Challenging times now but electric aircraft could revolutionise GA airfields

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.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the GA sector has faced a number of major challenges. There are difficulties attracting younger people to take up flying, resulting in a gradual decline in the number of PPL holders over the past 10 years. This is not helped by the increasing age of training aircraft and the high capital cost of replacement. There have been similar reductions in the overall number of flight hours by the UK GA fleet as a whole. The sector has been burdened with increasing regulation and it remains to be seen whether this will change once the UK has left EASA. There have also been pressures on uncontrolled (Class D) airspace used by some GA airfields due to the expansion of nearby commercial airports.

The benefits of general aviation both to the UK economy and as a social recreation are recognised in the government’s strategy consultation – ‘Aviation 2050 – the future of UK aviation’ and the Department of Transport’s capability to support the sector have been increased by the appointment of a GA Champion and additional departmental staff. But in addition to the economic and social benefits, GA airfields can help to spark an interest in aviation for younger people and offer a key stepping stone for many of the UK’s future commercial pilots. Some airfields provide a base for the Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) and the National Police and Coastguard helicopters. Others have a heritage value, often as an ex-World War II airfield. Many offer community benefits such as an on-site café catering not only for airfield users but also for local residents and hold local events such as open air markets and fun days.

Given the pressures of finding suitable sites for residential housing, it is perhaps not surprising that some local airfields have become targets for property speculators.

As a consequence, several UK airfields have closed over the past 10 years including Plymouth, Manston, Dunsfold and Panshangar. Others under threat of closure include Fairoaks, Long Marston and Andrewsfield, although some these proposed developments are in the Green Belt and face strong resistance from local residents. In recognition of this threat, the government has proposed establishing a network of protected GA airfields across the country. This concept is now incorporated in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) although the size and nature of the network and the degree of planning protection given is yet to be finalised. Further support for the general aviation sector and the protection of GA airfields has been provided by the establishment of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for general aviation. The APPG, which was set up by Grant Shapps, now Minister for Transport, now has some 208 members across both Houses of Parliament, making it the largest group of its type.

Although the UK’s GA airfields face challenges in the short-term, there are significant opportunities ahead, particularly as a base for the development and use of a new generation of electric aircraft.  Battery-powered electric aircraft currently have a much more limited payload than traditional aviation fuel powered aircraft, although the direct operating costs are favourable.  GA airfields could potentially be used for short-haul commercial flights using 7-12 seater electric aircraft or as a base for Uber-style electric aircraft taxis.  Furthermore the reduced operating cost of electric aircraft could potentially cut the cost of ab-initio pilot training by as much as 70%.

In the immediate future, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is placing substantial pressure on GA airfields and its related businesses.  Financial support from the UK government may be necessary to keep some airfields afloat although they may need to compete with other sectors, including the commercial aviation industry as a whole, for such funding.  One funding proposal which could perhaps assist in the short-term would be VAT relief on flight training or engineering-based training for the general aviation sector.

Over the longer-term, a careful balance needs to be struck to ensure that an appropriate number of specialist airfields can survive on a commercial basis to enable the transport, recreational and economic benefits of GA to be realised.

BGL CommunicationsChallenging times now but electric aircraft could revolutionise GA airfields