The global pandemic has revitalized the business aviation market, thanks largely to a cornucopia of high-net-worth individuals—often new to the sector—choosing the security of private cabins and terminals rather than risking crowded airliners and airports. London Biggin Hill Airport has been a beneficiary of this new trend in VIP travel, with the dedicated business aviation hub, located 14km from the UK capital, experiencing one of the busiest periods in its history.
“The 5,000 aircraft movements in the first quarter were more than 40 percent higher than during the same period in 2020, which at 3,460 was a fairly strong period for the airport. And we have broken our year-on-year movement record every month since July 2021,” said Biggin Hill Airport commercial director Robert Walters. This surge is also reflected in the hub’s annual aircraft movement tally, which jumped by nearly 30 percent between 2020 and 2021, rising from 14,700 to 18,900.
“We expect this trend to continue this year as the knock-on effect of the pandemic continues to energize business aviation and awaken swathes of new travellers to the significant time savings that private aircraft can offer,” Walters added.
Biggin Hill works diligently to retain and attract VIP traffic within the ultra-competitive London market. Rivals include Farnborough, London City, Luton, and Stansted airports, as well as smaller airfields and Oxford and Southend further afield.
According to Walters, Biggin Hill’s market share of the London-area traffic has grown from 11 percent of movements around seven years ago to more than 22 percent today, with its ranking “flitting between second and third place in the lineup” with Luton. Farnborough Airport—located 54 km southwest of the capital—is “number one,” said Walters, “however, between us, we draw in over 50 percent of London’s business aviation traffic.”
He attributed Biggin Hill’s success to its compelling “value-added offering” for business aircraft operators and passengers, along with “excellent” third-party services on-site.
Resident “key anchor tenants” include motor racing giant Formula 1, helicopter operator and maintenance provider Castle Air, charter and management company Zenith, Pilatus Aircraft distributor and service centre Oriens, FBO Signature Flight Support, completions firm JET MS, and Bombardier.
Walters said the airport recently completed construction of Bombardier’s maintenance, repair, and overhaul facility following a two-year building program. Located on the east side of the airport, the Canadian airframer’s new base consists of 650,000 sq ft of apron space and a 250,000-sq-ft hangar that can house 14 ultra-long-range Global 7500s at once. This structure complements a second, much smaller MRO hangar on the airport site that Bombardier has occupied since 2017.
The quantity and quality of Biggin Hill’s tenants persuaded airport management to build an on-site hotel. Construction began in March 2021 and the four-star, 54-room hotel—dubbed The Landing and located on the south side of the airport—is scheduled to open by year-end. “Our hotel general manager has been in post for nine months now, and we are looking forward to welcoming the first guests, which will largely consist of airport visitors, flight crew, and engineers,” said Walters.
A new FBO terminal building is also planned, but Walters admitted that the pandemic has slowed down its development. “We are dusting off the plans and ramping the project back up again, but we have no fixed timeframe for the building work as of yet,” said Walters.
This year should mark completion of the airport’s perimeter road upgrade program and the long-awaited approval of a new instrument approach for Runway 3, designed to add capability at both ends of its main runway. Walters estimated that this validation could increase traffic by around 10 percent.
Looking to the future, Biggin Hill has earmarked a “parcel of land” on the east side of the airport that it plans to dedicate to electric aircraft and future flight. “We would like to develop the infrastructure to support the new wave of urban air mobility (UAM) aircraft that are coming down the road,” according to Walters. “Given our proximity to central London, Biggin Hill is an ideal location to base these new aircraft, which could eventually replace helicopter services into the city.”
For now, helicopter service provided by tenant Castle Air offers customers a six-minute transit to London Heliport, which Walters believes is a “compelling part of Biggin Hill’s time-saving value proposition.”
Linked to the airport’s sustainability agenda is a plan to erect a solar farm adjacent to the planned UAM facility. Walters expects the site to generate 20 gigawatts of clean energy to power the envisioned UAM operation—including aircraft charging points—and feed any excess energy into the national grid. Walters described Biggin Hill’s green agenda as “key to the airport’s future” and noted that April marked the one-year anniversary of the introduction of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) sales at the site.
Despite the fanfare, Walters conceded that uptake of its SAF—a 35 percent blend supplied by Air bp—has been disappointing. He attributes this hesitance to a combination of pricing and a lack of education among VIP travelers and operators surrounding the benefits of SAF to the environment.
“We need to work with bp to increase understanding of sustainable fuel, as many people are sceptical and do not appreciate its value,” said Walters. Compared with standard jet fuel, SAF is expensive, Walters continued, especially on a transatlantic flight where the difference can amount to thousands of dollars. “On a short-haul flight—from London to southern France for example—the cost difference runs into the hundreds of dollars, making SAF is a more appealing proposition.”