 July.

“The Jubilee celebrations will bring in heads of state and we’ll pick up some of that. The Olympics also presents an opportunity for us to showcase our service delivery,” O’Reilly says.

Farnborough has a significant share of the traffic passing through the 11 main business aviation airports serving south-east England. Historically, however, it has been limited to 28,000 aircraft movements, including just 5,000 at weekends. Last year the government approved a phased increase to 50,000 movements per year through to 2019, with 8,900 weekend movements. “We were running the risk of being the airport that said ‘no’. But in 2012 we are allowed 37,000 movements, which gives us plenty of headroom,” says O’Reilly.

The timing of the Olympics is counter-cyclical because it falls in months that are generally quiet for business aviation. July and August will be no heavier than “a busy June”, he adds. Farnborough has been allocated ample slots to meet demand and is not expecting to have to hire in special short-term personnel.

Given that its planning consent is for A320s, BBJs and B737s with a maximum takeoff weight of 80 tonnes, Farnborough for practical purposes is an all-business jet airport. Advance bookings, mainly from the US, starting coming in as early as last October, well ahead of most of the other airports on London’s outer perimeter. This is despite the fact that Farnborough is diametrically opposite the main Olympic site in Stratford, east London.

While O’Reilly recognises the importance of good onward connections to London, he does not believe that landing as close as possible to the glamour track and field events is a priority for everyone. “Companies will run events related to the Games, rent a country house and do business from there,” he says.

At less than 30km from the Olympic Park, Biggin Hill is the nearest airport except London City and is less restricted than its larger neighbour, which has to accommodate both scheduled and business traffic.

Eurocontrol figures for 2011 indicate that Biggin Hill achieved the strongest growth in business aviation traffic of any London airport at 13.3%. Business development manager Robert Walters says high-end jet aircraft of more than 20 tonnes, such as Gulfstream, Global, Challenger and Falcon models, saw growth of more than 30%.

Biggin Hill increased its corporate market share to 15% in December, behind only Luton (33%) and Farnborough (24%), which are both arguably less well located for day visitors to the Olympics.

The airport believes there will be many day visitors to the Games, due to cost and the shortage of hotel accommodation in London. Sponsors will fly in different groups of customers and staff each day to attend events which in many cases will go on well into the evening – and may be surprised to find slots are in short supply at airports whose main business is scheduled flights, comments MD Jenny Munro.

However, Biggin Hill itself will not have the flexibility it wanted after Bromley Council rejected two proposals for an extension of opening hours during the Olympics. “All we wanted [in the revised submission] was five extra hours per week for seven weeks,” Munro says. “We’re disappointed because we managed to motivate the silent majority. We went from 5% to 40% local support during the consultation period.”

There are slots available between 2100 and 2200, but only to allow locally based aircraft to return to Biggin Hill. The airport had hoped for an extra window until 2300, but even under these constraints it had already booked in 285 aircraft for the Olympics by mid-January, including a lot of American traffic – thus approaching half of the 680 additional flights it expects to handle during the period.

Munro estimates that more than 30 companies based at Biggin Hill will benefit from providing services for visitors to the Games, including engineering companies, caterers, car hire firms and shuttle services connecting to the rail network. “Bromley had a chance to be a gateway – and still does, but now in a more limited capacity. What revenue could have been generated for the local economy will now never be known,” she says.

If airspace and slots start to look inadequate as the event approaches, Munro thinks UK plc could still make a region-wide decision to extend opening hours at business airports. “But that will be a problem for us because of the need to resource it. Staff would have to be recruited, vetted and trained. We’re probably at the point of no return already,” she says.

There are three FBOs at Biggin Hill. The airport itself provides an FBO service and plans a roster of “meet and greet” staff as well as strengthened immigration teams and baggage handlers. The two independents on site, Jet Aviation and Rizon Jet, are making similar arrangements although all the companies will be redeploying management at what is normally a quiet time of year.

Even during the Olympics not every day will be equally hectic, Walters points out. “It won’t be like the opening ceremony, the closing ceremony or the final of the 100 metres the whole time. Some planes will be parked here for three weeks and will not have to be repositioned, as we will be taking a runway out of commission.”

Jet Aviation plans to relocate from its current FBO facility at Biggin Hill when refurbishment of the former Bluestream Aviation premises is completed at the end of April. Blustream went bankrupt in 2008.

The investment increases the company’s footprint nicely in time for the Olympics – “a great opportunity for all of us,” says Chris Webb, general manager of Jet Aviation UK. The current FBO will either be dedicated to a specific client or remodelled as a crew quarters, he explains.

The worldwide Jet Aviation network will help promote Biggin Hill as a convenient Olympic gateway. “It’s hard selling against Luton and Farnborough, but people are wising up to what this airport has to offer,” Webb says. “Luton is open 24 hours, but our ramp is much less congested. This could be a real springboard for us.”

Rizon Jet opened an exceptionally well appointed VIP terminal and FBO with multiple lounges, a business suite and boardroom in May 2011. Owned by Qatar-based GSSG Holdings, the £18 million facility is geared to handle anyone up to VVIPs and Middle Eastern royalty, says director Allan McGreal.

He says the Biggin Hill location has “strategic relevance to the City”, and the view north from the third-floor observation area underlines the point, with Canary Wharf and the office blocks in London’s traditional business quarter clearly visible.

As with all the airports on the perimeter of London, the onward journey for those travelling direct to an Olympic venue will be a key consideration. Biggin Hill has prepared an Olympic planner showing the dates and locations of all the events and the transport options from the airport, including a transfer time of 6-10 minutes to London Heliport in Battersea, a 20-minute road trip to connect with the Javelin rail shuttle at Ebbsfleet, or a limousine service all the way into Stratford that it is calculated will take no more than 45 minutes.

Biggin Hill’s management looked into the possibility of setting up a temporary heliport at Ebbsfleet to further streamline the process and received official approval for the scheme, but ruled it out after assessing the infrastructure work and staff recruitment – including additional immigration officers – that was necessary.

High-end visitors would still have needed to take the Javelin train for the 10-minute final leg to the Olympic Park, and would not have received the preferential treatment they might expect. “The product wasn’t properly end-to-end,” Munro says.


Crosshead: Last-minute rush

Despite being open for business round the clock during the Olympics, Cambridge Airport had seen less than 2% take-up of available slots as of late December.

“Tour companies are only just beginning to understand the ticket allocations they’ve got,” says airport director Archie Garden. “We naively expected more corporate-sponsored holiday charters in the 20-50 seat bracket. But we’re all just waiting. I’m now convinced most bookings will be at the last minute, even depending on what nationalities are represented in the finals of the big events.”

With hotels fully booked and some events scheduled to run late into the evening, however, a day trip to the Olympics could be viable for the five UK regional airports with a 24/7 slot allocation (the others, apart from Cambridge, are Northolt, Lydd, Manston and Southend).

Cambridge is under an hour by road from the Olympic Stadium and Water Park. “US and European operators may not know how close to the Olympic site we are. Guests departing late-finishing events can still get to us before midnight,” Garden says.

Usually the airport shuts at 2100, but during the Games it will offer full service from 0600 to 2400 and has 20 slots per hour. Between 0000 and 0600 there are still eight slots an hour, though surcharges will apply because of the extra ATC cover needed.

Like most of its rivals, Cambridge has introduced a deposit system to try to prevent block booking. “It’s a deposit, not a fee. It’s non-refundable but will go towards the landing fee. There will be no increase in fees,” Garden explains.

Regional and business airports to the north of London such as Cambridge and Oxford expect to benefit during the Olympics because routes in and out are less impacted by the city’s central controlled zone.

Cambridge is especially keen to promote its services since it has been fully open for corporate traffic only since January 2011. Owned privately by the Marshall family, the airport acted before then primarily as a gateway for the Marshall aerospace business and never marketed itself for general aviation, though it did occasionally handle VIP flights.

The airport has invested in a new GPS approach to complement its ILS system and Garden says: “GPS benefits incoming aircraft from the US particularly, as they are familiar with this at home and it gives them more flexibility.”

Cambridge also has a long-established flying school and he adds: “We’re probably the only viable outlet for small VFR aircraft that operate without flight plans.”

London Oxford Airport will be allowed to operate between 0600 and 2400 for the Olympics and “may have extended opening hours of forever,” says James Dillon-Godfray, business development director. The frequency of traffic at the shoulder periods is limited and after 2300 is especially low, so he expects little adverse reaction from the local community.

The airport installed primary and secondary radar in October. Now completing commissioning, the new equipment is scheduled to come on line in April.

Oxford has six IFR slots per hour. “This was decided ahead of the radar installation, but we hope to renegotiate once CAA and NATS see it and are comfortable with it,” Dillon-Godfray says.

The airport currently sees around 6,000 business aircraft movements a year, 15% of its overall aviation activity, and the figure grew by more than 12% last year. One reason was an increase of up to 21% in the runway’s licensed lengths at the beginning of 2011, enabling longer-range private jets such as the Global and G550 to undertake commercial transatlantic flights. Runway strength was also reassessed, making Oxford suitable for use by heavier regional jets such as the Embraer 190 and Avro RJ.

Oxford also completed 17,800sq metres of new high-strength apron last year and resurfaced some of its existing surfaces, doubling parking capacity.

Located outside the congested London Terminal Manoeuvring Area, and with costs that are claimed to be lower than most alternative airports in the region, Oxford expects to take a substantial share of the anticipated threefold boost in business aviation traffic during the Olympics.

Most international visitors will opt to stay in London’s West End, one hour’s drive away, but Oxford is a popular base in its own right and boasts several thousand hotel rooms of up to five-star standard, at better value than central London. There is crew accommodation within just five minutes of the airport and bedroom facilities were recently added in the terminal building itself.

Oxford received its first Olympic bookings in November but Dillon-Godfray expects the real fight for slots to start just six weeks before the Games. Peak demand for flights out of the UK is easy to predict, he says: 13 August, the day after the closing ceremony.