TAG Farnborough Airport shows the way for Chinese business aviation

 - April 15, 2014, 10:00 AM
With its rich history of innovation, Farnborough Airport has also forged a pathway to the future as a dedicated business aviation hub. “All the rest are hybrids,” said TAG Farnborough CEO Brandon O’Reilly, referring to other UK airports serving the London market.

Trying to get business aviation to take root in China is no easy task, but many Chinese delegations have made their way in recent years to see TAG Farnborough Airport, according to CEO Brandon O’Reilly. The airport is unique in the UK in being dedicated to business aviation and focusing on quality, to the extent it sticks to one FBO, also run by TAG Aviation. It also has a distinctive, futuristic look with its wave hangars and matching, futuristic-looking control tower.

The airfield has a long and illustrious history as a center for UK aerospace excellence. One of the country’s first airfields, it hosted the first British powered flight in 1908, made by Samuel Cody. Later it became home to the Royal Aircraft Establishment, and is now well known as the home of the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch, and the biennial Farnborough International Airshow.

Swiss group TAG took over the airfield, which is some 35 miles southwest of London and 15 miles from Heathrow along excellent motorway links, in 2003 on a 99-year lease and acquired the freehold in 2007. Planning permission had been granted in October 2000 for a new terminal, hangars and control tower in what would be an investment of more than £100 million ($160 million), after the British government designated the airport as its preferred location for business aviation in the 1990s.

O’Reilly told AIN, “This is an airport that’s unique in and around London, as it’s just for business aviation–all the rest are hybrids.” This is true of airports such as Luton and Stansted and even Oxford, but not so true of London Biggin Hill, although the latter does allow flying schools and other FBOs to operate there unlike Farnborough.

“We are the sole FBO [operator] and control it to the quality we think our customers expect,” said O’Reilly. “Everything is very responsive here.”

Recounting the recent history, he said, “The buildings, runway extension, taxiway improvements and 240,000-sq-ft, wave-shaped hangars and terminal building were all mostly completed by 2007, with more hangar and ramp space being added just before the 2012 Olympics.”

One thing Farnborough can boast is “a significant number of the over 50 [metric] ton type of aircraft, airliner sized.” Growth in movements was “45 percent 2012 over 2011–helped specifically by the Olympics–and we increased another 8 percent over that in 2013,” said O’Reilly. “And the first quarter of this year outstripped the first quarter of 2013…so 2014 has kicked off very well.” He said the airport noted in particular “an increase in movements from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Beijing…we have seen more Chinese coming in. I believe they particularly appreciate the speed, discretion and no-fuss approach.”

At ABACE last year O’Reilly stressed the importance of links with Asia. “With Asia’s economic significance continuing to grow on the global stage, business aviation has an increasingly important role to play in providing point-to-point connections between business centers in Asia and Europe, particularly where commercial aviation does not provide timely and direct service,” he said, adding that in 2012 TAG Farnborough Airport handled flights to and from 835 destinations worldwide, which was “more than three times the number of destinations served by scheduled airlines from other London airports.”

The airport is not particularly busy for its size and so life proceeds at a civilized pace, ideal for business aviation operations. It means that for arrivals and departures, passengers have hassle-free access between the terminal and their aircraft.

However, to improve the passenger experience even further, the airport is investing in more infrastructure changes that will see a new entrance created to the airfield, O’Reilly told AIN. It is also hoping that annual movements will double over the next few years, so having a dedicated entrance “for customers and crew” will help accommodate that increase in activity.

Growth in movements “is permitted on a sliding scale up to 50,000 by 2019, and we’re operating at around 25,000 movements now,” said O’Reilly, who admitted, “That’s been static for a couple of years, but the mix of aircraft has changed–we have seen larger aircraft taking a larger amount of the capacity.” Although TAG has failed to lift the movement cap completely, this is certainly not an issue just yet. There are no problems with slots and the airport is open 0700 to 2200 on weekdays, and 0800 to 2000 at weekends and on Bank Holidays.

For passengers and aircraft owners/operators alike, the focus is on quality of service, and the time it takes to embark and disembark and be on your way. “You can drive your car out to the aircraft…and the immigration officer meets you on arrival. Customers tell us they like the swift service,” commented O’Reilly.

Operators meanwhile can take advantage of TAG Farnborough Engineering, or companies such as GAMA Aviation, which can also offer MRO services. In addition TAG has built the Aviator Hotel for those wishing to stay at the airport.

As another part of the new development plan, the airport has acquired a building that it is bringing into the airport boundary, so that its operations will be based there–leaving “just the front line employees in the terminal.” This will free up space in the terminal building, which is to be “re-profiled and refurbished for the next generation of travellers.”

The airport is also aiming to streamline operations with an application for a larger region of controlled airspace, which will allow for better-defined arrival and departure routes. “The public consultation is open until May 2, said O’Reilly. “It would enable environmental improvements, such as allowing aircraft to climb out more quickly, and to remain higher on the approach, which will also improve safety.” While aircraft owners at local light aviation and gliding airfields, such as Fairoaks Airport and Lasham Airfield, are likely to resist the formal Airspace Change Proposal, it is believed that with the projected increase in movements at Farnborough the UK CAA will allow it in some form, even if only to improve separation from light aircraft on a safety case.

It is little surprise then that TAG Farnborough Airport has been named “International FBO of the Year” by AIN for seven consecutive years, based on reader polls (O’Reilly has been running the airport for eight years). At ABACE, the company is exhibiting at Booth H218 with its sister TAG Group company, TAG Aviation Asia, which managed 44 aircraft out of Hong Kong, said O’Reilly. “We’re the biggest out there, especially of larger aircraft,” he added while speaking to AIN from Farnborough before the show.

So will the Farnborough airport model be recreated in China? O’Reilly pointed to the large amount of interest it received at the last two ABACE events, and at events before that. “Each time we’ve been to ABACE I’ve had representatives from local government from various parts of China and they all ask about the costs and benefits of building something like Farnborough. They’re quite aware of Farnborough [Airport] already. It’s no exaggeration that we must have hosted 15 delegations from Chinese Provinces–and another, from Guangzhou Province–is coming shortly.”