Civil aircraft slot allocation at Northolt questioned

 - September 12, 2006, 11:28 AM

UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) Police are making inquiries into the terms under which slots at London’s Northolt Airport are allocated to civil aircraft operators. A police spokesman said it has not yet been determined whether a formal investigation will be initiated and indicated that this decision might take several weeks.

“We are liaising with MoD officials over allegations relating to civilian contracts at RAF Northolt,” said the spokesman.

For several years, NetJets has been registered as a based operator at Northolt through an arrangement with a private company called Northolt Business Aviation (NBA). The MoD Police has not confirmed whether or not this is the “civilian contract” under investigation.

According to a NetJets official statement: “NetJets Europe is a fixed-based operator at RAF Northolt and is treated no differently from any other. As a fixed-base operator, NetJets Europe is allocated a set number of slots. For its remaining slots NetJets applies and has the same access as any other operator.”

NetJets started using Northolt as a base in December 2002, under an agreement with NBA, which occupies the airfield’s Hangar 311 under a five-year lease from Defence Estates–the section of the MoD that manages government-owned defense real estate. The hangar was formerly occupied by three corporate flight
departments–Granada, UPC and Dravidian–that have since either closed or relocated.

According to Defence Estates, the terms of NBA’s lease do not allow it to sublet space to other companies. The terms of NBA’s arrangement with NetJets for the basing of its aircraft at Northolt have not been made public.

The lease on Hangar 311 will expire at the end of November 2007. There is no
automatic right to renew and the lease will be advertised openly.

Former Granada chief pilot Peter Riley runs NBA, and he confirmed that the company essentially hosts NetJets as a based operator and that it is on this basis that the fractional operator is able to access a certain number of slots each year.

Riley told AIN that he is not aware of any inquiries by the MoD Police and that they have not contacted him. He added that the RAF has been fastidious about the terms under which he does business at Northolt and insisted that there is no scope for the slot-allocation system to be abused.

Missed Opportunity?

Riley tried to persuade several leading business aviation services groups, including Jet Aviation, to bid to run an FBO at Northolt. He said that he had implored the business aviation community to make greater use of Northolt as an alternative to the increasingly restricted Heathrow Airport.

He added that all the companies he approached decided not to bid for space at Northolt because they found the RAF’s legal restrictions on operators excessively burdensome. He subsequently formed NBA to bid for the lease on Hangar 311 himself and feels that his experience with NetJets has proved that the military airfield is a viable option for business aviation. He suggested that some of the companies that privately complain about lack of access to Northolt slots missed an opportunity to establish themselves as based operators.

NetJets’ status as a based operator assures it of 200 slots per month–slightly more than one-third of the annual limit of 7,000 civil aircraft slots imposed by the Ministry of Defence. The UK General Aviation Manufacturers and Traders Association challenged this arrangement in spring 2003 because its members complained that during busy months it had become almost impossible to secure ad hoc slots.

The problem had been compounded by the fact that, at the time, RAF dispatchers did not understand that the civil slots were supposed to be apportioned gradually throughout the year so that the annual quota would not be exhausted too quickly. This practice meant that in some months no more than around 50 ad hoc slots were available to non-based operators, while NetJets was still assured of its 200 slots.

Other business aircraft operators, including executive charter firms, have long complained that NetJets has a disproportionately large number of annual permitted slots. However, none has been willing to go on the record with this criticism, in some cases because they operate charter flights on behalf of NetJets.

New Handling Service

Meanwhile, on July 1 the London City Airport Jet Centre took over the franchise to provide handling for business aircraft at Northolt, under a three-year contract from the MoD. Northolt Handling, a subsidiary of Regional Airports, which also owns and operates London’s Biggin Hill and Southend airports, previously held this contract.

London City Airport Jet Centre operates the Northolt FBO through a new subsidiary called Northolt Jet Centre Premier Passenger Services. London City Airport is located on the east side of the UK capital, about six miles from the City of London financial district and two miles from the new Docklands business district (including Canary Wharf). Northolt is on the west side of the city, about 12 miles from downtown and an attractive alternative to Heathrow Airport, which is now hard for business aircraft to access.

Northolt can receive larger aircraft, such as the Boeing Business Jet, that are not yet cleared to use London City’s 5.5-degree steep approach. The air force base has one 5,540-foot runway, and standard operating hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays. Based operators have generally been given greater flexibility to arrive and depart outside these hours than ad hoc users.

Jet Centre is planning to upgrade the Northolt lounges and crew facilities shortly. It has already improved catering provision at the site. The company, which provides handling services to NetJets, had no comment on the allocation of slots at Northolt.