London Oxford Airport and London Biggin Hill Airport have asked the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) why Northolt does not fall under its regulatory control, despite its increasing numbers of civilian flights. It is currently still regulated as a military airport which means it has different restrictions, and they argue a commercial advantage, over other private jet airports serving the London area.
The result of a review - if it goes against the Ministry of Defence (MOD) - could see London's premier VIP airport, and the preferred airport for the Queen and royal household, sold for residential housing.
If the runway length was reduced (one of the possible outcomes), the resulting drop in business aviation revenue would mean the MOD could not justify continuing to run a runway at RAF Northolt. And selling the unused land in a prime West London location would be a commercial decision for the UK military, who are desperate to reduce expenditure. Essential military services at the base, such as the British Services Post Office, could be still retained but the site reduced considerably, by selling off the land taken up by the airfield and runway.
Previously purely a military airport, in the past decade RAF Northolt has been made available for private civilian flights - including those referred by nearby Heathrow (which has been scaling back its private flights at the same time).
And customers have been voting with their jets since, in ever increasing numbers. The cap on annual flight movements was recently increased to 12,000 from the previous limit of 7,000 - by 2016, it plans to offer 17,500.
Northolt's popularity has dented demand at other business aviation airports serving London during a challenging economic climate. In addition to Oxford and Biggin Hill, London's Luton and London Farnborough airports have also lost business (Farnborough has seen growth due to the uncapping of its own flight movements, but its demand would have been even greater).
Why is Northolt so popular for private jet customers?
There is no doubt that London RAF Northolt holds strong appeal with the private jet customer travelling to or from London. It offers a winning combination of location; (just 12 miles from the city centre); privacy; and service.
It's the closest private jet airport to Mayfair, with driving times from London RAF Northolt as little as 28 minutes. Compare this to the 1 hour 10 minutes from London Oxford, or just under an hour from Biggin Hill.
As the military airport used by the Queen and royal family, it has exceptional security and is very discreet for those looking to travel with a low profile.
It also has very high service levels. Since London City Airport took over the running of Northolt's Jet Centre in 2006, the airport has offered the same consistently high and efficient service as the City location - setting the standard for Europe.
What are the other airports objecting to?
London Biggin Hill and London Oxford airports have highlighted specific aspects of Northolt's infrastructure - such as a petrol station too close to the touchdown point - that would not be allowed if it was regulated by the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) but which meet Military Airports Authority (MAA) guidelines. They argue that the less rigorous MAA regulations give Northolt a competitive advantage over other London airports - and have also questioned its safety for civilian flights.
So what will happen next? Here's a summary of the situation, as I see it:
- The MOD would like to earn as much revenue from Northolt as possible - under the Wider Markets Initiative, which allows the military to look to gain commercial value from its assets that can't be reduced.
- Customers clearly like using Northolt - we see this all the time at PrivateFly. The demand is there for the reasons shown above. And this has upset other surrounding airports.
- The operational environment at Northolt (flight paths and airport infrastructure) is currently regulated under military guidelines. If Northolt was a civilian airport, regulated under the CAA, it would not be licensed.
- To change Northolt to meet civilian airport standards would either cost millions, or mean reducing the official length of the runway - restricting its use by bigger aircraft. Currently most sizes of private jet, up to large cabin aircraft, can land there. This would include the complication of how to handle flights by the Royal household, which are now predominately in CAA registered aircraft, and not with the Royal Air Force.
Biggin Hill and Oxford are absolutely right to request an explanation from the CAA as to why they are not enforcing their regulations at Northolt - as they have to operate under a significantly higher cost of business.
What is best for the business aviation customer?
London Biggin Hill has written formally to the CAA and is awaiting a reply, so we will keep a close eye on developments.
When the CAA is looking at this case, I hope they put interests of customers first. There will need to be a great deal of consideration given to balancing all the considerations of safety, and commercial fairness. But decisions to close runways are very rarely unpicked and can be a cause of regret. This was widely felt after the closure of Berlin Templehof (closed due to environmental concern, but a superb airport giving much improved access for Berlin).
If the CAA were to close RAF Northolt for civilian flights, it would be very difficult to reopen it. Ideally consideration of Northolt's role for private aviation in London should be included in the overall view on Heathrow. The debate on runway capacity in the South East of England has just got even more complicated, nobody likes upsetting the Queen!
• The safety of all civilian aircraft using government owned military aerodromes is the responsibility of the Civil Aviation Authority.
• CAA now responsible for deciding if RAF Northolt is safe for use by civil aircraft.
• As a result taxpayers could potentially be facing a bill in excess of £20 million.
• RAF Northolt admitted (by MOD and CAA) that it does not comply with Civil Aviation safety standards.
• Ruling impacts all civilian flights using military aerodromes, including 12,000 civilian flights a year at RAF Northolt
Previously, as part of a policy of attracting 12,000 more business jets a year to RAF Northolt in west London, Ministers had repeatedly argued that they didn’t need to meet stricter, costlier civilian safety standards – only military ones – and that the CAA had no regulatory powers at military aerodromes.
This meant that smaller private airports reliant on business jets were being significantly undermined, as RAF Northolt became a competitor without incurring the higher costs of complying with civilian safety standards.
London Oxford and Biggin Hill Airports, represented by John Steel QC, lodged an application for a Judicial Review, arguing that military aerodromes should be regulated by the CAA and subject to equivalent safety standards that would apply to civilian airports, as mandated by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (UK CAA).
This Judicial Review has now clarified the position – the CAA and the Secretary of State for Transport are responsible for the safety of all civilian flights using RAF Northolt and other military aerodromes in the U.K. The safety of military flights remains the responsibility of the Military Aviation Authority.
In evidence submitted to the Judicial Review, it has been suggested that the costs to the taxpayer of meeting equivalent safety standards as would apply at a civilian airport would run into the tens of millions. For example, the MOD submitted evidence that suggested that measures to address a lack of adequate emergency runway run off areas to allow for potential under/over-shooting aircraft would alone cost in excess of £21 million at a time of defence cutbacks.
The Judgment is also likely to have a major impact on an ongoing E.U competition investigation concerning State Aid, and requested by London Oxford and Biggin Hill Airports. Should the Commission finds that the MOD have been unfairly competing with the private sector the compensation bill could run into many tens of millions.
In welcoming the Judgment, Will Curtis, Managing Director of Biggin Hill Airport in SE London, said ‘Despite a serious crash in 1996 in which an aircraft overran the runway and collided with a vehicle on the A40 trunk road, RAF Northolt evidently believed it was entitled to bypass many internationally accepted aviation safety measures – measures that civil airports such as ours are required to maintain. Lower safety standards at military aerodromes are unacceptable, not only for those in the aviation industry, but also for passengers and those in the surrounding community on the ground.
The Judgment now for the first time clarifies that the CAA has statutory responsibility for safety in relation to use of RAF Northolt by civil aircraft. This is long overdue as the relevant legislation goes back to 1982. I am sure that they will want to quickly consider their position regarding the safety standards for civil aircraft at RAF Northolt."