London’s Biggin Hill Airport sees opportunity for growth | In depth
Few images have encapsulated the post-apocalyptic feel of lockdowns and their effect on aviation like these ghostly, silent terminals at some of the world’s busiest airports. Yet as once-crowded international hubs like London Heathrow emptied of passengers and their owners worried about their future, other smaller air gateways, many not too far away, quietly flourished. They continued to do so even as travelers returned to commercial aviation in large numbers.
“We never closed, even at the height of the crisis,” says Robert Walters, chief commercial officer of London Biggin Hill Airport. “Covid has magnified the benefits of business aviation airports.” Like many of its counterparts, Biggin Hill, a former wartime air base 18km from central London, has seen business aviation movements fall from around 3,500 in the first quarter of 2019 to 5,000 over the the same period in 2022. The pandemic has provided a boost rather than a brake.
Much of this is due to new business aviation users. With international air travel ironically becoming more stressful than ever as border restrictions eased, with many people who could afford to opt for the ease of showing up at a private airfield and boarding a plane that they perceived as a more Covid-secure environment than a cabin airliner. There were even friendly staff on hand to check that all international pandemic-related documents were in order.
With commercial carriers withdrawing unprofitable international services – even when legal restrictions have been lifted – and canceling others at short notice for operational reasons, many of those who needed to travel for work or leisure have discovered that they could not rely on their frequent flyer status with their preferred airline. The result has been a boom in demand for charter services over the past 12 to 18 months, of which business aviation airports have been the main beneficiaries.
For Biggin Hill, there’s another reason it thrives. The airport has invested heavily in its infrastructure with the aim of attracting not only business travelers but also tenants, especially maintenance, repair and overhaul providers. Private company Biggin Hill may be behind dedicated rivals such as Farnborough and Paris Le Bourget, as well as Heathrow, Luton and Geneva, in terms of business aviation traffic, but it claims to have more MRO operators than any other airport.
The anchor tenant is Bombardier, which is due to open a hangar capable of housing 14 Global 7500s later this year. It will be the largest factory owned by an OEM in Europe. The structure will replace the nearby Canadian builder’s existing Hangar 510, which it shares with fixed base operator Signature, and was originally designed by former Qatari charter operator Rizon Jet. Bombardier’s decision to build its new hangar at Biggin Hill is a “huge endorsement of our strategy,” says Walters.
In turn, Hangar 510 was acquired last year by Avia Solutions, a fast-growing group from Lithuania, which also owns brands such as broker Chapman Freeborn, MRO company FL Technics and charter operator KlasJet. . This followed Avia’s March 2021 purchase of RAS Group, an aircraft paint and refinish house in Biggin Hill. RAS was renamed JETMS Completions, under the wing of Avia’s Vilnius-based regional aircraft maintenance company, JETMS.
JETMS Completions has the ambition to raise its game in business jet interiors, said general manager Keiron McNeill. He believes the UK’s reputation for luxury car brands gives him a platform to establish a reputation for cutting-edge finishes. Although Avia has not presented its plans for the building, its purchase of Hangar 510 – soon to be vacated by Bombardier – gives JETMS Completions space to expand its capabilities and Avia to expand its aviation MRO footprint from business in the UK.
At EBACE, however, it was announced that Dubai fixed base operator and manager Jetex will replace Signature as the tenant of the VIP terminal section of the building.
Builders are busy elsewhere in Biggin Hill. Due to open in December, as part of a £12 million ($15 million) investment, is a 56-room hotel, called The Landing. It will largely accommodate night crews, engineers and other professionals visiting the airport. Located next to Hangar 510 on the airport perimeter, it’s so convenient for arriving pilots that Biggin Hill coined the slogan: “Touch down to head down in 10 minutes.”
While the airport considered renting the hotel to a hotel group, it decided to manage the establishment itself. However, global business aviation catering company Air Culinaire, which already has a presence at Biggin Hill, will manage the kitchen. This has a double benefit, says Walters, as captains and cabin crew will be able to discuss meal options for their VIP passengers directly with Air Culinaire chefs.
Other infrastructure plans include a third airport-owned hangar. Biggin Hill opened its second, a 6,000m² building, in 2018. The airport’s main taxiway is being resurfaced and the instrument landing system upgraded. Castle Air, which operates a popular helicopter shuttle to central London, is expanding its rotorcraft maintenance facility and, in the longer term, there are plans to build a new VIP terminal to replace the main airport building.
Walters says the airport’s combined strategy of attracting high-end passengers who want a seamless ground experience and easy access to London, and a growing group of maintenance companies by providing rental buildings or land to build has “proved to be resilient”. He adds: “It’s a diversified company with a solid real estate portfolio. Biggin Hill’s strength is the sum of its parts. w
The UK capital’s second-largest business aviation airport says its dual strategy of attracting VIP travelers seeking access to London as well as long-term MRO tenants by investing in its property portfolio is paying off.
Oxford is another UK airport that has spent a lot of money on real estate to attract and retain top tenants.
Although Oxford doesn’t have the advantage of Farnborough and Biggin Hill’s proximity to the capital, on good days guests can reach west London in just over an hour by car. Additionally, the airport is on the doorstep of the Cotswolds district, where many of the UK’s wealthy have homes, and the ‘motorsport valley’, the center of the country’s motor racing industry.
Like Biggin Hill, Oxford sees helicopter shuttles as a key part of the airport’s appeal – customers can be picked up from their country home for international flights or connect to London Heliport in Battersea , also owned by Reuben Brothers. The airport recently opened seven helipads alongside the taxiways.
Business Development Manager James Dillon-Godfray also recognizes the potential of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft to fulfill this role in the future, as well as providing training, maintenance, charging and maintenance services. other support services for new sector. “They won’t be able to do that from downtown vertiports,” he says.
Over the years, Oxford has evolved from being a mainly general aviation airport – known for its flight schools – to one focused on large private planes. While the formation still dominates, like Biggin Hill, it has seen its business aviation traffic increase significantly during the pandemic recovery period, by almost 40% in 2021.
Attracting maintenance and business aviation service providers is also part of its strategy. Airbus Helicopters and valeting specialist Up & Away are long-time tenants, and more recent arrivals include aircraft retailer and charter company Volare.
In 2021, the airport opened a 7,000 m² hangar, which it rents out to tenants. He will complete a second in 18 months, and has permission to build a third. A new fuel farm has opened and a science park, on land owned by the airport, is taking shape near the entrance to take advantage of the University of Oxford’s many technology and bioscience spin-offs that need local.