GA airports around London benefited from the big summer of sport, but by less than had been predicted
The surge in general aviation activity predicted by the UK Civil Aviation Authority and air traffic control agency NATS during the Olympics did not materialise. Traffic through most of the dedicated business terminals on the perimeter of London was up, but not as much as expected.
Although Heathrow was barred from accepting ad hoc flights during the slot-restricted 26 July-13 August period, a number of Olympic delegations – and one major sponsor – chose to fly via London’s main hub in first class on scheduled services instead of chartering aircraft. Despite this, with many regular tourists choosing to stay away unless they had a particular interest in the sport, Heathrow’s throughput was slightly down on usual for the time of year. There was one peak day when it handled almost 250,000 passengers, but the airport’s temporary Olympic facility coped well enough.
Richard Koe, MD of business aviation analyst Wingx Advance, told the Business Aircraft Europe 2012 conference at Biggin Hill in September that London’s GA airports managed to reverse their recent downward trend. But the year-on-year improvement of 2% in July and 13% in August fell some way short of what operators had hoped, and the figures were well below the equivalent months in the boom years of 2007 and 2008.
There were 2,468 IFR departures from 26 July to 13 August, 26% up on the same period in 2011, with the predicted large spikes coming the day before the opening and the day after the closing ceremonies. The ratio of two-thirds charter flights to one-third private was little changed from the same period in recent years, Koe said.
Heavy jets (20.5% market share, 43% up on 2011) and ultra-long range jets (17% share, +88%) were the dominant segments and saw the greatest year-on-year increase, with Citation XLS, Hawker 700/800 and Gulfstream 500 aircraft leading the way.
Stansted was the biggest beneficiary of the Olympics. During the critical 19-day period, the airport saw 261 business departures, with a sharp increase in private flights. Koe said Stansted had acted as the main gateway for North American traffic, which grew more than threefold to account for 22% of the airport’s departures. Bangor International, White Plains, Teterboro and Hanscom Field were all among its top 10 destinations for the period.
Eastern European traffic jumped 12-fold to take a 9.5% share of Stansted departures, though Western Europe still accounted for more than half of Stansted’s GA traffic, increasing by 76%. Luton’s growth was smaller in percentage terms, but coming from a higher base, it recorded the most movements during the Olympics by a significant margin (see table).
Commenting on the Olympics overall, Koe said: “The figures were below expectations but it stopped the rot, reversing the decline seen in the first and second quarters. This applied to a lot of business expectations, not just aviation.”
Air traffic management, which had been the subject of some concern in the lead-up to the Games, held up well despite the pressure on airspace over the UK south-east, suggesting that the requirement to pre-book slots had been successful.
Customer service had been good, so those who had visited the UK for the first time may return in future. The Olympics had proved that a major sports event did not guarantee success, but London would stay on the map as an attractive business and leisure destination, Koe said.
GA traffic for the UK as a whole was around 4.5% up in July and August than for the same two months in 2011, in contrast to her near neighbours. However, business aviation traffic in France, the leading market in Europe, saw a 0.1% increase in July offset by a 1.2% fall in August. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, saw respective declines of 7.7% and 2.8% in the two months.
Koe: “The figures were below expectations but it stopped the rot, reversing the decline seen in the first and second quarters
Robert Walters, business development manager at Biggin Hill, says the airport handled far more large corporate jets than usual during the Games, including several BBJs and many Global Express and Gulfstream aircraft. Gulfstream positioned an engineering support team on site for the duration of the Olympics. The airport also handled regular corporate charters from Europe, operated by ATR-42 and -72 aircraft.
The slot system worked well and 1,300 slots were taken between 21 July and 15 August. Biggin Hill saw growth of 12.5% for the month of July compared with the previous year. “Our busiest hour was on the morning of Saturday 28 July, with 16 outbound and four inbound jets,” Walters says.
During the peak period between 26 and 29 July, 80 corporate aircraft were parked on ramps around the airfield and on the airport’s subsidiary runway, where a remote drop-off facility was established. The terminal hangar was full throughout the period, with types ranging from Sikorsky S-76 helicopters to BBJs.
Walters says: “We have been encouraged by the number of new customers using the airport for the first time, approximately 12% of the total. The logistics required for the Games has brought us extended capabilities and new ideas. Our task now is to build on that legacy.”
London Oxford filled more than 600 business aircraft slots the slot-coordinated period. “We didn’t see the Olympics-specific traffic we expected but we got volume in the two weeks beforehand, especially heavy jets, when Luton became overstretched,” says business development director James Dillon-Godfray. “Luton sold out of parking space [at its FBOs] and customers had to park at the main airport at a significantly higher price or look for overspill locations.”
Heavy jets, including Gulfstream lV/550, Global Express and Dassault Falcon 7X aircraft, took more than 50 slots at Oxford, compared with just 18 over the same period last year. The airport received its first BBJ following recent strengthening of the runway, and the aircraft stayed for 10 days.
“Two years ago, we all thought it was going to go crazy,” Dillon-Godfray says. “We were asking whether we should recruit additional staff and bring in extra fuel bowsers for an anticipated 300% increase in traffic. When we saw the slot bookings, we could see it wasn’t happening. August was relatively quiet, though we saw some outbound traffic as people left the UK.”
The Barclays London Heliport, now under the single ownership of the Reuben Brothers together with London Oxford Airport, did see an Olympic dividend with bookings 160% up on a year earlier. But again, many regular users avoided the facility during the period because of their inability to file the required flight plans in advance. “The whole point of the heliport is that it gives you the flexibility to do what you want at the last minute,” Dillon-Godfray says.
Brandon O’Reilly, CEO of TAG Farnborough Airport, says movements have been in line with last year, despite the double bonus of the Farnborough International Airshow ending just 12 days before the Olympic opening ceremony.
The airport strove to provide good first and last impressions of London during the Games. “We were busy, particularly with Heads of State and IOC member flights,” O’Reilly says. “Our service was seamless, with much positive feedback from our VIPs. Our new infrastructure, including hangars, apron and arrivals lounge, was also well received.”
Sean Raftery, UK MD for Universal Aviation, which has just rebuilt its FBO at Stansted, says: “Projections ahead of the Olympics were for a Beijing level of traffic plus a percentage, but a lot of airports were flat or down. Corporates were put off by the complexity of the slot system. Some operators tried to hedge their bets by covering multiple needs, but were found out.”
There was a decrease of 2.2% in GA traffic across western Europe in the first quarter of 2012, steepening to a 5.8% decline in Q2. In his presentation at the BAE conference, Koe predicted a modest recovery to 678,000 IFR departures for the full year, a 1.3% fall from last year’s total.
“Light and medium jets have been hit hardest,” Koe said, citing a particular decline in Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft traffic. Heavy jets performed reasonably and the VLJ segment was also robust, thanks largely to Embraer’s success, from a small base, with the Phenom.
A delegate suggested that with 2,400 aircraft in the hands of 930 operators, there was enormous overcapacity in Europe and consolidation was necessary.
“I can’t see that many of them have a business case,” Koe said. “I foresee at least two more years of severe pricing pressure. As small companies fail, the bigger ones will see economies of scale that will make their businesses viable.”