This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.
Like many ambitious business aviation companies, London Biggin Hill Airport had big plans for 2020. Just over a month since the UK government placed the country under full lockdown restrictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the privately-owned airport has not abandoned these plans.
However, its management team is all too well aware of how its operations, and those of its customers, have been impacted by the emergency and so the short-term focus is on keeping a facility designated as critical national infrastructure open and functioning in an appropriate way. Beyond that, Biggin Hill is focusing its attention to a changing role for business aviation as a degree of normality returns and on what it can do to help to facilitate travel plans that have been so abruptly interrupted in recent weeks.
Predicting that Covid-19 will have an “extremely long-term” impact on scheduled airlines and the airports that serve them, Biggin Hill CEO David Winstanley told AIN that business aviation’s flight path from lockdown conditions will be different, but no less challenging. “I believe we will all need to look at aviation in a different way,” he reflected in an interview on April 23. “The fact that we have been able to stay open has demonstrated our resilience and the flexibility that we offer. Our future is based on those two factors and is not predicated on overall passenger numbers.”
The airport, conveniently located to the southeast of the UK capital, has had no reduction in opening hours to support government-sanctioned essential travel. It has reinforced requirements for operators to have approved flight plans and, knowing that it could face official scrutiny, monitors planned trips to ensure they are compatible with government requirements. This has meant flights involving repatriation of passengers and flight crew, movement of medical personnel and supplies, and also some support for military operations associated with the rapid construction of the nearby NHS Nightingale Hospital.
According to Winstanley, Biggin Hill has handled as much as 60 percent of permitted business aviation movements in the London area since the lockdown started on March 23. That said, he acknowledged that overall traffic volumes could be as much as 85 percent down on levels previously forecast for 2020. Some of its staff have been furloughed (with full pay) and operations have to be compatible with social distancing rules.
Despite everything, the company is pressing ahead with long-term expansion and development plans, including new maintenance facilities, a training center, and a hotel. “We won’t take our foot off the accelerator,” Winstanley said. “If you turn the tap [faucet] off in aviation, it takes a long time to turn it back on again.”
In many respects, he and his team consider themselves fortunate to have the backing of a single private shareholder, Andrew Walters, who has invested “more than 25 years of his life in the airport.” Winstanley said this support gives his team the latitude to pursue opportunities beyond the current short-term crisis.
Return to the Skies
In March, the airport launched a coronavirus recovery package to help business aircraft operators maintain airworthiness and keep flight crew training current. Under a program called "Return to the Skies," it is offering a special landing fee rate that covers six landings in a single day, complimentary handling, two hours of free parking, and access to crew support and the briefing room. The deal is available to both visiting operators and those based at the airport.
The package is intended to incentivize operators to make use of the airport's on-site maintenance facilities for Bombardier, Gulfstream, Textron, Dassault, and Pilatus aircraft. Airport officials also hope that the deal will make it easier for furloughed flight crew to keep their training current.
“We’re fighting the crisis and we’re fully operational, but our radar is turning to what the government and Department of Transport may do in terms of [possible continuing] restrictions,” Winstanley explained. Referring to the possibility that airlines might be required to leave some seats unoccupied to maintain social distancing, he added, “We hope the government recognizes that the way business aviation operates is different.”
By just about any measure, 2019 was a highly satisfactory year for Biggin Hill, with its share of the city’s business aviation traffic rising to 18 percent. More significantly for the airport’s balance sheet, the average weight of business aircraft, excluding light general aviation aircraft, grew by almost 6 percent to around 16,280 pounds—boosting handling and fuel revenues.
But just over 12 months on from his appointment as Biggin Hill’s first CEO, Winstanley has set his sights far higher. He believes the airport has reached a transformational point in its long history and, by taking the right next steps, is poised to fulfill its ambition to be the dominant full-service business aviation airport for the UK capital.
In this regard, Winstanley told AIN that better measures of success than short-term traffic and market-share figures are the number and scale of the businesses it attracts. The jobs that come with these new businesses are an important validation of the commitment the airport has made to its local community in southeast London. That growth will bring tangible benefits to those who might never fly in a business jet.
Since 2017, the number of jobs at Biggin Hill has risen from around 1,000 to more than 1,300. There will be more to come when Bombardier opens its new European service center in April 2022, with a new hotel and an aerospace training college in the cards.
In February, Bombardier announced plans to build a 250,000-sq-ft facility on the south side of Biggin Hill with room enough to take 14 of its new Global 7500 ultra-long-range jets at once and 650,000 sq ft of apron space outside. This facility, for which construction has already started, will provide customers with full maintenance, repair, and overhaul support and Bombardier’s agreement with Austria-based F/List will add aircraft interior outfitting to the menu.
“Bombardier’s investment could be a force multiplier that could attract ancillary businesses, such as undercarriage repair, avionics support, and flight training,” Winstanley said.
Advanced new businesses need a ready supply of skilled workers. Biggin Hill is addressing that need, too, by partnering with the Greater London Authority and London Southeast Colleges to develop the new Aerospace and Technology College at the airport. Students are already being recruited and companies such as Bombardier are having direct input in defining the training that will be provided when the college opens in September 2021.
One month later, in October 2021, a new hotel is due to open at the airport. Biggin Hill has appointed Focus Hotel Management to run the facility, which is expected to be popular with business aircraft crews and local companies. Air Culinaire is moving its existing on-site flight kitchen into the hotel and will run the restaurant there, as well as delivering in-flight food to aircraft.
Over the next two years, parent company Regional Airports is making further investments with a new FBO building and control tower. It will also create a new main entrance to the site to provide a more permanent and professional first impression to match its bigger, longer-term ambitions.
A Green Future
For former Royal Air Force wing commander Winstanley, Biggin Hill’s future needs not just to be big but also green. Inspired by friendly rival Farnborough Airport’s achievement in becoming the first carbon-neutral business aviation airport, his team is working on a flight path to reach the same destination. Plans are to create a solar farm that would allow the whole airport, including potentially its tenants and customers, to be completely self-sufficient for power. Biggin Hill is looking at what it would take to be able to offer biofuels to aircraft operators and has resolved that any further development of its aprons will be future-proofed by including ducting that could accommodate electrical charging points for aircraft and ground vehicles.
“Future developments [at airports] need to be in line with the commitments the UK has made [to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050],” said Winstanley. “This is essential to allowing our industry to grow while reducing its adverse [environmental] impact, and if you ignore this it is very short-sighted.”
On February 27, the UK aviation sector received a sharp reminder of this imperative when the Court of Appeal ruled that the British government’s decision to allow a third runway to be built at London Heathrow Airport was illegal on the grounds that the policy disregarded the government’s wider commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The industry is still digesting what this ruling will mean for the air transport sector—assuming it is not overturned by the Supreme Court. Some early indications suggest that it might mean increased airline traffic for other London airports like Luton, Stansted, and London City and that this, in turn, could push out business aircraft, which might then gravitate to Biggin Hill and other non-airline airports such as Farnborough and Oxford. However, that decision was made before anyone had digested the possible consequences of the Covid-19 emergency and the outlook for airline traffic at UK airports now seems radically different.
Winstanley acknowledged this possible windfall benefit from the contentious court ruling but insisted that Biggin Hill doesn’t want this to distract from its wider objectives. “We can’t put all our eggs in one basket,” he told AIN. “Our strategy remains the same—that we must focus on becoming the leading business aviation gateway for London with a connected ecosystem including leading aircraft manufacturers and the companies that support them. We do need to attract more larger aircraft, and there is room enough for us to do this alongside Oxford and Farnborough. We can’t just rely on picking up what traffic is left from Stansted, Luton, and London City.”
Looking to expand this ecosystem in an environmentally sustainable way, Winstanley is eyeing the growing community of eVTOL aircraft developers as prospective tenants for the airport, which he feels could be a testbed for urban air mobility operations.
The prospect of electrically powered air taxis shuttling passengers to-and-from central London is on the horizon. For now, helicopter service provided by local operator Castle Air offers customers a six-minute transit to the London Heliport, which the airport believes is a compelling part of its time-saving value proposition.
Biggin Hill’s operations team prides itself on ensuring that passengers can get from the steps of their aircraft to the airport’s exit gate in around eight minutes. One regular customer arrives at 6:40 a.m. each Monday from New York and, without fail, is the London Heliport’s first arriving passenger when it opens at 7 a.m.
A few years ago, operating times were extended to between 6.30 a.m. and 11 p.m. on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays and public holidays (two hours later than Farnborough Airport). To demonstrate its commitment to avoiding adverse impact on the local community, Biggin Hill installed sophisticated noise-measuring equipment and claims to resolve all complaints, imposing fines and, potentially, bans on operators who breach noise-abatement requirements more than once.
Under proposals posted in September 2019, Biggin Hill is actively involved with other airports around the UK capital in the London Airspace Modernisation Program, which is intended to expand capacity with new routes that should prove to be quieter, cleaner, and more efficient. At the same time, by next fall, the airport intends to have established a GPS-based approach for Runway 03.
Meanwhile, Winstanley has continued to strengthen his management team with the appointment in March of former Emirates Airline executive Nigel Masson as CFO. In July, Winstanley appointed the airport’s first operations director when Bob Graham joined from Birmingham Airport, where they previously worked together.
The fact that Bombardier committed to such a significant expansion at Biggin Hill less than a month after the UK had left the European Union was to Winstanley a significant vote of confidence in the face of concern that the move might isolate and diminish the country’s aviation sector. “We are convinced that we are a fantastic London asset and a fantastic national asset with huge amounts of further potential,” he concluded.