It’s quite literally fit for a queen and no more than a 40-minute drive to the heart of London, and these days the Royal Air Force’s Northolt base has capacity to spare for business aircraft. Although civil aircraft movements are limited to a ceiling of 7,000 per year, much more often than not it is perfectly possible to get a slot at the secure and conveniently situated airfield in the UK capital’s northwestern suburbs.
Northolt has become something of a secret too well kept in recent years, with many operators wrongly assuming that slots are too hard to come by to make it a worthwhile option for flights into London. This perception is based partly on recent construction work at the site that has resulted in some airfield closures, but this is now complete (including improvements to the taxiways and lighting).
Fractional ownership group NetJets established a maintenance base at Northolt in 2002 and by virtue of this arrangement can use up to 2,400 movements annually–giving rise to the belief that it dominated access to the airfield at the expense of other operators. But with its flight activity markedly down in the current economic climate, and both executive charter and corporate traffic generally reduced, there is much more capacity at Northolt than many operators imagine, according to Sqn Ldr Graham Thorpe.
Northolt is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and public holidays. Operators need to apply for access by 2 p.m. on the day before a planned flight, or by 2 p.m. on Friday for a weekend or Monday movement. In practice the RAF has flexibility to grant case-by-case access with shorter notice. The main consideration is whether there will be time to meet the requirement to send details of the passenger and crew manifest to the UK Borders Agency and the Special Branch police, and this can depend on where the flight is coming from and the nationality of those on board.
Applications for slots need to be submitted to Future Operations via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or fax (44 208 8338840). Thorpe’s operations team is in the process of developing a special Web site for civil operators that will make provision for online booking (www.northolt-airfield.com). He told AIN that there is sufficient slack in the system to allow the airport to accommodate the inevitable changes to departures and arrivals most of the time within reasonable margins of an operator’s requested slot times.
“The lion’s share of the slots are available to all civil operators,” said Thorpe. He emphasized that Northolt does not permit NetJets to hoard unused slots each month (although the company can carry over 10 percent of its allocation of 200). Many of the company’s unused slots can be released back into the overall pool. Several years ago slot allocation had to be carefully rationed throughout
the year to ensure that they did not run out, but these days there is reasonable availability most of the time. The total number of civil movements last year did not exceed 6,500.
The airfield is home to the RAF’s 32 (The Royal) Squadron, which provides flights for members of Britain’s Royal Family as well as for senior military officials. The squadron operates six British Aerospace HS125s, a pair of BAE 146s and three AgustaWestland A109s. Two of these aircraft are currently on deployment in Afghanistan.
In addition to its royal role, Northolt sometimes also receives special government flights, such as the support team for President Barack Obama’s visit to London for the G20 summit meeting last year. As such, it offers a level of discretion, security and convenience that is hard to match at the London-area’s busier civil airports–meeting the latest NASP civil aviation security standards.
The adjoining A40 highway offers rapid transfers both into the city center and westward into the surrounding counties such as Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire and Surrey. The airfield’s location is particularly well suited for drives into London’s West End.
Northolt’s 5,500-foot runway has a pavement classification number of 27, meaning that it can receive aircraft up to the size of a Boeing Business Jet but not at maximum weight. Effectively the all-up weight limit is just under 150,000 pounds.
A London City Alternative
The airfield cannot accept civil aircraft carrying 30 or more passengers, and it also does not take single-engine types. It is equipped with a Category I ILS and, unlike London City Airport on the east side of the capital, does not have a steep approach or a requirement for aircraft and crews to be specially approved to operate there.
In the past questions have surfaced over the long-term future of Northolt, but these have now been resolved, with the UK Ministry of Defence opting to relocate other military units to the base. Also, regardless of whether or not construction of the planned third runway begins at nearby Heathrow Airport, the Department of Transport has committed to Northolt remaining open to civil traffic, and air traffic management planning for the area will be conducted on this basis. In 2002, the Ministry of Defence was considering the case for increasing the civil movement limit to 10,000 per annum but this does not appear to be on the current agenda.
Landing fees for a Cessna Citation Mustang light jet are £229.02 ($337.88) and parking fees beyond the first two hours would be charged at £7.40 ($12.21) per hour. For a Bombardier Global Express XRS the landing fee would be £2,061.60 ($3,401.64) and parking is charged at £23.87 ($39.24) per hour.
The landing fee includes standard handling and passenger support provided by RAF personnel, as well as aircraft services such as water and toilet. Operators can opt to pay extra for a commercially operated premium passenger handling service currently provided by the Northolt Jet Centre, which is a subsidiary of London City Airport’s Jet Centre FBO.
The premium service offers the use of a discrete passenger lounge although the aim is always to smooth passengers straight to the aircraft for a swift departure. Crews have their own lounge adjoining Northolt’s operations office, where they have access to notams and meteorological information. Air BP provides fueling services.
The airfield has ample ramp space for aircraft parking and is generally not constrained. Limited hangar accommodation can be made available subject to availability on the day.
Northolt’s Rich Heritage
Northolt holds a cherished place in the history of the Royal Air Force; indeed, it actually predates the foundation of the service, having opened in 1915 as a base for the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps. During World War II, it was a key base for fighter squadrons, including several of those formed by exiled Polish pilots who fought in the critical Battle of Britain in 1940. One of the main passenger lounges commemorates the role of these Polish aircrew with photographs and a box containing Polish soil. In front of the main entrance to the terminal a Spitfire holds pride of place.