London Biggin Hill Airport has a history of adaptation in crisis. It’s a legacy that has served it well this past year or so, while Robert Walters, Biggin Hill’s Commercial Director, believes the COVID pandemic has been a catalyst for future development
To the business and VIP aviation community, London Biggin Hill Airport is synonymous with the city, as the closest business aviation airfield to the capital; Biggin Hill’s Castle Air-operated London Heli Shuttle is famously capable of delivering passengers direct to London Heliport in just six minutes. The COVID-19 pandemic has, inevitably, curtailed the Heli Shuttle operation, since the heliport is temporarily closed, but Biggin Hill has survived far worse in its 104-year flying history.
The Mansi Testing Suite, opened at the airport in December 2020 to deliver same-day polymerase chain reaction (PCR) COVID tests, tackles the trials of today while reflecting the airfield’s tumultuous past. As Royal Air Force Biggin Hill, the airport was a so-called Sector Station, a vital communications hub in the RAF’s integrated air defence system, tasked with warding off Nazi aggression during the Battle of Britain.
Given its status and resident fighter squadrons, Biggin Hill became a prime target and suffered its first major attack on 18 August 1940. As combat intensified, the enemy visited the airfield again on 30 August, a raid earlier in the day causing little damage compared to a devastating fighter-bomber strike at 18:00hrs. In the carnage that ensued, Dr Joe Mansi, a local general practitioner, became a hero.
That night he tended to casualties and risked his life digging out and saving several people trapped underground after a bomb exploded on a trench shelter where 40 airmen and civilians were taking cover. Resilience, it seems, is in Biggin Hill’s DNA.
Looking back to the early days of the COVID pandemic in March 2020 Robert Walters, Biggin Hill’s Commercial Director, says: “We responded as quickly as we could. On 1 April, the beginning of what we termed the COVID quarter, when the business was most badly affected, we launched our Return to the Skies initiative to support operators and crews in remaining current. We picked up many new customers as a result and it took us from number three for business aviation in the UK to number one, a position we sustained for the whole of April, May and June.
“Thanks to the efforts of the staff and team at the airport, we’ve remained fully operational throughout, with no degradation in service offering. That message, that tone, has helped our tenant businesses continue their operations, safe in the knowledge that we weren’t going to unexpectedly close the airport. It has provided them with a reassuring, resilient environment in which to work.”
Biggin Hill is home to a startling array of tenant companies. There are too many to list in their entirety, but among those directly serving the business and VIP markets, 1Aviation provides aircraft sales support, Jetwash Aircraft Cleaning’s offer is self-evident and Air Culinare Worldwide is renowned for its inflight catering. Elsewhere on the airfield, Acropolis Aviation is a leader in VIP charter, while Catreus, LinkinJet, Luxaviation UK, Sovereign Business Jets and Voluxis offer various levels of jet charter and aircraft management, to which services Zenith Aviation also adds MRO. Churchill Aviation offers jet and helicopter charter, while Castle Air provides helicopter charter, sales and maintenance, as well as operating the London Heli Shuttle.
Maintenance, repair and overhaul are the primary activities at Bombardier’s Biggin Hill Service Centre, while MRO is also available from Interflight Aircraft Maintenance; JMI MRO, which offers jet management too; Signature TECHNICAir; and Textron Aviation’s facility. Also offering MRO, but primarily on the PC-12 turboprop series and PC-24 jet, Oriens Aviation is the Pilatus Authorised Centre for aircraft sales and maintenance in the UK, while F/LIST and RAS completions are cabin specialists.
Finally, although it offers not a single service directly relevant to business and VIP passengers, The Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar is always worth mentioning. Providing warbird services and flights in restored Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, it enables a very particular experience, especially since Biggin was a Spitfire station during the Battle of Britain. There are few opportunities today to sit on the runway of a former operational Spitfire base, in a Global 7500, and see a Spitfire waiting next in line to depart.
Walters recalls with some pride that the ‘first spade went into the ground’ for Bombardier’s new facility on 9 March 2020. “We couldn’t have chosen a more ‘interesting’ time to start the largest construction project we’ve ever done. But we haven’t lost a single day’s work on the site. The hangar and outer structure are complete and internal fitting is under way.”
August traffic growth
Having reassured themselves that business could continue, the Biggin Hill team turned to its second COVID initiative – Contactless Travel. “It’s our way of condensing and making palatable all the benefits of business aviation travel into a ‘brand’ or product that we could very easily communicate to existing customers and those new to business flying. It’s proven an excellent platform for promoting the benefits of business aviation in a constructive, positive and relevant manner.
“As a result, in August 2020 our traffic grew by 40% year-on-year, as much as half of it from people who hadn’t used business aviation before. We can attribute some of that to our initiatives, but mustn’t forget that credit also goes to our tenant businesses – it really is a team effort. The strength and diversity of our ecosystem really helped drive that strong messaging.”
Healthy traffic continued through September and into October, when traffic remained at similar levels to 2019, but rising COVID infection rates saw a series of ever tighter restrictions applied. “That’s when it became clear that we needed our own testing centre on site,” Walters says. “Urgent work began to secure a partner able to support our ambition of remaining operational and safe, if nothing else as a key part of national infrastructure, as all airports are.” In November, the UK entered a new period of lockdown.
“We saw having a dedicated testing centre on site, with dedicated clinicians available seven days per week, as a key component in providing comfort to the airport’s users, whether aircrew, engineers visiting businesses, passengers or others. We also extended it to the local community and businesses away from the airport.”
Speaking late in January 2021, Walters was able to confirm that 3,600 tests had already been performed in the Mansi Testing Suite since it opened barely two months earlier in mid-November. Established as an agile, evolving facility, the suite has handled as many as 200 people per day and adapted to changing government guidelines. “We’ve been blessed with very encouraging responses,” Walters reports, “and we’ll keep the suite open as long as we need to.”
The next chapter
At year-end, Biggin Hill was just 13% down on traffic in 2020. Between 1 April and December, it was the UK’s second busiest business aviation airport after Farnborough, and EBAA statistics show it seventh in the CIS and Europe for the year. “It’s a position we’re very proud of,” Walters states, “one we hope we can retain and reinforce through all the other initiatives and developments we have planned.”
Walters believes the overwhelming message to the user community that has emerged from the pandemic so far is that well run business aviation airports are resilient, they’ve remained operational and been everything their customers need them to be. “I think we’ve seen the next chapter in the rise of dedicated airports for dedicated traffic in metropolitan areas.”
It’s a bold statement that he goes on to reinforce. “As a business, we’ve highlighted our sister airport relationship with Teterboro, looking to educate the UK authorities on the ‘reliever airport’ concept. In the US, all the major cities have designated airports as reliever airports for dedicated traffic, supported by the authorities as such. I see that concept gradually emerging here, even though it hasn’t been formally introduced.
“We’ve seen business aviation’s largest OEMs set up strategic homes at Biggin Hill and Farnborough, because they see for the future, for their customers, labour, capability and capacity, that’s where they need to be. So, if there’s a story to come out of 2020, for me it’s the rise of the dedicated business aviation airport serving the major metropolitan areas. And that’s really exciting.
“Everything that we do next at Biggin Hill we’ve been planning for over the past ten years, so we’re expanding as a resilient, relevant and reliable business. We want people to look at us and see a proper, ‘grown up’ airport, just like any other international airport, with the only difference being that our aircraft are smaller. We already had the vision for where we wanted to go and COVID has amplified and perhaps even accelerated our ambition.”
On the other hand, an important part of Biggin’s strength is in its tenant companies and it would be easy for their status to be lost, at least to the eyes of local planning officers, politicians and policy makers, if Biggin Hill were seen as a small international airport. It’s a potential issue Walters readily admits, but he quickly explains that it’s a problem effectively already nipped in the bud.
“It’s incumbent upon us to demonstrate that for the local economy, the business jet users are really the icing on the cake and the real excitement is in the provision of infrastructure and the companies we have on site.” The concept is reflected in the LoCATE (London Centre for Aviation, Technology and Enterprise) partnership of public and private sector organisations that promotes the airport as a centre for the aerospace industry in London. It means, Walters explains, that the public face of the facility emphasises employment and contribution to the local economy, tangible benefits that policy makers easily relate to.
Sustainability is particularly significant among the airport’s plans for the future. Interestingly, Walters’ first point when asked about the facility’s green future is to note that its proximity to London makes it an ideal location to serve the coming era of eVTOL machines. “We’re very excited about it and although we aren’t in a position to say much, it’s front and centre in our everyday work.
“Among other things, we’ve appointed a dedicated sustainability manager, while we’ll also be rolling out sustainable aviation fuel from 1 April, in partnership with Air bp. We’re signed up with the ACI’s carbon accreditation scheme and aligned with the local authority’s ambition to be carbon neutral by 2029, although we hope to get there sooner.” Indeed, on 10 March, CEO David Winstanley, and newly appointed Head of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability, Colin Hitchins, signed a sustainability statement committing the facility to full carbon neutrality by 2029.
“We’ve designated an area for a solar energy farm, we’re electrifying all of the airport vehicles where possible and all of the customer service vehicles will be electrified by this summer. We’re creating a carbon offsetting scheme with Air bp that we can offer to every flight that comes in, to help those who don’t have their own scheme.”
The wider programme includes the imminent rollout of an electrical vehicle charging scheme for staff and customers, and extending it to The Landing, a new airport hotel. “With the hotel and other large-scale developments on the far side of the airport, we’re also looking at concepts to help people cover the two miles or so from there to the terminal. We’re looking at a bicycle scheme similar to that in London so that, for example, someone working at the Bombardier facility could jump on a bike and cycle around to the café for a sandwich, rather than using the car.”
Biggin Hill has a long and significant history as an airport and frontline military flying station. The challenges it faces today are minor compared to those of its past, but the sum of its experience makes it a very special place indeed. Robert Walters concludes: “At its inception in 1917, Biggin Hill was at the leading edge of military aviation and now, in 2021, we’re looking forward to opening a service centre for one of the most modern business jets in the world today. In 1917, in 1940, Biggin Hill adapted, survived and thrived. It will continue to change and thrive for the benefit of its users, the local community and future generations being born and brought up here. That’s the really exciting part.”