London Biggin Hill Airport executives were eager to return to NBAA and showcase their thriving and expanding business aviation hub in the familiar surroundings of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Standing in their way, however, is the U.S.’s lingering ban on entry to visitors from the UK—along with over 30 other countries—due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The White House indicated in late September it would lift the ban for foreign nationals who have been fully vaccinated, but not until November—two weeks after NBAA-BACE is over.
Biggin Hill airport’s commercial director, Robert Walters, described the predicament as “disappointing as it is ironic, given that U.S. citizens have been free to travel unrestricted to the UK for some time now.” Walters had hoped to return to NBAA for Biggin Hill’s 26th year to reconnect with the industry and customers.
The increase in U.S.travelers is reflected in the number of arrivals from U.S. cities to Biggin Hill—situated around 25 km from the UK capital. “We had four transatlantic arrivals [on September 10] alone and there is no sign that it will ease any time soon.
While the U.S. restrictions are “frustrating,” they have not impacted business at the airport, which has been witnessing one of the busiest periods in its long history, Walters said.
“We are already exceeding 2019 levels,” he said, citing an annual movement tally for the year of 16,220 takeoffs and landings. “We are currently the second-busiest airport in the London area,” he added.
Walters attributes these impressive movements to Biggin Hill management’s decision to keep the airport open throughout the pandemic and to develop new revenue streams. “When business fell off a cliff shortly after the first lockdown in March 2021, we scratched our heads to come up with new meaningful and relevant initiatives to bring customers to the airport,” he said. “We had loads of aircraft parked on the ramp for which we were not providing fuel.”
One answer was its Return to the Skies initiative. Introduced at the end of April 2020, this “package of services” was developed to help operators maintain aircraft airworthiness and keep flight crews training while restrictions were in place during the pandemic. The offering boasted six landings for the price of one, complimentary handling, the first two hours of aircraft parking free, and access to crew support and the airport’s briefing room.
In July 2020, Biggin Hill introduced a contactless travel initiative to highlight what Walters described as “the health and safety benefits" of private aviation.
“We committed to mitigating the risk of Covid-19 infection through measures such as two-meter separation markings, minimizing personal contact between passengers and with staff, and the use of personal protective equipment,” said Walters.
To bolster its Covid-19 mitigation credentials, Biggin Hill introduced the following November an on-site Covid testing suite for passengers, crew, and the local community. “These initiatives have been very successful,” said Walters, “not only for us but also for our base tenants.”
While subsequent lockdowns in the UK had their challenges for Biggin Hill, business remained stable. However, the loosening of domestic Covid restrictions in May triggered a rise in traffic at the airport.
The mix of passengers has been heavily weighted towards leisure travelers, Walters acknowledged. “There is no question that this sector is driving demand with business flights representing only a trickle of movements at the moment.”
He is confident this reality will be short-lived. “As borders open globally, there will be a hunger for executives to travel again and explore new business opportunities. While we have communicated online for the past 18 months, there is no substitute for meeting in-person.”
Biggin Hill’s business-as-usual approach to the pandemic has also extended to its construction projects at the site. The airport in July completed its £4 million ($2.9 million) two-year taxiway refurbishment program— which included resurfacing and upgrading three primary taxiways—and recently wrapped up construction of Bombardier’s new 250,000-sq-ft maintenance repair and overhaul hangar.
Biggin Hill broke ground on the structure—located on the east side of the airport—in March 2020, said Walters. “We have not lost a day on the project,” he noted. “Outfitting of the hangar is now underway and we remain on track to hand over the completed facility to Bombardier in the first quarter of 2022.” The hangar will be able to accommodate up to 14 ultra-long-range Global 7500s.
The new base replaces the existing facilities on the south side of the airport that Bombardier has occupied since opening the Biggin Hill operation in 2017.
Bombardier’s long-term commitment to the airport along with “key anchor tenants”—including Formula 1, Castle Air, Zenith, Oriens, and Interflight—persuaded Biggin Hill to finally commit to building an on-site hotel. Construction began in March and the four-star 54-room hotel—dubbed The Landing and located on the south side of the airport—is scheduled to open in the fourth quarter of 2024. “We had been talking about this project for many years, but now we have a number of tenants who can draw business to hotel on a regular basis giving us the confidence to make that investment,” said Walters.
A new FBO terminal building is also planned, and the airport is poised to receive approval for a new instrument approach for Runway 3, which will add this capability at both ends of its main runway. Walters estimates that this validation could increase traffic by around 10 percent.