New players enter bizav market in South of France

 - October 9, 2006, 11:51 AM

While the major airports of Cannes and Nice on the Côte d’Azur, the French Riviera, are stepping up business aviation activity, the smaller gateways of Toulon and Le Castellet are challenging the big boys in the competition to attract business aviation access to France’s wealthy Mediterranean coast.

Since 2003, Nice, France’s second largest commercial aviation gateway, and Cannes-Mandelieu, the country’s second- ranking business and private aviation airport after Paris Le Bourget, have been promoting business aviation in the region. The two airports, owned and operated by the Nice-Côte d’Azur Chamber of Commerce, share the same airspace. The airport at Nice is open 24 hours, while the one at Cannes operates from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the winter and 8 a.m. to sundown in the summer (as late as 9:45 p.m. in June).

Nice has longer runways (up to 9,711 feet) than Cannes (5,280 feet) and no limit on aircraft mtow, while aircraft at Cannes are restricted to an mtow of 48,500 pounds. Cannes claims 45 percent of market share up to this weight.

Eric Montariol, the head of business aviation at Nice airport, told AIN that during the last four years traffic has increased consistently after a slight dip be-tween 2000 and 2001. The 13,104 movements that year increased to 14,525 in 2002 and 15,862 a year later, with a major boost to 18,767 last year. Montariol expects the trend to continue.

Recent improvements in aircraft accommodation facilities include an increase in the number of dedicated parking spaces for business aircraft from 40 to 62 as well as new anti-noise concessions. The airport is examining establishing a dedicated business aviation terminal with more parking bays and adjoining pilot facilities. He said the major obstacle to expansion is the proximity of the airport to the community.

Two FBOs, Swissport Executive Aviation and Aviapartner Executive, provide services for business aviation at Nice. Swissport Executive Aviation, a joint venture between Swissport International and Universal Weather, handled its first flights from Nice in February 2001. Montariol said that the company handled 1,120 movements that year and 1,740 in 2002, its first full year of operations. That number increased to 2,200 a year later and leapt to 3,400 last year.

“Although we feared a drop in activity after 9/11, business continued to grow, helped by European on-ground security arrangements. Services for private aviation did not suffer the same losses as commercial aviation,” he said.

According to Jean Lozac’hmeur, executive director of Aviapartner, the airport’s biggest FBO, last year was a “very good year” for the company’s Nice operations, with around 8,700 aircraft arrivals. The FBO handles about 70 percent of business aviation traffic, with as many as 100 aircraft a day during events such as the Monaco Grand Prix. He said business aviation at Nice is growing fast and expects double-digit growth this year, a stark contrast with the 25- to 30-percent decrease in traffic during the first Gulf War.

Business Aviation in Cannes

Cannes-Mandelieu boasts almost a century of activity since aircraft flew into a meadow near the present airport in 1910.

The aerodrome opened to commercial flights in 1932, and Cannes became a stop on Air France’s first regular scheduled route from Paris. After World War II the runway was lengthened and Cannes was dedicated to general aviation, making it the “Le Bourget of the south” in 1967.

Head of marketing and statistics Umberto Vallino said traffic at the airport increased steadily from 8,169 movements in 2000 to 10,150 last year. The 15 jets and two turboprops based at Cannes account for about 20 percent of movements. Handling is not compulsory, but crews and paying clients have free access to dedicated cars and the lounges.

The airport’s April 2003 environmental charter pledges to reduce noise, air and water pollution; limits night flights; sets a weight limit of 48,500 pounds; and prohibits lengthening the runway. The airport is limited to four takeoffs and four landings per hour. Vallino said noise, not aircraft mtow, is the main problem at the airport.

The chamber of commerce is examining the possibility of building three or four hangars on the northern part of the airport but, Vallino emphasized, the airport will “not expand indefinitely, so we aim to maintain traffic at about 10,000 movements annually and concentrate on maintaining the quality of our FBO service to crews and passengers to remain one Europe’s top 10 FBOs. The challenge is to do everything possible to become Europe’s best FBO in 2007.”

Business aviation in the Côte d’Azur extends beyond Cannes and Nice and includes the growing gateways of Le Castellet, near Marseilles, and Toulon, which are carving out niche markets. Signature Flight Support began operations as the only FBO at the main terminal of Toulon-Hyères airport in January last year, moving in September to its new dedicated business aviation building, which includes private aircraft access and extensive passenger and crew facilities.

Signature’s Toulon operations manager, Bruno Hardy, said that the French navy, which owns the airport, is “very cooperative about the development of business aviation,” including round-the-clock operations. Last year traffic at the airport grew 59 percent, reaching 1,552 aircraft movements and 3,186 passengers.

Toulon has proved to be a “perfect destination for passengers heading to Saint Tropez,” he said. “Toulon Airport is only 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Saint Tropez, while Cannes and Nice are twice as far. Activity is strong, too, during big events such as the Monaco Grand Prix, the busiest day of the year, and the Cannes Film Festival. Allowing direct flights from North America has also enhanced activity.” He emphasized that parking is available to all business aircraft up to the size of the L-1011 TriStar and that helicopter and yacht connections are easy because of the short distance between Signature’s facility and the port of Hyères.

Smaller Airports Embrace New Technology

At Le Castellet Airport, 34 miles from Marseilles, the operator is adding a new DME to make the airport more attractive to business aviation traffic. Le Castellet is trying to cash in on the weak development of business aviation at the airport at Marseilles. The new landing equipment, under development with local civil aviation authorities–DAC Sud Est–will be operational by October.

Although the DME is a nonprecision approach device, pilots will note an improvement over the current equipment. The airport today has a lighted runway and a PAPI. With the DME, crews will be able to land at night without having to perform a daytime checkout flight ahead of time. The landing procedure will be available on Le Castellet’s Web site.

In 1999, a company owned by British Formula One racing tycoon Bernie Ecclestone purchased both the airport and the nearby Paul Ricard racing circuit. The airport, which includes a fully equipped FBO, opened to air traffic in January 2002. Its 5,741-foot runway can accommodate aircraft up to the size of the Airbus A319, with parking available in four hangars. According to a spokeswoman, the airport handled more than 2,200 jet, turboprop and piston aircraft movements and about 750 helicopter movements in 2003. Although it has the advantage of 24-hour operations, its geographical location subjects it to the southeast’s strong Mistral winds, and notice of arrivals is recommended for night flights.

Additional reporting by Thierry Dubois.