NBAA Convention News

London Biggin Hill Sees Significant Scope for Growth

 - October 20, 2019, 11:00 AM
A Bombardier Global 7500 at London Biggin Hill. Bombardier has its main UK maintenance base at the airport.

London Biggin Hill Airport (Booth N5607) says the latest data shows traffic has been “constant” year-on-year due to the market being “very depressed.” But the airport management is pleased, given that it comes against a general 8-9 percent drop in UK activity, while other European countries are also down. Of more significance, according to commercial director Robert Walters, Biggin Hill recorded a 22 percent growth in large business aircraft in the year to August.

Walters also points to steady growth in Biggin Hill's share of London business aviation traffic. According to Richard Koe at WingX Advance, it had 12.6 percent in September 2014, 13.3 percent in September 2015, 14 percent in September 2016 and in Q2 2019 this had grown to 17.1 percent. "Clearly they are benefiting from turbulence at Northolt and the squeeze at Luton and London City [airports], and are also benefiting from lots of promotion and some upgrades in facilities and service levels," said Koe.

“We are holding our own and not declining,” Walters told AIN in September during a visit to the airport. “We are increasing the size, which translates to increased revenues,” he added.

Eurocontrol-derived data shows Biggin Hill in third place behind TAG Farnborough and London Luton airport, while London City Airport has seen significant declines in business aviation traffic of late. WingX's report for August 2019 showed that London had more than 4,000 departures a month, the next closest European city being Nice at 2,200. However, while Nice has one airport, London has several. In August, Farnborough had 1,184 departures, pushing Luton into the number two spot (981), and Biggin Hill had 717, London Oxford had 500, and Stansted saw 435 (London City fell outside the top 30).

Still looming large in the minds of London’s independent airport operators is RAF Northolt, which closed in April for a £23 million ($28 million), six-month runway upgrade, paid for by UK taxpayers. Airports such as Biggin Hill say Northolt fails to meet commercial airport standards on a number of fronts and are calling for “a level playing field”—although for a few months, at least, they are all benefiting from Northolt’s displaced traffic. This typically represents 10 to 12 percent of London business aviation activity (the airport is 98 percent commercial traffic and very little military, Walters pointed out).

Walters claims Biggin Hill is “a very attractive destination”—particularly with its new longer opening hours (unlike Luton, it is not 24-hour)—and represents a new discovery for many U.S. business jet operators, not least due to visitors taking advantage of the weakness of the UK pound against the U.S. dollar. Even U.S. President Donald Trump used Biggin Hill on his summer 2019 visit to the UK—complete with numerous helicopters and the usual huge military/security entourage.

A major change this year, Walters told AIN, is that now the word is out, and it’s not an uphill struggle any more for Biggin Hill to get itself noticed in the U.S. “It’s mainly word of mouth. [For example] one pilot tells another—people like it because [among other things] they have control here” and it’s not slot controlled, unlike airports such as Luton.

NetJets is one of the major users of the airport, and they like it because of its position close to London, the flexibility and the fact it is not congested and is purely a general/business aviation airport. Also, “they can get aircraft upgrades and maintenance done all in one place”—for example, cabin refurbishments at RAS Completions.

Development projects continue at the airport: while plans to build a training college and hotel are close to being finalized (college construction starting at the end of October and hotel in Q1 2020), and a £2.5 million ($2.9 million) taxiway refurbishment is underway, the new Runway 03 GPS approach is due to come online imminently, once it received final UK CAA approval. Walters also said “hundreds” of obstacles have been removed to give further flexibility for airport operations. Finally, a new terminal building is in the final stages of design, and the clock is ticking to the day the historic control tower is removed and a more modern—though architecturally sympathetic—design is erected. “Scoping out the project will take a while,” said Walters.

The airport has been increasing its market share against other London-area airports in recent years, Walters told AIN, helped by initiatives such as the heli-shuttle run by Castle Helicopters and Biggin Hill's link with Teterboro Airport near New York, where a similar heli-shuttle has also now been established. “Castle Air continues to support the Leonardo brand here too,” said Andy Patsalides, marketing manager, who added that the arrival of an AW139 is giving passengers the option of a large helicopter on the service to the London Heliport in Battersea. More recently, Canada has come into focus and Walters’ team went to a show in Calgary to promote Biggin Hill—and will be looking at other places that could provide traffic growth.

Walters also said new impetus has been added by the arrival of David Winstanley as the new airport CEO, “and Bob Graham will become our first operations director at the end of September,” he added.

Meanwhile, the airport now has more than 60 based business aircraft, and Zenith Aviation alone now “has 30 aircraft under their maintenance control,” said Patsalides—the company’s main focus being Learjets. With 11 MROs already on site, Patsalides would like to see more aerospace companies establishing facilities at Biggin Hill, and perhaps a flight simulation center. “The latest tenant is F.List,” he said, an aircraft interiors specialist which has “moved in to support Bombardier.” Walters said Biggin Hill Airport is on a 500-acre site with vast scope for further development and growth in traffic, helped by its new longer opening hours, “friendly local council” in the London Borough of Bromley, and a local population the vast proportion of which strongly support the airport’s continued growth.

It also has two FBOs: Signature (in what was originally the Rizon hangar, now a maintenance base for Bombardier) and Biggin Hill Executive Handling. With Signature, Walters is happy to have “a global brand with a global network” alongside its own FBO offering, so customers have a good choice. There are no plans to open the airport up to other FBOs, although at one time it did have three.

Finally, 2020 will be another big year for the airport with the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, during which "Biggin on the Bump" was a historically critical aerodrome for the RAF's Spitfires defending London from the Luftwaffe blitz. “But we have no firm plans yet,” said Walters.