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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

UK regional airports – the short and longer-term challenges

by BGL Communications on October 11, 2019 Comments Off on UK regional airports – the short and longer-term challenges

The latest CAA statistics show a mixed picture for UK regional airports, with some clear success stories with others wondering how they can survive another year. With a number of challenges ahead, it is appropriate to take stock and see what the future holds in the light of market trends and future aviation policy.

In terms of passengers handled, the performance of most UK regional airports has been reasonably good over the past five years. Between 2013 and 2018, the top 10 regional airports grew by an average of 6.2% pa compared with 4.9% pa for the London airports and 5.1% pa for the UK market as a whole.

These top 10 airports include Belfast International (up by some 9.3% pa) which now flies to some 44 destinations, although direct services to the US by Norwegian Air were suspended in November 2018. Edinburgh, up by an average of 7.9% pa, currently flies to some 126 destinations worldwide including New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Dubai and Doha. At Manchester, the UK’s third largest airport, some 70 airlines now fly to over 210 destinations worldwide and new services have recently been announced by Virgin Atlantic and Jet2.

Cardiff Airport: Passengers have risen by 8.7% per annum over the past five years

For the next tier down – UK regional airports handing between 100,000 to 3 million passengers annually – there is a more mixed picture. Crucially, most of these airports are dependent on retaining flights by Ryanair and EasyJet. Some airports, such as Doncaster Sheffield (up by 12.2% pa over the past five years) and Cardiff (up by 8.4% pa) have been able to expand their route networks whilst others, including Glasgow Prestwick, Humberside, Durham Tees Valley and City of Derry in Northern Ireland have declined. Blackpool has recently announced that it will now focus on general aviation rather than scheduled services. Many of these airports are also dependent on other revenue opportunities eg from property development, aircraft maintenance (MRO) activities etc.

So what are the challenges ahead?

In the near future, the prospects of Brexit coupled with an economic recession and potentially higher fuel costs will undoubtedly force Ryanair, EasyJet and Jet2 to reconsider their route networks, with the more marginal services from UK regional airports likely to be the main casualty. Air Passenger Duty (APD), charged on all flight from the UK, is the highest tax of its type in Europe. Other countries in Europe, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland have abandoned this type of tax. APD has risen by some 700% since it was introduced in 1994. As an example, from April 2020 a family of four travelling from the UK to Orlando would pay over £320 in APD in addition to the standard ticket cost. However, even if the impact of Brexit and a recession on air travel is severe, it seems unlikely that the UK government will cut APD given current climate change concerns.

The prospects of a third runway at Heathrow and potentially a new northern runway at Gatwick for short-haul traffic may also impact UK regional airports in the medium to long-term. On the one hand, there will be additional slots for services for domestic services into Heathrow and potentially also into Gatwick, although such flights will need to compete against an improving rail network, even if the future of HS2, the high speed rail link between London, the Midlands and the North, is currently uncertain. On the other, the increase in capacity at Heathrow and Gatwick will expand the range of flights at these airports competing against those at the regional airports.

The decline in the UK air charter market is significantly impacting UK regional airports

The demise of Thomas Cook and Monarch coupled with the decline of the UK air charter market as a whole, will put further pressure on UK regional airports, which have a high proportion of such services.

In 2016, some 7.2% of UK regional airport passengers flew on charter flights compared against 4.3% of passengers travelling through the London airports. There are further consequences in terms of airport retail and car parking revenues, which face competition from online retailing and off-airport car parking. Improved airport security is also putting pressure on UK regional airports in terms of both staffing and equipment costs.

How will the challenges of the UK’s policy of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 affect UK regional airports?


It should first be pointed out that most regional airports have, or are putting, their own house in order in relation to climate change. Manchester Airport, for example was among the first in the UK to be awarded Level 3+ carbon neutral status after investing over £7.5 million in energy efficiency, purchasing clean electricity and offsetting emissions.

Many other regional airports are moving to all electric ground operations fleets. New technologies such as the use of hybrid fuels and electric aircraft will ultimately change the picture of aviation in the future. In the case of electric aircraft, the initial developments are likely to be in smaller 2-12 seater aircraft due to limits in the battery technology. EasyJet has however recently announced a partnership with US-based Wright Electric to produce a fleet of electric aircraft with a range of about 500 km, suitable for short-haul routes such as those between the UK and Amsterdam. It is important that regional airports facilitate such developments for both their short haul passenger and general aviation markets.

UK regional airports play a vital role to local economies, providing both jobs and opportunities for inward investment. In a post Brexit world, it is vital that both national and local governments provide the support they need to achieve these objectives.

BGL CommunicationsUK regional airports – the short and longer-term challenges