Business aviation is battling for a long-term future at Europe's busy hubs

Kate Sarsfield/LONDON

As the curtain is raised on the sixth European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) convention in Brussels this week, to be held from 4-6 April, the thorny issue of business aviation operators' access to European airports is likely to provoke debate as capacity at the busiest hubs reaches crisis point.

The Airports Council International reported more than 15 million movements last year at its European member airports - an increase of more than 5% compared with 1998 - in a trend that looks set to continue. While some such as Germany's Frankfurt Airport appear to be making an effort to accommodate business aircraft, many key airports continue to make operations intolerable for resident fixed-based operators and visiting aircraft.

Airlines, argues EBAA chairman Brian Humphries, will always be a richer source of profit than business aircraft, by virtue of their higher landing and departure fees, as well as income generated by passengers' purchases at airport shops. He says: "We are not asking for equal access to the airports. That would be absurd. We simply want to be treated fairly and be recognised for the invaluable role we play."

The EBAA fears that low-cost carriers, such as British Airways offshoot Go and independent venture easyJet, will prove an attractive and lucrative alternative to Europe's long-established business aircraft operations.

A UK Government-sponsored report on business aviation in south-east England - which accounts for about 70,000 annual aircraft movements - forecasts that business aircraft capacity at London's major international airports will halve within 10 years, as the industry comes under pressure from fewer available slots. At London Heathrow, annual movements are forecast to drop from 5,000 a year to 2,000 by 2010, while at Stansted, a popular domain of the low-cost carrier, business aircraft movements are predicted to plummet from 8,600 to 5,000.

The European business aviation community fears that the study's effects, albeit parochial, will have wider repercussion for the European and global business aviation community. The EBAA asks: "If it is allowed to happen in the UK, what is to stop this situation from occurring across the rest of Europe?"

Fighting talk

To fend off the low-cost carriers, business aircraft operators are fighting back. In the UK alone, two pressure groups - both headed by the UK's largest fixed-based operator chain, Metro Business Aviation (MBA), with bases at London's Heathrow, Stansted and Luton airports - are rallying the cause at two hubs to fight for their long-term security. The Stansted ad hoc business operators association (SABOA) believes that, in time, the carriers will begin to squeeze their operations. MBA and SABOA chief executive Steve Grimes says: "Low-cost airlines are a potential threat, even to Fordair [Ford's European flight department] which has been operating its daily shuttle service [using two 115-seat Boeing MD-87s and a Raytheon Hawker] to its five European bases for years."

Despite its longevity at Stansted, Fordair's future there is not assured. The airport has allowed Fordair's operations to continue as normal for the next two years, then its slots will be reviewed. Grimes says: "An airline in the same position would be given grandfather rights, but Fordair [because it is defined as an ad hoc charter operation] is treated differently."

While Stansted operators have a stay of execution, the situation at Europe's busiest hub, London Heathrow, has reached crisis point. "We are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to slot allocation and the situation is becoming increasingly more difficult year by year," says Grimes. Last year, the MBA-led Heathrow Executive Jet Operators Association fought and lost a costly legal battle against UK Government-appointed slot co-ordinator Airport Co-ordination (ACL). The group claimed the airport's revised slot allocation system was unfair and damaging and designed to drive out business aviation, freeing slots for the carriers. "We will continue to stand our ground at Heathrow, although the slowdown in business has forced us to close our hangar and transfer our engineering base to Luton," says Grimes.

ACL believes its role is to alleviate congestion at the major airports - not to discriminate against different categories of airport users. It says: "We don't wish to exclude business aircraft operators, but we have a legal duty at our airports to administer UK and European law in the distribution of traffic in a neutral, transparent and non-discriminatory way."

Unconvinced, MBA is raising the stakes by taking its fight to the European Commission (EC) to force a change in European Union law. "We object to the current EC regulation 95/93, which excludes business aircraft operators from the annual round of slot bargaining, and think we should be allowed the same bidding rights as the airlines," adds Grimes. In response to senior EC representative's suggestions, MBA is studying the feasibility of forming an airline, consisting of European business aircraft operators, which could transform their fortunes and place the industry on a level playing field with the carriers. Grimes notes: "By forming a group of operators that collectively applies for a series of slots, it would put us in a more powerful situation and give us back control of our own destinies."

Throughout Europe, access to airports is tightening also, as carriers compete for the best slots and hub congestion increases. The future for business aviation at Brussels Zavantem Airport, for example, hangs in the balance following the national government's decision to transfer business aircraft to nearby Charleroi Gosseliers and Antwerp Duerne. The EBAA says: "The very nature of business aviation dictates that it has access to airports served by the airlines and these passengers often need to connect to scheduled flights."

Eurocontrol measures

The industry is calling for a range of suitable reliever airports across Europe to combat the situation. The EBAA concedes that, although access to the international hubs is vital to meet and sustain the burgeoning industry's demands, strategically based airports such as Paris Le Bourget must be tailored to business aviation, without threat from overbearing carriers.

TAG Aviation, which acquired Farnborough Aerodrome in England in 1998, hopes that the site will become one of Europe's major business aviation airports, if it gets a green light from the local authority to proceed with its £20 million ($31 million) development strategy later this year. "We are experiencing an annual growth in movements of more than 10% [current movement are 13,000] and we expect this to increase by around 15% a year once we get the go ahead," says TAG chief executive Roger McMullin.

While the operators wrestle it out, Europe's air navigation organisation, Eurocontrol, has stepped in to investigate ways to relieve pressure on the airports. Mike Loghides, head of airport operations, says: "Eurocontrol set up an airport operations unit last year, tasked with increasing capacity at Europe's airports. The scope of our work involves improving air traffic management and finding ways to aid the smooth running of the airport," .

Current initiatives under evaluation include an airport capacity assessment model that provides a scientific method of calculating declared capacity at airports, as opposed to the current fallible system in operation.

"Based on the parameters supplied by the airports, such as the number and use of runways, the free software can provide a neutral and objective way of measuring the current and required capacity at each airport," adds Loghides.

Nine airports in the region are evaluating the software, expected to be validated by year-end.

Next, the collaborative decision-making programme is designed to aid communication between the various airport divisions from check-in to cockpit. Loghides says: "We want to connect their computer systems, so that data can be exchanged quickly between personnel as soon as it becomes available. If each department knows in advance, say, what time the aircraft will be landing, they can get organised, which could in turn lead to time savings of up to 10min."

Eurocontrol is also monitoring the latest advanced surface movement guidance and control systems, which are designed to "speed up traffic despite inclement weather and reduce-runway incursions".

Despite potentially huge benefits, introducing these initiatives is voluntary and cannot be enforced. Eurocontrol admits that the largest airports, where capacity problems are at their worst, may have whole departments dedicated to monitoring capacity and evaluating slot requirements.

It concludes: "They are running a business and, therefore, their approach may not necessarily be in the best interest of all airport users. Nonetheless, no matter how much capacity we can deliver, it will always be used up."

Source: Flight International