Biggin Hill Airport (Booth Q82) isn’t content being the third-most-popular destination for London-area-bound business aircraft traffic. The former military air base, 19 kilometers (12 miles) from central London, logged a record-breaking 22,000 movements last year and is making investments in infrastructure to attract more growth.
Last year’s traffic smashed the airport’s previous record of 18,500 takeoffs and landings in 2019. It also represented around a fifth of the VIP traffic across the competitive London gateway niche, which also includes Stansted, Northolt, London City, and Oxford airports.
The surge resulted largely from the pandemic and the boom in first-time users of business aviation who chose the safety of private cabins and terminals over crowded airliners and airports. Many of those first-timers have become full converts to business aircraft travel, which is helping to sustain healthy traffic numbers at the site.
“While the movements for the first three months of 2023 were slightly down on last year, the tally is still well above pre-pandemic levels,” said Biggin Hill chief commercial director Robert Walters. “The airlines—regardless of whether they get back to capacity—are nowhere near as good as business aviation. This level of activity is the new normal.”
For Walters, there is another reason the privately owned airport is thriving. Biggin Hill has been investing heavily in its infrastructure with the aim of becoming what he describes as “London’s full-service, pre-eminent business aviation airport.”
Biggin Hill’s anchor tenant is Bombardier, which opened a company-owned service center—its largest base outside North America—last year, following a two-year construction project. Located on the east side of the airport, the setup consists of 650,000 sq ft of apron space and a 250,000-sq-ft hangar that can house 14 ultra-long-range Global 7500s at once.
Other key tenants at Biggin Hill include motor-racing giant Formula 1; helicopter operator and maintenance provider Castle Air, which also operates a VIP helicopter shuttle from the site to central London; charter and management company Zenith; Pilatus Aircraft distributor and service center Oriens; completions and MRO firm JetMS; and Jetex, which took over the FBO at Biggin Hill in February from Signature Flight Support.
Walters said Biggin Hill’s strong property portfolio and broad range of tenants have given the privately owned airport financial stability. “This is certainly helping to underwrite the running of the airport now and in the future,” he noted.
There is still capacity on the 500-acre airfield to house additional aerospace companies. Asked which ones Biggin Hill seeks to attract, Walters said, “More aircraft operators, MROs, and parts suppliers to support our tenants.”
The airport is also keen to welcome flight simulator training providers. “Biggin Hill would be a compelling proposition for simulator companies given the thriving service center throughput and our new hotel, which can cater to their personnel,” he said.
Biggin Hill opened the four-star, 56-room hotel, dubbed The Landing, on March 6 and it is already proving “very popular,” Walters said. Located on the south side of the airport, the hotel caters largely to flight crews, maintenance technicians, and other professionals visiting the airport. So handy is it for arriving pilots that Biggin Hill has come up with the slogan, “Touch down to head down in 10 minutes.” An annual occupancy rate of between 80 and 90 percent is anticipated.
Other infrastructure projects include upgrading the main airport entrance and revamping the main terminal building. “Covid delayed our timetable for the new FBO, but we have dusted off the plans and are working through the project with an expectation to have it completed in the next 24 months,” said Walters.
Biggin Hill also wants to build a technical college on the site to deliver a steady stream of local, qualified personnel to its tenant companies and provide high-value employment opportunities to the community. “If we can have two or three generations of the same family working on the site, growing up locally, going to the college, getting a job with a company at the airport, and having a life cycle of jobs here, that’s the most powerful glue that we could ever create to cement the success of the whole site,” Walters explained.
The main stumbling blocks to development are funding and sourcing an educational provider. Biggin Hill secured £6.5 million ($8 million) in local government funding for the college before the pandemic, but the money was withdrawn and repurposed during the lockdown. “We may have to consider a public-private funding route this time, but it is vital that we demonstrate to potential investors that there’s enough demand for the college to justify the expenditure,” he said.
Looking ahead, Biggin Hill has set aside land on the east side of the airport for electric aircraft. “We want to be at the forefront of the next generation of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft by supporting the urban air mobility (UAM) industry and utilizing the benefits of these exciting sustainable models on the doorstep of London with the potential to create a huge new community of travelers,” said Walters.
Linked to the airport’s sustainability agenda are plans to erect a solar farm on the airfield. This will generate clean energy to power the envisioned UAM operation, including aircraft charging points, and Walters expects any excess energy from the plant will power the airport, making the site self-sufficient.
Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is also at the heart of the green agenda at Biggin Hill, which has been continuously stocking a 35 percent SAF blend from Air BP since 2021. However, Walters described the take-up as “disappointing” and said he hopes to launch an initiative with Air BP in the coming months to stimulate demand for the low-carbon renewable fuel. For now, he argued, SAF is “going to take away one of the big sticks the environmental lobby has been using to beat up business aviation. Increased take-up is essential.”
Hydrogen fuel is also part of the mix further in the future, he suggested, and Biggin Hill will invest in infrastructure to support “truly green flying.”