Richard Wittels became business development manager at Farnborough Airport in the UK earlier this year. In this Q&A he describes how the Airport is positioning itself for a role in the aviation market post Covid-19.
What’s your background?
Prior to joining Farnborough Airport, I worked for 15 years with TAG Aviation (UK) in various customer service and business development roles. It was a good education as I worked through the rapid growth of the pre-2008 era, the subsequent decline and gradual recovery. I understand how aircraft operators work and the requirements to serve their customers.
What do you see as Farnborough Airport’s strengths and assets?
As Europe’s leading business aviation airport, a key gateway to London, it is the first carbon neutral business aviation airport in the world. The airport offers an unparalleled experience with award winning, ultra-modern facilities and an outstanding team of top service professionals, in contrast to commercial airports that host private jet facilities, or others that are hybrids with activities like flying schools.
Every aspect of the airport experience is bespoke, tailored to meet the exact needs of the customer to optimise comfort and convenience. The airport is also the proud biennial host of the world’s leading airshow, the Farnborough International Airshow, since 1948.
What stand out facilities for customers and crew are at the airport?
More than £200 million (US$250 million) has been invested in infrastructure development at Farnborough Airport over the past decade. Our modern facilities provide passengers and crew the services they expect from Europe’s leading business airport.
New crew amenities introduced include a quiet lounge and snooze room equipped with flat beds and a zero-gravity ergonomic chair as well as an exclusive crew gym equipped with treadmills, cross trainers, exercise bikes, weight machines, amongst others, as well as dedicated shower rooms both in the gym and in the adjacent main terminal building.
In response to an emerging demand for higher-volume flights carrying groups of passengers such as corporate and sports teams as well as creative professionals, Farnborough Airport’s customer facilities also feature a specially designed lounge overlooking the runway in the main terminal building. Up to 80 passengers can be accommodated in the lounge, whilst also offering privacy and comfort to individuals or small groups. The interior is adorned by a fuselage clock, coffee table and exhaust lamp custom made from vintage aircraft parts. Other distinctive features include a “TopBrewer” coffee machine which can be operated via a dedicated iPad, and a gallery seating area overlooking the runway.
How do you describe the airport’s position with the European business aviation market?
At the beginning of this year, Farnborough Airport announced record air traffic movements for a third consecutive year of over 32,000, surpassing the previous record from 2018 for the highest ever number of total annual movements. These figures are a clear vote of confidence from the business aviation sector, underlining the success of Farnborough Airport’s philosophy – to consistently offer a five-star service of the highest standard with no compromises.
Farnborough Airport is consistently tops international FBO polls. This year, the airport was once again ranked first in the Professional Pilot PRASE Survey and also topped the ‘Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific’ category in AIN’s international FBO survey for the 14th consecutive year. These achievements underscore the professionalism and dedication of all our employees at the airport.
You were appointed just before the Covid-19 Lockdown started – a tough way to start any job – what do you think will be your and the Airport’s greatest challenge in the immediate future?
Yes! However, I was lucky enough to have worked with all of my airport colleagues closely during my time at TAG Aviation, and when the airport was owned by the TAG Group. This made my integration and transition to the business straightforward.
We are well positioned to take advantage of the future upturn in business. The airport has approval to increase the number of aircraft movements to 50,000, in incremental steps. It also has the capacity to cater for a wide range of aircraft types, including Boeing Business Jets and Airbus Corporate Jets.
A significant amount of business aviation traffic to and from London continues to go through airports which are congested and slot constrained. As we start to see an increase in demand for business aviation, Farnborough Airport is well placed in terms of location, infrastructure and customer facilities to take additional business aviation traffic from congested commercial airports.
What anti-Covid-19 measures are being taken at the airport and how has daily working life changed?
The safety of our customers and employees remains our utmost priority and from the very outset of this crisis, Farnborough Airport has followed medical, clinically driven advice from the relevant authorities on what measures to put in place to deal with Covid-19.
This includes providing hand sanitiser throughout the airport and enhancing our already thorough cleaning procedures across the airport site, with a specific focus on the regular cleaning of hard surfaces.
We have implemented social distancing measures across all areas of the airport which has required a number of adjustments to airport processes. Passports are systematically checked at a drive through UK Border Force passport control facility and passengers are asked to stay in their vehicles.
Whilst aircraft are generally being parked as close to the terminal as possible to minimise the need to transport customers and crew by car, where it is necessary to provide a car transfer, our vehicles – all fully cleaned and disinfected in accordance with health authority guidance – are now equipped with an interior plastic shield for the protection of our customers and drivers.
A remote invoicing process has also been introduced for crew, avoiding the need for physical, over-the-counter invoicing and payment transactions at the airport.
What is the future strategy for developing the airport?
The aviation business is changing all of the time. The key is to ensure that we stay ahead of the curve and focus on meeting the needs of our customers. I am now studying movement data and figures which will assist in driving the long-term strategy for the airport.
Having said that, we are only 35 miles south-west of London and ideally located to serve the business aviation sector. In fact right now, there are a number of opportunities available at the airport for businesses looking to relocate to this area.
The airport offers modern office space in a dynamic environment, with multiple size options, ideal for those in the UHNWI and wider luxury travel market. The airport is already a base for a number of businesses, including aircraft operators, lawyers, training and maintenance organisations.
What do you think are the longer term prospects for the Airport and business aviation in general post Covid-19?
As we look ahead, we will continue to invest and enhance the airport’s facilities, maintaining our position as Europe’s leading business airport and the one-stop-shop of choice for business aviation customers travelling through London.
Demonstrating our position as Europe’s leading business aviation airport and a gateway to London, in 2018, Farnborough Airport was chosen as the location for Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation’s London Area Service Centre and this purpose-built facility is expected to be operational later this year. The new maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility will include office space, customer areas, shop space and a hangar able to accommodate up to 13 large-cabin aircraft. Significant ramp space will also be included, along with a car parking area. The entire facility is projected to cover approximately 180,000 to 220,000 square feet/16,723 to 20,439 square metres.
Investments of this kind not only benefit the regional economy but also underpin Farnborough Airport’s role in supporting jobs and economic development. We are well placed to meet the specific requirements of Gulfstream and its customers.
Are there any other issues that you think the industry should prioritize dealing with?
The priority for the aviation industry is to ensure it supports the global economy and jobs around the world. With over a decade’s experience working at Farnborough, I appreciate the significant and historical role the airport has played in the aviation industry. The airport has long-standing good relations with the local communities around it and I know just how important these relationships are in continuing to be a good neighbour. I am proud to be working for an airport that is successful and serving the business community, not only in the UK, but around the world.