Although the focus of the aviation industry during the Covid-19 pandemic has been on how to support the recovery of commercial airlines and airports, it is important not to neglect the situation facing the UK’s general aviation (GA) and specialist GA airfields.
There are some 120 licensed GA airfields and 350-500 unlicensed sites for flying in the UK catering for all types of activities including corporate aviation, recreational flying, flight training, gliding and parachuting amongst others. Many support a wide variety of on-site aviation businesses, including aircraft maintenance, flying schools and air charter as well as non-aviation related businesses ranging from storage, printing and car repairs to those in the high-tech science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sectors. A study conducted for the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) in 2015 suggested that the total economic value of GA to the UK’s economy was around £3.0 billion of Gross Value Added (GVA) and supports in excess of 38,000 jobs, of which 9,700 are supported by GA flying activity at the aerodrome level and 28,400 are supported by GA manufacturing.
Many UK GA airfields closed during the Covid-19 lockdown period although some of these are now starting to reopen, albeit with limited operating hours and, in some cases, only open for home-based aircraft. Whilst solo flights or those with a household member are acceptable, training flights are not currently feasible under present social distancing requirements. The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly reduced the number of movements at GA airfields, although the situation does vary considerably across the country. Many airfield businesses have closed and have furloughed staff which, in the case of aircraft maintenance, creates additional problems for owners of home-based aircraft wishing to continue flying as well as reducing rental income for the airfield itself. It remains to be seen as to the extent to which flying activities will pick up during the peak July/August period, although the change in the furlough arrangements allowing part-time work at airfield businesses should help recovery.
Gloucester Airport is open on a limited operating hours basis. The terminal is currently shut.
The position of larger GA airfields such as Gloucester and Biggin Hill, which have a higher proportion of corporate jet movements, is likely to be more secure. Corporate aircraft are owned by large international companies or by high-wealth individuals and, given the cabin size, social distancing can be less of an issue. An analysis by the aviation consultancy WINGX has shown that business aviation is considerably more resilient than the scheduled service sector with traffic levels now some 70% of pre-Covid-19 levels. Business aviation is undoubtedly the more profitable side of the GA airfield sector, although it is correlated to the UK economy and is likely to decline in the expected economic recession.