Business aviation community must help keep small airports operating

 - May 21, 2008, 11:50 AM

With scheduled airline traffic, holiday charter and business flying growing at euphoric rates, airport capacity shortage lurks at many of Europe’s conurbations. This evolution makes it essential for the business aviation community to contribute to keeping smaller airports open, because they may soon be the only places where executive jets can land. The situation has been well understood in the past, for instance in Paris, where Le Bourget thrives on business traffic unwanted at Orly or Charles de Gaulle, and similar developments took place in London, Milan, Rome and other places. In this respect the announced closing of the Berlin downtown airport of Tempelhof is a disaster that should not be repeated elsewhere.

Many small airports have understood that there is an opportunity to be grasped and are promoting their offer here at EBACE. They include le Castellet and Lyon Bron, France; Biggin Hill, Newquay Cornwall and Oxford, UK; Morristown, New Jersey; and Swiss Business Airports, a loose association of six airfields. Small airports fall into roughly two categories: those which already have business traffic and invest to increase it and those threatened by closure for lack of activity, having lost traffic and desperately trying to attract new business.

London Biggin Hill (Booth No. 1653) is an example of a successful transition from a military airfield to a business airport. After release from the Ministry of Defence and temporary ownership by local government, the airfield was privatized and has since attracted investors like Jet Aviation, which built a large hangar on the site. Biggin Hill is allowed 125,000 movements a year and currently has 19,000 movements of executive aircraft. Its 6,000-foot runway is sufficient for aircraft up to the Boeing 757. The airfield benefits from its closeness to London and is profitable according to the owner company RAL.
Egelsbach near Frankfurt is another example of a small airport on the rise. A countryside airport devoted only to leisure aviation not so long ago, the owners have invested in a longer runway and can now accommodate aircraft up to large executive jets like the Falcon 900. In response to slot shortage at nearby Frankfurt Airport, even Lufthansa Private Jet is using Egelsbach for flights not connecting to long-haul scheduled services.

Restrictions are a major problem for certain airports trying to attract executive traffic. The military airfield of Payerne, Switzerland, a possible reliever airport for Geneva, has obtained permission for civilian traffic, but associated with so many restrictions in numbers, time and nature that it cannot function as a normal business airport for the time being. Needless to say that such restrictions will also hamper investment in new infrastructures.

Another airfield and member of Swiss Business Airports (Booth No. 1834), Bern, is a surprisingly modest facility for the capital city of a country like Switzerland. The airport had regional scheduled traffic to London, Vienna, Lugano and other destinations, but lost them all in recent years, except for a feeder line to Lufthansa’s Munich hub. Bern is only one hour by rail from the Zurich hub and regional air traffic is for that reason simply no longer profitable. The airport now successfully bets on business traffic and has seen that sector increase over the last few years. It also benefits from government traffic with helicopters and executive aircraft, but has not attracted yet a large executive handling firm.

The transition from a military base or a leisure airfield to an efficient executive airport is not easy. It takes time and investment, but it would be disastrous for the future of business aviation not to encourage owners and authorities to maintain existing facilities–otherwise they will no longer be there when needed to accommodate increasing traffic.

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