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

by BGL Communications on January 12, 2023 Comments Off on 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

Is there light at the end of the tunnel for general aviation?

by BGL Communications on February 17, 2021 Comments Off on Is there light at the end of the tunnel for general aviation?

Goodwood Aerodrome in West Sussex – one of several UK airfields closed during the Covid-19 pandemic

The impact of Covid-19 on the commercial aviation sector in the UK has been widely publicized but has the general aviation sector fared any better? Apart from a brief period between June and September, GA traffic levels have reduced dramatically since April last year. Business/corporate aviation at larger airports and airfields is around 15-20% of 2019 levels, although flight training and recreational flying has effectively ceased at all GA airfields during lockdown apart from any necessary engine health and maintenance check flights, although some business flights are allowed under the government regulations if there is no other alternative.

The picture across the UK varies significantly. Some smaller GA airfields have closed altogether, whilst others remain open for emergency and any other permitted flights. Whilst some financial assistance for GA airfields has been available through the Covid-19 furlough scheme and through business rates relief, some fixed costs are inevitable, particularly to maintain even a minimal level of ATS or fire and rescue capability. Flight training schools have been severely impacted and it remains to be seen how many will survive in this highly fragmented market. Other businesses, including aircraft charter and maintenance have fared little better. Some larger GA airfields, particularly ex-military aerodromes which typically provide a range of surplus buildings, can obtain additional property rental income from non-aviation related businesses -although this too has been squeezed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

GA airfields provide a wide range of benefits but many are under threat of closure

Survival of the GA sector and its specialist airfields is important as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.

The sector as a whole is estimated to provide 11,600 direct jobs and to contribute £1.4 billion annually to the UK economy. It provides a range of economic and social benefits for users ranging from corporate aviation, pilot training and recreational flying across a variety of aircraft types ranging from larger fixed wing aircraft, helicopters through to microlights and gliders.

But whilst there are some corporate/business flights at UK commercial airports, the majority of GA flights are at specialist airfields, which range from larger airfields such as Biggin Hill and Gloucester through to farm strips. Many of these were previously military airfields but they are not necessarily located close to the UK’s main population areas. As an example, a county such as Lincolnshire has more airfields than a more densely populated one such as Surrey. In the past five years, several GA airfields particularly in the south east and the Midlands have closed for redevelopment. whilst others have been bought on a speculative basis for property development, particularly as ‘garden villages’.

It is certainly true that the land value for development for some airfields can be greater than that from GA activities alone. But, given the wide-reaching benefits of GA, the government’s proposals to establish a network of airfields with some degree of planning protection against such development seems logical.

Is a network of protected GA airfields the best way forward?

The concept of a network of airfields with some planning protection against closure for development was included in a revision of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2018, but its precise nature is still to be finalised. The network would need to be spread geographically across the UK and should enable all GA users to access a local airfield suitable for the type of activity. The degree of the planning protection is still to be determined and it is possible that there might be varying levels of planning protection and guidance for different groups of airfields. At present, the Department for Transport is awaiting suggestions from the industry on this although the situation is more complex due to proposals for the reform of the land planning system recently published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). Airfields were not specifically covered in these proposals and it has been suggested that a new category of ‘infrastructure’ is established which would facilitate new investment at and around an airfield whilst still giving some protection against its full closure. A further complication is that several airfields in the SE, such as Fairoaks and Redhill which have been purchased by property developers, are in the Green Belt. Whilst Green Belt status may prevent these airfields being closed in the immediate future, this is a double-edged sword as there is little or no scope for any other form of aviation-related or other supporting commercial development to improve the airfield’s financial viability in the longer-term.

Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey will soon be closed and redeveloped as one of the UK’s 19 new ‘garden villages’.

The UK government is providing strong support

The government certainly now appears to be willing to play a more active role in promoting GA – not least because Grant Shapps, the Transport Minister is himself an avid private pilot and aircraft owner. The CAA’s GA unit has been significantly expanded, whilst the Department for Transport (DfT) has launched a major consultation exercise on the future of general aviation to follow on from its earlier consultation covering the wider UK aviation sector (‘Aviation 2050’).

Aside from recovery post-Covid 19, key areas of concern include the impact of regulation in the sector, particularly in the light of the UK’s withdrawal from EASA, reductions in uncontrolled airspace and the threat of closure of several of the UK’s general aviation airfields for redevelopment. In addition, the DfT and the CAA have recently launched a £2.0 million development fund to provide consultancy assistance to GA airfields. The fund has received over 100 applications for funding and will undoubtably be of some benefit. But given the financial pressures resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, further financial support not only to airfields but also to their flight training schools and aircraft maintenance companies is likely to be necessary.

GA is in the forefront for the development of new ‘green’ technologies

But whilst flying has been restricted during lockdown, there has been significant progress in developing new ‘green’ technologies for general aviation – including electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, UAVs and drones. Indeed the development of these technologies in smaller aircraft types or at GA airfields is an interim stage towards their introduction across the wider commercial aviation sector. A number of electric powered aircraft types suitable for flight training or recreational flying are currently in development. These include the Pipistrel Velis Electro, which is already type certified by EASA and by the UK during the two year transition period following Brexit. To facilitate this, plans are in place to set up the necessary electrical charging infrastructure at over 100 GA airfields across the UK. The initial experience from flight training schools in Europe which are already using electric aircraft suggests that their cleaner image seems to have encouraged an increased number of female student pilots. But aircraft acquisition costs are likely to be high for many flight training schools, at least in the early stages of this technology.

Despite the pandemic, a number of new initiatives have been launched over the past year which signpost the future direction of the GA sector in the UK. These initiatives include Project HEART, a government-funded initiative to develop Britain’s first automated, zero carbon regional air transportation network. The concept is designed to enable cost-effective short-hop flights using 9-19 seater hydrogen-powered aircraft between up to 100 GA airfields in the UK. The technology is being evaluated using Britten-Norman aircraft and is expected to be operational by 2025. In addition to Britten-Norman, other partners in the Project Heart consortium include Blue Bear Systems Research, Inmarsat and Protium. Other UK projects include a trial by Air Port Air-One – a partnership between Hyundai, Urban Air Port and Coventry City Council to establish a temporary urban airport at a site in near Coventry City’s Ricoh Arena football stadium. This will be the world’s first fully operational hub for future electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, such as cargo drones and air taxis, and will evaluate the air traffic management and safety requirements. A further project to establish a trial drone corridor between Oban and the Isle of Mull is also underway sponsored by Skyports.

It is clear that the nature of GA operations and airfields will evolve quickly over the next 10-15 years as new cleaner technologies are developed. New urban ‘airfields’ for eVTOL aircraft, potentially smaller even than a traditional heliport, will emerge whilst some lesser-used and geographically remote airfields will be closed or redeveloped. But GA ultimately can bring significant benefits to both users and to the UK economy. Continued Government support and planning protection for those airfields necessary to provide these benefits is essential if these are to come to fruition.

BGL CommunicationsIs there light at the end of the tunnel for general aviation?