RAF Northolt mulls plan to boost bizav activity

 - January 8, 2008, 11:13 AM

Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) is considering plans to allow 30- or 40 percent more business aviation traffic at the Royal Air Force’s London-area Northolt base. At the same time, newly formed Northolt Business Aviation is preparing to offer unused air force hangar space to corporate operators.

The MoD is now contemplating an application to increase annual civil movements permitted at the airfield from 7,000 to 9,000 or 10,000. The basis for the increase, which has been requested by civil operators and service companies active at the airfield, is that the number of military movements at the site has declined since 10 years ago, when the current limit was set. The airport is located just 12 mi west of London, about three miles north of Heathrow Airport and close to the M25 beltway.

Local politicians and residents have been steadfastly opposed to increased civil traffic at Northolt. This opposition is being countered by the argument that modern business aircraft are significantly quieter than the military transports that have used the airfield.

Rising demand for RAF Northolt as an alternative business aviation gateway to the UK capital cannot be met by current limits, with controllers having to ration slots so as not to exceed the 7,000-movement annual quota. Operators have complained that this rationing is handled in a somewhat irrational, bureaucratic way, rather than acknowledging that business aviation traffic tends to be lighter in the vacation months of July and August and allowing the movements to be spread more evenly over the busier months. At press time the annual slots quota for 2002 had been almost exhausted, forcing some operators to use alternatives such as Farnborough.

The RAF station commander at Northolt is actively encouraged by the MoD to generate commercial revenue from the base by using “irreducible spare capacity.” Crucially, he cannot increase the deployment of RAF personnel specifically to provide for civil operations. With the number of military operations progressively decreasing, this spare capacity is necessarily increasing. That said, with a possible war with Iraq looming it remains to be seen whether this might delay any plans to allow a larger civil aviation presence at the strategically located airfield.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Northolt Business Aviation, established two years ago by Peter Riley, former director of flight operations for UK media group Granada, has leased Northolt’s Hangar 311 from the UK government’s Defence Estates agency and has signed a deal that enables NetJets Europe to use the building as its forward operating base. As of early last month, the fractional provider has been operating some of its 38-aircraft fleet out of Northolt to take advantage of its proximity to central London. By July, the NetJets Europe fleet is set to rise to 60 aircraft.

Riley, a former RAF fighter pilot, told AIN that the NetJets activity should not constrain other business aviation flying at Northolt because the aircraft will rotate through the airfield as necessary, rather than being permanently based there. In fact, the total number of NetJets movements in and out of Northolt should probably decrease because the operator has previously had to resort to a lot of positioning flights to and from other London-area airports. By being nominally based at Northolt, it will benefit from preferential access to weekend slots and to the more economical civil aircraft fuel supply provided by Air BP.

NetJets is establishing its own JAR 145 maintenance operation at the base to support its own aircraft. Its overall European operation will continue to be managed from its headquarters in Lisbon, Portugal.

The Granada flight department had itself been based at Northolt until it was mothballed six months ago. The company is now trying to sell its 1987 Hawker 800.

Maintenance for other based and transient civil aircraft is available from Serco, which is bidding to provide support for the NetJets operations at Northolt. The JAR 145-certified operation already provides support for the two BAE 146s and six Hawkers operated by the Royal Air Force to transport members of Britain’s royal family, as well as government ministers and officials. This operation falls under the auspices of the RAF’s No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron, which was formed from the 1997 amalgamation of the Queen’s Flight (then based at RAF Benson) and 32 Squadron’s government flight department.

The MoD is planning to build a new hangar next to the Northolt operations building, which doubles as a terminal for business aviation. The new building would mainly house The Royal Squadron’s aircraft, but will offer additional capacity for corporate operators.

Separately, the RAF is evaluating possible replacement aircraft for the 146s and Hawkers. Options being considered include the Gulfstream V and Bombardier Global Express, both of which could provide significantly greater range than is possible with the existing fleet.

Ground handling for business aircraft is provided by Northolt Handling, a joint venture between Regional Airports (owner of London-area Biggin Hill and Southend Airports) and Serco under a four-year license that started in July 2001. It will provide handling for the NetJets aircraft and already provides other visiting operators with ad hoc covered aircraft parking in Northolt’s Hangars 5 and 6.

Slots at Northolt are available strictly by prior arrangement, with the official deadline for requests being 3:30 p.m. on the preceding day. In some instances, Northolt Handling is able to secure slots on somewhat shorter notice since it works with the RAF controllers on flight planning for civil movements.

Northolt Handling manager Robert Walters told AIN that the average number of movements each day is around 30, a number that peaked as high as 50 during busy periods last year. The FBO now has almost 150 regular customers.

The airfield’s official opening hours for civil flights are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays. Based operators can sometimes get permission for flights outside these hours and on weekends, provided the airfield is open for military operations at the time. When a slot is not available, Northolt Handling tries to redirect flights to its sister airports at Biggin Hill (12 mi southeast of London) and Southend (37 mi to the east and open 24/7).

Northolt’s main runway is 5,525 ft long, which allows larger business jets such as the Falcon 900 to take off fully loaded. Larger aircraft such as the Boeing Business Jet can also use the airfield, but are limited by pavement-strength issues to around a dozen movements per year.

Landing fees go directly to the RAF and are among the most costly in the London area. A GIV operator, for example, would pay around £1,100 ($1,700). RAF Northolt currently collects almost $2 million in civil landing fees annually and is ranked as one of Britain’s most commercially viable air force bases.

Handling fees are charged in the following four mtow categories: £90 ($140) for up to 10 metric tons (22,046 lb); £120 ($186) for between 10 and 20 metric tons (up to 44,092 lb); £150 ($233) for between 20 and 40 metric tons (up to 88,184 lb); and £180 ($279) for aircraft over 40 metric tons. The Northolt landing fee covers use of a ground power unit and lavatory service for the aircraft. The handling fee covers all other ground services.

Northolt Handling currently has three staff members besides Walters, and it is about to add another. Supplementary baggage handling can be provided by RAF personnel during busy periods. In addition to Serco, which now manages the RAF’s visiting aircraft servicing operation, line maintenance and repairs can be conducted by Jet Aviation, which dispatches mechanics from its Biggin Hill operation.

Visiting aircraft generally have to purchase fuel from RAF supplies at somewhat elevated prices. For based aircraft, and by special arrangement, fuel can be supplied by Air BP.