The champions of business aviation argue that it provides an essential business tool and broadly supports the economy. This implies that its activity should be aligned to the overall health of the economy. In fact, this correlation plays out pretty closely with respect to the trend-line in business aviation flights in the UK since 2007: booming until 2008, knocked into a cocked hat in 2009, very slow to recover, but, since last year, doing a lot better than the rest of Europe – pretty much a mirror of the UK’s GDP performance since the financial crisis.
Like the economy, the UK’s business aviation activity is centered in London. It has the country’s busiest six airports, led by Luton and Farnborough. The next busiest in 2014 was Guernsey. London’s flight activity was up 4% last year, but there was also significant growth outside London, with Manchester up 10% and Glasgow up 15%. If anything, business aviation activity in the UK is accelerating in 2015, with 6% growth in March. In Q1 2015 the UK has added the equivalent of 256 extra flights per month.
The UK’s growth, which lagged behind the European trend for much of the recession, now contrasts with a very sluggish start to the year on the continent. Business aviation flights in the rest of the EU are actually down about 1% this year, and the wider European area trails last year’s activity by 5% due to the still-collapsing market in Russia and the Ukraine. Switzerland is one market that is already clearly feeling the impact of fewer Russian visitors. This summer, those relying heavily on Moscow’s erstwhile connections to the Mediterranean region will also feel the pinch.
To a lesser extent, the UK has also suffered from regional turmoil on Europe’s periphery – flight connections with the Middle East were down 1% last year, and arrivals from the Commonwealth Independent States (CIS) are down 13% this year. But the UK has also benefited from its wider connections with the rest of the world, with flights to Asia up 22% last year, and connections with Africa and North America increasing 7%. The USA is an important market, with 780 inbound business aviation charter arrivals in the UK last year. The most regularly flown city pair, Farnborough-Teterboro, saw activity increase 20% in 2014.
Compared to Europe, the UK’s fleet is disproportionately large cabin, with a particular emphasis on Ultra Long Range (ULR) aircraft. For example, the UK ranks as Europe’s busiest market for Bombardier Global series aircraft. ULR demand has been resilient throughout the recession, but nowhere more than in the UK; last year, demand for ULR flights increased 18%. The UK is also over-represented at the other end of the scale, in turboprops. Last year saw a major resurgence in this activity; for example, King Air 200 flights were up 16%.
A remarkable data point in the analysis of business aviation activity in the UK last year is that it involved more than 7,000 unique aircraft tails, which is about 25% of the global fleet. This shows how central the UK is to the travel demands of global business aviation customers. An approximate 340,000 passengers were transported on such flights from the UK, with an estimated direct benefit to the industry of some €1.5bn (US$1.6bn). So it seems that after several years of despond, the UK’s business aviation sector is becoming a success story. But as ever, it remains a challenge to convince the government of this value.
April 9, 2015