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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

UK airports – A snapshot of the extent of traffic recovery from pre-pandemic levels

by BGL Communications on June 8, 2022 Comments Off on UK airports – A snapshot of the extent of traffic recovery from pre-pandemic levels

Whilst many UK airports are facing major operational issues handling the surge in demand following the Covid 19 pandemic, there is considerable variation in their extent of recovery of traffic from pre-pandemic levels.

Some airports, particularly those handling a high proportion of low-cost traffic are now handling over 80% of passengers in comparison to 2019 levels, whilst others have fared less well as airlines have cut back or delayed introducing new capacity as we move towards the summer peak.

As a snapshot of where the UK airport sector currently stands, we have compared the proportion of passenger and freight handled in April 2022 against that in April 2019. The analysis is based on the latest CAA monthly traffic statistics which covers the majority of the UK’s larger airports – although Bristol and Southend are excluded due as no data was submitted to the CAA.

The results are illustrated in the graphs below. To show the impact by airport size, we have analysed the data by three groups – major hub airports handling over 6.0 million passengers pa in 2019, larger regional airports handling 500,000–6.0 million passengers pa and smaller regional airports handling between 200,000-500,000 million passengers pa.

Stansted’s recovery at 85% of pre-pandemic levels is largely due to the early introduction of capacity by Ryanair. In April 2022, Heathrow recovered to 75% of April 2019, after a significant increase in traffic (+47%) between February and March 2022. Traffic recovery has been somewhat slower at Gatwick, which has been particularly impacted by flight cancellations, notably by EasyJet, although this may change over the summer peak. As a group, these larger airports recovered to some 76% of April 2019 levels which, as indicated below is significantly higher than most of the UK’s smaller regional airports.

In terms of mid-sized regional airports, Leeds Bradford and Newcastle appear have made the strongest recovery from the pandemic as at April 2022. East Midlands airport, where traffic was 63% of April 2019 levels, seems to have avoided much of the travel chaos experienced at other UK airports. Although London City had a 35% increase in traffic in April 2022 over the previous month, it has a lower proportion of leisure passengers, which are largely leading the recovery at this stage.

The picture at the UK’s smaller regional airports is more mixed. Some airports such as Bournemouth where Ryanair predominates have recovered well. Doncaster Sheffield also appears to have made a good recovery as at April 2022, although Wizz Air has announced a large number of cancellations over the summer due to a commercial dispute with the airport. Other smaller regional airports are some way behind – although their summer schedules often start later than those at larger airports. As a group, traffic levels in April 2022 were some 53% of those in April 2019.

The recovery in terms of air freight handled is also mixed. Whilst air freight, particularly that carried by dedicated freighters increased during the pandemic, overall volumes have reduced in 2022 as the UK economy slows down. In April 2022, UK airports handling over 400,000 tonnes of freight annually achieved some 89% of April 2019 levels. The strongest performers were Stansted, East Midlands and Prestwick due to their high proportion of dedicated freighter traffic although Heathrow has recovered well in 2022 due to the increasing availability of bellyhold capacity.

It should be stressed that this analysis should be regarded as a snapshot of the picture in April 2022 in a rapidly changing market. Despite the terminal chaos experienced at some larger UK airports, the traffic volumes suggest that they should ultimately recover more quickly provided there are no major setbacks over the summer. For small regional airports the situation is undoubtably more challenging.

The extent to which they will fully recover from the pandemic remains uncertain and, to maintain regional connectivity across the country, many smaller airports are likely to require government support in the longer term.

BGL CommunicationsUK airports – A snapshot of the extent of traffic recovery from pre-pandemic levels

Aerodrome safeguarding – A balanced approach is required

by BGL Communications on January 4, 2022 Comments Off on Aerodrome safeguarding – A balanced approach is required

Aircraft take-off near Hatton Cross, London Heathrow Airport

With development proposed at or near to many of the UK’s airports and airfields, it is important to establish the possible impacts on aviation safety.

Many airports and airfields are formally safeguarded either as part of their licensing conditions and/or through formal and informal safeguarding maps lodged with relevant local authorities. This process requires local authorities to take account of the safeguarding issues in planning applications for development at or near these airports and airfields. Some 28 of the larger airports in the UK and one in Wales are formally safeguarded under the Town and Country Planning Direction 20021.

A number of other airports and airfields have informally lodged safeguarding maps with local authorities, although this is rather patchy. Where no safeguarding map has been lodged, it is possible that the Local Plan, including any allocation of sites for new housing will not necessarily protect the aerodrome’s interests and safeguarding is ignored in the planning process.

1The Town and Country Planning (Safeguarded aerodromes, technical sites and military explosives storage areas) Direction 2002.

The UK has 123 CAA licenced or certificated aerodromes which are required to meet the relevant obstacle clearance surfaces (OCS) for take-off and approach at the airfield.
As such, all buildings or other obstacles, including temporary obstructions such as cranes must be beneath the relevant approach and take-off OCS for all licensed runways. Whilst there are no legal requirements, the safety implications of building and other obstacles on or close to the approach and take-off paths at non-licensed aerodromes need to be taken into account in planning consents, based on aircraft performance, pilot experience and other safety criteria.

In addition to the OCS, new buildings and other obstacles at or close to an airport or airfield can impact on the performance of navigational aids and radar installations. As such. the possible impact on aviation needs to be assessed. This particularly applies in the case of new wind turbines which can create clutter on both primary and secondary radar screens. Solar installations can also deflect radar signals and create glare for pilots.

Further safeguarding criteria that need to be assessed include the risk of bird strikes, particularly if the proposed development includes or increases the size of areas of water or waste disposal. Many safeguarding maps require local authorities to consider any possible increased risk of bird strikes up to 10-15 miles from the airport or airfield.

The UK’s busier airports with over 18,000 air transport movements (ATMs) per annum are all required to have Public Safety Zones (PSZ) at the ends of each runway where development is restricted within these zones to minimise the risk of death or injury in the event of an aircraft accident on take-off or landing. The PSZs are elongated isosceles triangles and are based on the calculated risk of an aircraft accident causing death or injury to those on the ground. Whilst there is a general presumption of no development within PSZs, there are certain exceptions, including the use of risk appraisal and cost-benefit analysis to justify some development in particular circumstances.

Farnborough Airport – Public Safety Zones

It should be noted that, whilst the safeguarding criteria described above should be applied, there are no other statutory safeguarding requirements for other planned development close to the airport or airfield. It is possible however that some development may occur underneath or close to flight paths but not necessarily infringe the airport or airfield’s obstacle clearance surface. An issue here is that this development might potentially impact on aviation safety if it restricts the availability of a suitable forced landing area for aircraft in the event of an engine failure or other emergency. In this context, it should be noted that, whilst there is no statutory requirement for safeguarding in these cases, it is generally regarded as good practice for such issues to be taken into account in planning decisions. In practice, the pilot has full responsibility for flight safety outside the airport or airfield boundary, although it is possible that an airfield may object to a nearby development if it believes that pilots would be unwilling to use the airfield in these circumstances.

Following a Public Inquiry for a new Motorway Services Area (MSA) near Denham Aerodrome in Buckinghamshire held earlier this year2, the Inspector ruled that, whilst the loss of land at the MSA would technically increase the safety aviation risk in the event of a forced landing, this would not be of such magnitude to prevent pilots from flying from Denham Aerodrome.

Similar considerations apply in the case of the planned development of 3,000 new homes at Chalgrove Airfield in Oxfordshire which would co-exist with aviation operations by the existing leaseholder, the ejector seat manufacturer, Martin-Baker. Whilst the developer, Homes England, believed that the development would not compromise aviation safety, this was challenged by Martin-Baker and the CAA’s Aviation Advisory Team who argued that combined housing and aviation use at the site would not be possible. Homes England has now withdrawn its planning application but intends to submit alternative proposals in the future.

2Appeal Ref: APP/X0415/W/21/3272171. Land between Junctions 16 and 17 of the M25, near Chalfont St Peter.

Ultimately a balanced approach is needed where planning consent for development near airport and airfields may potentially infringe on aviation safety. In most instances, such planning consent will not be granted where a development breaches statutory safeguarding requirements such as the OCS. In other cases, detailed risk assessments need to be carried out based on the likelihood and potential severity of any aircraft accident or other incident. It should be noted that the acceptability of the aviation safety risk may depend on the types of aircraft flown. It might be reasonable to expect that pilots of single engine piston aircraft would accept a higher safety risk than say, pilots of commercial aircraft responsible for their passengers carried.

As specialist aviation consultants, Alan Stratford and Associates has undertaken a wide variety of airport and airfield safeguarding studies for developers, local authorities and community groups. In our experience, many safeguarding issues can be overcome with appropriate modifications to plans or through some adaptation of airport or airfield operations eg changes to flight paths or circuits.

Given the scarcity of suitable sites in the UK, it is inevitable that plans for development near airports and airfield will continue to be put forward. Whilst each case is different, it is often possible for this to co-exist with aviation operations with no significant increase in the safety risks, provided there is mutual understanding and compromise on either side.

BGL CommunicationsAerodrome safeguarding – A balanced approach is required

Safeguarding and Public Safety Zones at UK airports. Are current procedures fit for purpose?

by BGL Communications on October 21, 2018 Comments Off on Safeguarding and Public Safety Zones at UK airports. Are current procedures fit for purpose?

To protect their future operations, UK airports and airfields need to ensure that any proposed buildings or other nearby development, such as wind turbines, do not infringe on the safety of their operations.

Similarly Public Safety Zones are designed to ensure that those living or working near airports are exposed to an acceptable level of safety risk of an aircraft accident. But are the current procedures meeting these objectives and are they being adhered to by all stakeholders ?

UK legislation provides for a number of measures to safeguard airports and airfields, either on an official or unofficial basis. But despite this, many local authorities and some airfields are not fully aware of or disregard Government guidance in this area, which potentially threaten the safety of aviation operations when such developments are proposed within the UK planning system.

There are two types of aerodrome safeguarding – official safeguarding, which applies to some 28 of the UK’s 82 airports and airfields holding a CAA or EASA licence and unofficial safeguarding, which is based on an agreed safeguarding procedures between the aerodrome licence holder and the relevant local planning authority. In both cases, aerodromes should submit a safeguarding map to the local planning authority showing the protected areas around the airport which need to be free of such development including the obstacle clearance surfaces and other protected areas to ensure the integrity of navigational aids and communications equipment. Further constraints apply in relation to the maximum heights of other proposed buildings or wind turbines close to the aerodrome.

If a proposed development breaches these protected areas, the aerodrome licence holder must be contacted by the local authority and should be a consulted under the planning process. In the case of those aerodromes covered under official safeguarding, the safeguarding map must be certified by the CAA. Furthermore, the Government advises that these maps and the safeguarding policy are shown in the local development framework and other strategic planning documents. If the local authority is minded to grant planning consent to a development to which an officially safeguarded aerodrome has objected, the CAA must be consulted. In the case of unofficial safeguarding, there is no direct involvement of the CAA, although the Government recommends that the CAA is consulted about any proposed development with a height in excess of 90m in the vicinity of the airport or airfield.

The obstacle clearance surfaces around CAA and EASA licensed aerodromes are defined within CAP 168 ‘Licensing of Aerodromes’ or within the relevant EASA certification specifications, which are based on those in ICAO Annex 14. Guidance for the obstacle clearance requirements at unlicensed airports and airfields is given in CAP 793 ‘Safe Operating Practices at Unlicensed Aerodromes’. In such cases, the safeguarding requirements are less stringent although some unlicensed aerodromes adopt the criteria in CAP 168 or its EASA equivalent. In addition to the constraints on building development, the safeguarding policy agreed with local planning authority can require mandatory consultation on other proposed activities near the airfield including the siting of cranes, shooting, kite flying etc. Any planning application which might lead to increased bird activity near the airport should also be referred to the licence holder, including those involving rubbish tips, lakes and landscaping.

The typical format for an airport safeguarding map is shown in the example below:

Belfast City Airport – Safeguarding Map

In addition to the safeguarding criteria, those UK airports with more than 1,500 air transport movements (ATMs) per month should establish Public Safety Zones (PSZs) at all runway ends. This Public Safety Zones should be prepared by the airport operator based on the statistical risk of an individual living or working within the area dying as a result of an aircraft accident. Under current Department for Transport (DfT) legislation, PSZs for 1 in 100,000 and 1 in 10,000 annual risk contours should be prepared every seven years and lodged with the local planning authority. Except in certain specific cases, there should be a presumption of no new or replacement residential development within the 1 in 100,000 annual risk contour although certain types of commercial development such as warehousing, with relatively few employees on site are deemed to be acceptable, The 1 in 10,000 annual risk contour should be free of all residential and commercial property and, if this is not the case, the airport operator is expected to make a compulsory purchase order to acquire and demolish these properties. There are some exceptions to this requirement, including land used for long-stay car parking, buildings housing machinery etc without any associated permanent employees and golf course (but not clubhouses). The precise definition of a PSZ requires detailed modelling based on the expected movement levels and accident data for the types of aircraft flown. A typical example, showing the 1 in 10,000 contour (in blue) and the 1 in 100,000 contour (in red) is shown below:

Farnborough Airport – Public Safety Zones

PSZs are in place at many of the busier airports in the US and continental Europe – although other countries adopt different approaches in terms of their design and their size based on their own definitions of the acceptable level of risk. The UK model was developed by NATS in the 1990s and is based on straight in and straight out approach and take-off paths. Other models, such as that developed by the Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) take account of curved approaches and turns on take-off. Significant forecasted traffic growth at an airport, such as that projected at London City Airport in its masterplan for 2020-2035 or at the proposed new cargo airport at Manston in Kent can result in a substantial increase in the size of the PSZ, with major impacts for local residents and businesses.

A study by Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners suggests that whilst all the UK’s 82 licenced aerodromes should adopt safeguarding measures, only 19 of the 28 local authorities responsible for officially safeguarded airports have incorporated these safeguarding policies in their local plans. A further 13 local authorities have adopted voluntary safeguarding policies in their local plans. This indicates that over a half (42) of the UK’s licenced airports have no local plan safeguarding in place. A recent case involving the planning decision to build a new IKEA store and 600 homes near Brighton City (Shoreham) Airport had little technical input on the aerodrome safeguarding issues.

The Government acknowledges that there are still a number of shortcomings in the aerodrome safeguarding procedures as indicated in the Department for Transport’s Aviation Strategy consultation report published in December last year, although it does not recommend mandatory official safeguarding . In the case of Public Safety Zones. Eurocontrol recently carried out a study to assess how its environmental risk model, IMPACT, could be extended to define airport PSZs on a pan-European basis. Whilst the shortcomings are now recognised, it remains to be seen as to how these procedures might be improved in the interests of all stakeholders.

Alan Stratford and Associates provide a range of services relating to aerodrome safeguarding.


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BGL CommunicationsSafeguarding and Public Safety Zones at UK airports. Are current procedures fit for purpose?