Ahead of the Curve

posted on 1st July 2021
Ahead of the Curve

“In everything we do, we want to excel.” That’s the message from Simon Geere, the new CEO at Farnborough Airport, as he looks to the facility’s long-term future

Today, Farnborough Airport is among the UK’s premier business aviation facilities, proudly describing itself as a ‘gateway into London’. But the name, ‘Farnborough’, speaks to a legacy reaching back to the very beginnings of British aviation. Farnborough exudes heritage, a fact that’s not lost on new CEO Simon Geere, who steers the high-tech, carbon-neutral airport while carefully respecting everything it represents.

Geere took up the CEO post in July 2020, almost 112 years after the airfield witnessed its first heavier-than-air flight. To the historian, Farnborough is the birthplace of British flying. Samuel Cody completed the UK’s first aeroplane flight there, in British Army Aeroplane No. 1, on 16 October 1908. The airfield’s association with military flying and, more recently, flight trials and experimentation, continued until 1994, although both BAE Systems and QinetiQ still have headquarters locally.

Today, the active airfield primarily serves Farnborough Airport’s business and VIP aviation customers, albeit with a significant additional output every two years, when it hosts the iconic Farnborough International Airshow. To the aerospace industry and enthusiast community, therefore, ‘Farnborough’ means the show, with no supplementary description required to that single word. The ‘Farnborough airshow’ grew out of the annual Society of British Aircraft Constructors event, which moved to the Hampshire airfield in 1948. After the 2020 event was cancelled, there is much anticipation for the show’s return in 2022.

New Owner
Work to develop Farnborough as a major business aviation centre began early in the 2000s, when TAG Aviation bought the airfield and began creating much of the distinctive infrastructure that defines the airport today. Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets acquired the facility in September 2019, so that it had been operating no more than six months when the spectre of COVID-19 began looming large, and less than a year when Geere joined.
Could fate have chosen a worse time for a new CEO to take over a business aviation airport? Geere reckons it wasn’t as bad as all that: “Prior to joining as CEO, I had been heavily involved in the acquisition and transition of Farnborough Airport on behalf of the new owners, Macquarie, so I was already very familiar with the business. It was a case of eyes wide open really. Naturally, our traffic activity had already been materially impacted and in fact we ended 2020 handling circa 60% of 2019 levels. Relatively speaking of course this is a strong performance. For long periods we’ve been busier than many other airports.”

Under its previous ownership, Farnborough Airport grew rapidly and Geere says now it is important to build a business ready for the next stage of development. “We’ve set ambitious plans to invest and develop the operational facilities, including additional hangarage, with improved taxiways and further expansion of our maintenance facilities.” Significantly, Macquarie is committed to achieving this development and growth sustainably.

Farnborough Airport became the world’s first carbon neutral business aviation airport in 2018, a fact Geere is keen to emphasise, although he also acknowledges the commitment required to remain carbon neutral. “We continually make advances in improving our environmental performance, whether that is the electrification of our vehicle fleet or investing in the LED light replacement programme. We are not resting on our laurels though. We have said that we want Farnborough Airport to be a global showcase for airport sustainability. SAF [sustainable alternative fuel] is one element of that quest and we are actively working with fuel providers and operators to deliver something that takes a meaningful step forward. We want customers to choose Farnborough Airport because of our environmental credentials, that is the goal.”

Societal Role
Under its continuing sustainability efforts, the airport has engaged with local authorities, schools and other organisations, planting large numbers of trees in the area and creating connections that extend the airfield’s influence further into the community. Geere continues: “Like any airport, Farnborough has an important societal role to play. Engagement with the local community is paramount to our success and the economic well-being of the region. Our role in providing employment, both directly and indirectly, is fundamental.

“Throughout the pandemic we steadfastly refused to make any redundancies and instead we have taken the opportunity to recruit new talent into our organisation. From a community support perspective we continue to participate in a number of initiatives. A particularly rewarding example was where we provided free packed lunches to local families during the school holidays, using the teams and resources from our hospitality businesses, the Aviator Hotel and The Swan public house. In terms of employment and economic impact, the resilience of Farnborough Airport is a huge strength for the local region.”

Indeed, people are at the airport’s heart and Geere states: “We are immensely proud of our people, the reputation that Farnborough Airport has and the recognition we have achieved over the years. We have a hugely capable and proficient team, and it is these colleagues that make the day-to-day magic happen, be it our first-class customer service delivery or maintaining our record for operational excellence. I see my role as setting the strategic milestones and building a business that can achieve our long-term goals.”

For an airport to own an hotel is not unusual, but few lay claim to a pub. Geere places considerable importance on the 159-bedroom Aviator Hotel and The Swan pub as components of the wider Farnborough Airport offer, which he describes as ‘the most amazing proposition’. “We are a fully integrated, dedicated business aviation airport, with the FBO, the airport, the fuelling and terminal operations all one product. Consequently, we are in full and total control of the customer experience.

“Meanwhile, the on-site Aviator luxury hotel and The Swan, one of the best public houses in Farnborough, enable us to extend our first-class boutique concierge FBO service into the delivery of our hospitality businesses, and vice versa. Our complete control over the customer experience enables us to focus and prioritise what really matters. Then, when you consider the wider airport community including Gulfstream, Dassault, Farnborough International and FlightSafety International, to name but a few very important business partners, it truly is a business aviation hub.”

And it’s a continually expanding hub, most recently with the addition of the On Air Café from private aviation catering specialist On Air Dining. “We are delighted that the On Air Café is open and trading well,” Geere remarks. “It is a high-quality offering that fits well with our own high service standards and the café is also a cornerstone of our airport community. I try to visit every day and it’s amazing the people I bump into, including crew, employees, business partners and contractors.”

Changing Perceptions
On Air Dining and Farnborough Airport alike have navigated the COVID pandemic through a mix of resilience, good business and community involvement. Business aviation is emerging into a COVID-compliant world, having changed how it is perceived by those outside the industry and, Geere says, “I think it has reaffirmed the importance of business aviation and our respective roles in providing essential air travel infrastructure.

“The overwhelming majority of our customers are travelling for business reasons, either coming to the UK, or based here and travelling internationally to manage their business affairs. During the pandemic, when restrictions allowed, such essential business activity needed to continue. For many of our customers, there is no practical alternative to business aviation. Their business interests are often configured around international connectivity.” And yet, he admits: “There is still a lot of misunderstanding around the role of business aviation and, of course, the headlines always gravitate to the exclusive nature of the sector. I think we have work to do in terms of the wider perception of business aviation.”

It’s a perception that will inevitably change as the flurry of eVTOL and other alternative aviation devices currently under development begin to deliver a handful of practical, commercially viable designs over the next few years. Small, autonomous aircraft may one day deliver the kind of urban mobility that some developers are already promising, but in the many years before that vision comes close to reality established airfields, especially those without regular airline customers, are likely to become hubs for next-generation capability.

Among those airfields, Farnborough is an obvious candidate and Geere says: “Electrification technology and its application to air travel is clearly something that will develop, and I am sure will be part of the package of solutions to address the industry’s response to climate change over time.” Time is the critical factor and he is realistic over the prospect of Farnborough hosting eVTOL craft in the near term: “I think there is a role for Farnborough Airport, however it is difficult to see a paradigm shift in the demand for helicopters simply because they are electrified.”

Scheduled for 18 to 22 July 2022, the next Farnborough International Airshow will no doubt provide a showcase for eVTOL developers and other practitioners in hybrid, electric and hydrogen power. But what does the show mean to the Farnborough Airport team? Does it create a hectic week or two that distract from the day-to-day work of running a business aviation hub, or is it a much bigger deal?

“It’s a much bigger deal,” Geere confirms. “Every two years the show is an incredible opportunity to showcase Farnborough Airport to the rest of the world. Farnborough Airport is synonymous with the airshow and we are proud to work with the organiser, Farnborough International, to ensure its success.”

The Farnborough International Airshow – or just ‘Farnborough’ to those of us for whom it’s a biennial pilgrimage – remains as a living reminder of the airfield’s place in Britain’s aviation heritage. Yet the airport always feels special. Visiting on a fine June morning to research the PC-24 article appearing elsewhere in this edition, I was forcibly reminded of Farnborough’s past by its present.

Walking out to the Pilatus, I spotted a Hawker 800. The US-built jet’s ancestry is through the British Aerospace 125-800 and Hawker Siddeley HS.125, all the way back to the de Havilland DH.125 Dragon Jet, first flown in 1962. In April 1911, Farnborough had become the Royal Aircraft Factory, employing Geoffrey de Havilland as a pilot/designer. De Havilland flew his first ‘Farnborough’ design at the airfield in June 1911; the company that ultimately bore his name went on to build many successful aircraft, of which the DH.125 was the last.
Neither the airshow nor Geoffrey de Havilland have any real significance to passengers passing through Farnborough’s impressive terminal. And yet, Geere maintains, “This is the legacy that truly reflects the spirit of Farnborough Airport. Over the decades we have demonstrated our pioneering ethos. From the first UK powered flight in 1908 to being the world’s first business aviation airport to achieve carbon neutral accreditation, we want to be leaders in the field.

“We talk about being ‘Ahead of the Curve’, which is a reference to the shape of our iconic hangars, but actually it is a statement of intent. In everything we do, we want to excel. The only thing that will stop us is the limit of our own ambition. And just so you know, we’re feeling pretty ambitious.”