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Europe's general aviation community is no stranger to opprobrium. For years owners and operators have run the gauntlet of hostile neighbours, haughty commercial airlines and choosy airport owners and have long sought to challenge their perceived position near the bottom of the aviation pecking order.

European and national governments have begun to make robust steps to support GA, but the position of this large aviation community is precarious and its future in many areas hangs in the balance.

Challenges facing the industry are particularly acute in the UK, says Martin Robinson, managing director of the UK Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association - the international organisation concerned with general aviation and aerial flying - and regional vice-president of the International Council for AOPA.

He argues that the industry has been subjected to relentless bashing by the local communities and commercial airlines, so much so that it has become impossible for light aircraft to gain access to many large airports.

"Light aircraft have long been regarded as noisy and intrusive to the local community, while large international airports, mindful of the small return from GA traffic, have largely driven smaller aircraft out," says Robinson. "The likes of Heathrow and Gatwick shut light aircraft out years ago, but the problems have spread to other commercial airfields in recent years," Robinson adds. He blames in part the rise in the number of low-cost carriers that have absorbed the slots at previously popular flying sites such as Luton airport."

etienne de malglaive 
 © Etienne de Malglaive

Moves which inevitably lead to a curtailing of light aircraft activity enrage GA supporters, who believe the industry should be given more recognition and respect. "GA is by far the largest sector of aviation, with more aircraft, more flyers and more operating sites than any other area," says David Ogilvy, chief executive of the General Aviation Awareness Council. "The commercial air transport world depends on GA for its long-term future. It gets pilots from people who have paid for their own training," Ogilvy says.

NOT IN MY BACK YARD

Hostilities from local residents are "a big problem" he says. "There is a lot of nimbyism [not in my back yard] and quite ridiculous levels of unfounded fears," he says. "Quite often when someone wants or needs to operate a small grass aerodrome/airstrip, local residents fail to believe or understand the site limitations. Some think that a home for two or three light singles might be a crafty way of starting a major airport. On more than one public inquiry objectors have made remarks such as: 'A Cessna 150 this week may lead to Jumbos in a few years time'."

In the UK - home to around 140 licensed and 500 unlicensed airports, airfields and airstrips and a fleet of about 8,500 GA aircraft, including business jets - many facilities have been sold to make way for car factories and housing estates. "Aerodromes are being closed down for short-term gain," says Ogilvy.

The sale of the Burnaston and Sunderland aerodromes in the Midlands and north of England to Toyota and Nissan in the late 1980s was the catalyst for the GA community. "Since then we have had to fight, not only to keep them open, but to stop them from booting us out of the larger airports," he concedes.

The battle is being fought across the country, where 14 commercial airports, including Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and Southampton, have "either banned or restricted GA, or made noises/threats of doing so".

A common problem, Ogilvy argues, is that central government asked about 25 airports to put forward their plans to accommodate the expected increase in commercial air transport in future. "Several airports said they would turn over land now used by GA to make its available for commercial traffic. Inverness in Scotland, for example, said they would remove the GA hangar and make the space available for additional car parking."

Smaller regional airports such as Biggin Hill "are more interested in business aviation than the lighter/leisure/training side, which represents only 50% of the movements that they had 20 years ago".

At smaller sites the struggle is critical. A handful of airfields have recently closed while others have been sold to developers.

The fates of other sites are under threat from the latest environmental initiatives. "The problems confronting owners, operators and users of flying sites remain as widespread as ever, but without doubt wind turbines are at the top of the current complaints list," says Ogilvy. "The intended siting of some farms would have been detrimental to the broad range of flying activities at the nearby aerodrome and could provide hazards," says Ogilvy.

The proposed development of "eco towns" in the UK could also threaten the livelihood of many airfields.

Many GA airfields bring business into local economy, proponents argue. "Thriving business communities have built up around many of these airports to support GA activities at the site such as flying schools, maintenance companies and car hire firms. There is a lot at stake when these sites are closed," says Ogilvy.

This view is echoed by Yiouli Kalifati, president of AOPA Greece, which represents owners and operators of 350-plus aircraft.

"GA brings so much economic value to the airfields. But we are just not valued," says Kalifati. Many of Greece's 40 airports operate around airline schedules. "Most do not operate 24h and GA - which is supposed to provide a flexible means of transport - is shut out."

Again the large airports, notably Athens International, are effectively closed to GA "because they are too expensive to operate from" and there are few alternatives close to the major cities. "We would like to see more airports available for GA on a 24h basis. We don't need a high level of service, we just want full access to basic functioning airports."

Similar pleas are being made by the GA community elsewhere in Europe - home to 10,000 GA aircraft, a figure that according to IAOPA's Robinson is "expected to grow around 4-5% over the next 10 years".

In Germany prohibitive operating costs and weight criteria set by airport owners have led to the exclusion of GA at many large commercial airports. Munich International has shut out traffic weighing under 2t and there is no alternative suitable site close to the city, says Michael Erb, chief executive of AOPA Germany. The nation has a GA fleet of11,000 aircraft, with airports and airfields amounting to 500.

Near Munich is a former military base, Fürstenfeldbruck, which the trade association has been battling to keep open as a dedicated GA airport. Erb says its proponents were "extremely close" to clinching certification for the site, but the local political party made a U-turn. "If Fürstenfeldbruck can't be kept open there will only be Jesenwang, which has just 408m [1,340ft] of runway, much too short for anything but sports aviation. The alternatives - Augsburg and Manching - are far away from Munich," he adds.

A similar picture has emerged in the German capital, where GA is being priced out of the major airports - Berlin Brandenburg International (formerly Schonefeld) and Tegel. Downtown Tempelhof - home to the majority of GA activity within the Berlin areas - closed last year due to a lack of local support and now the GA community is forced to use Edaz airport - 72km (45 miles) south of Berlin.

egelsbach airport
 © Egelsbach Airport

In Frankfurt, the main airport has largely been cut off from GA and Egelsbach, south of the city, is facing public opposition to the proposed takeover by fractional ownership giant NetJets Europe. Localsdo not want to see flying activity increase at the site, Erbsays, and would like the airport closed. "What people are forgetting is that many GA flights are operated for business purposes. It is impractical to force them to land long distances away."

The industry has found support from the European Parliament's committee on transport and tourism, which has issued a report that urges the European Union to recognise the importance to the community of business and general aviation, and take action to ensure that it can operate without unnecessary infrastructural and regulatory restrictions.

Flexible point-to-point flights to smaller airports will improve the productivity of businesses and provides vital services for agriculture, construction, photography and search and rescue operations,the report says.

One of the report's sponsors, MEP Timothy Kirkhope, says: "We need to ensure a more competitive aircraft manufacturing industry to give businesses and smaller operators opportunities to provide services to local businesses."

The airport access issue is vital, says British Business and General Aviation Association chief executive Guy Lachlan. "One of the primary benefits of GA aircraft is their ability to fly into and out of airfields close to the final destination of the passengers. It is also important that we preserve the long-term future of many of these sites across Europe," says Lachlan.