UK general aviation recovers after Covid but some smaller airfields still threatened with closure

Wolverhampton Halfpenny Green – one of several UK airfields threatened by residential development

With much of the attention focussed on the recovery of commercial aviation, it is important not to overlook the UK’s general aviation sector, which is estimated to provide £3.0 billion per annum in General Value Added (GVA) to the country’s economy.

The most recent CAA data suggests that in terms of total aircraft movements, business and recreational aviation has now recovered to about 85% of its pre-Covid levels in 2019. This has been led by corporate aviation, which provided an alternative to commercial flights during lockdown and, as a result of continued growth, aircraft movements are now some 4% higher than in 2019. Other types of general aviation, such as recreational flying and flight training have continued for most of the Covid period and seem to have benefited from the restrictions on overseas travel, particularly during the peak Summer months. The recovery of the GA sector is slightly more advanced than that for commercial aviation, where movements are around 80% of pre-Covid levels, although this is offset by higher seat load factors.

The sector covers a wide variety of flying activities, ranging from the more profitable corporate aviation recreational flying, flight training, gliding and parachuting.  Flights using more affordable microlight aircraft have become particularly popular in the past 10 years. GA activities are undertaken at a range of different sites across the UK, ranging from commercial airports and specialist GA airfields through to farm strips.  The sector is at the forefront for projects around electric propulsion, eVTOLs, urban air mobility, and space commercialization. Some flight training schools are now introducing electric aircraft types such the Pipistrel Velis Electro, which can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 75% in comparison to conventional piston-based aircraft.  Electric aircraft seem to have a good acceptance rate, particularly amongst female trainee pilots – although the costs of replacing aged fleets can be prohibitively expensive for many flight training schools. Several smaller UK airfields are being used for testing electric and hybrid aircraft types and, in the longer-term, could be potentially used as bases for ‘flying taxi’ services.

It should be noted that GA activities and their specialist airfields offer a range of opportunities for the next generation to take an interest in the aviation and aerospace sectors and to train as future commercial pilots.

They provide a variety of employment across the aviation, aerospace and STEM sectors and contribute towards local economies.  Other community benefits include use of the airfield as a base for air ambulance and other helicopter emergency services or alternatively for other non-aviation activities such as Sunday markets or car driving experience.

In addition, many airfields have a strong historical heritage from their earlier military use, particularly during World War I and II and some maintain an on-site heritage museum or visitor centre.

Given the higher costs of operating from larger commercial airports, most GA activities take place at specialist airfields, the majority of which are ex-military airfields established prior to or during World War II.  As such, there is an uneven geographic distribution of airfields across the country, with some areas such as Lincolnshire and Suffolk containing proportionately more than others.  Several airfields, particularly in the South East and Midlands have been bought by property investors with a view to development as garden villages or other residential housing.  Some airfields, such as Dunsfold in Surrey and Panshanger in Hertfordshire have already closed.  Cambridge airport is planning to shut by 2030, with its owner and main onsite business, Marshall’s Aerospace and Defence Group moving to a proposed new site near Cranfield University in Buckinghamshire.  Other airfields under threat include Redhill, Fairoaks, Popham and Wolverhampton Halfpenny Green.  However, in most instances, there is strong local community opposition to such development.  Many of these airfields are in the Green Belt and the site is often not designated for housing in the Local Plan.  The potential closure of one airfield, Wellesbourne in Warwickshire, now appears to have been adverted following a threat by Stratford District Council to compulsory purchase the site.

In recent years, the UK government has recognised these benefits and have given additional support to the GA sector.  These initiatives have largely been spearheaded by Grant Shapps, the former Minister of Transport and Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for general aviation, who is himself a private pilot.

As a result, the General Aviation Unit at the Civil Aviation Authority has been expanded, a road map for the development of the sector has been produced and a special section providing advisory services to GA airfields has been created.  Despite this, challenges remain – the sector is still highly regulated and over-burdened with ‘red tape’, there is uncertainty over the future of many GA airfields and UK airspace vitally needs modernisation and reform to cater for all types of users.

Whilst some GA airfields are profitable, particularly those with associated business parks to cross-subsidise aviation-related activities, this often requires investment in new hangarage and other on-site commercial property which is beyond the financial resources for many smaller airfields. Many airfields survive on a shoestring or have operational or planning constraints preventing any expansion. Similar considerations apply to many flight training schools as the costs of owning or leasing aircraft can be high and where alternative flight training schools in Europe and North America may be more attractive given the better weather conditions than in the UK.

Given the pressures for more residential housing, it is unrealistic to expect all GA airfields, particularly those with just a handful of based aircraft to survive in the longer-term. Some compromise, however, may be possible in certain cases eg by limiting the scale of the development and allowing aviation activities to continue on some parts of the site, subject to any operational and environmental constraints.

Whilst decisions on an airfield’s future are ultimately up to the local planning authority or, in some cases, the Planning Inspectorate, the extent to which any protection is given through the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) or other planning guidance is somewhat unclear.  The NPPF was updated in 2018 to ‘recognise the importance of maintaining a national network of general aviation airfields’, although this was not fully defined.  In principle, this network would ensure that those living in all areas of the country would have reasonable access to a local airfield catering for their specific interests eg recreational flying, flight training, gliding, parachuting etc.  It is debatable as to the size and structure of such a network and of the planning protection to prevent future development or closure that could be afforded.  One potential solution might be to classify all UK airfields in terms of their importance to the UK general sector and to recommend broad guidance to local planning authorities on the degree of planning protection that should be given under each classification eg within Local Plans.  However, given the longer-term ambitions of some airfield owners, it may prove difficult to get agreement to this.

Given the importance of general aviation, its contribution to the UK’s economic growth and its relationship with the commercial aviation sector, continued government support is essential both at a national and local level. In providing this, further consideration must be given as what planning protection might be given to specialist GA airfields to prevent unwarranted closures which both impact on users and potentially threaten the viability of the sector as a whole.

BGL CommunicationsUK general aviation recovers after Covid but some smaller airfields still threatened with closure