17 OCTOBER 2016

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Article from BTNews 17 OCTOBER 2016

COMMENT EXTRA: Flybe and Northolt

Regional airline Flybe is again making noises regarding operations from RAF Northolt, six miles to the north of Heathrow, during the interim period if, as seems likely, Heathrow expansion gets the go-ahead tomorrow. The Exeter-based airline makes it clear that its priority however is to gain slots when the new runway is completed.

Flybe’s situation is curious.

Some 12 months ago, Paul Simmons, then chief commercial officer, engaged BTN’s editor-in-chief Malcolm Ginsberg, a keen promoter of Northolt, to put together a programme for the airline to operate out of the military base with flights to UK centres not connected to Heathrow. 

Ginsberg had already discussed the idea with Simmons when Simmons was previously with easyJet. The Luton-based airline undertook a serious evaluation and decided that it might work, but that its primary aircraft, the Airbus A320, was not suitable, and that the A319 had a limited life within its fleet. It was no-go for easyJet.

At Flybe, Simmons saw virtue in the scheme and he had the perfect aircraft for the project, the partly Belfast-built Bombardier Q400 turboprop.

Airlines do not operate airports. Airports operate airports. However, a strategy was agreed by the Flybe management.

Quite uniquely, Flybe applied to the Ministry of Defence for a change of use for Northolt and was rebuffed by the MOD, which said that the idea was sound but it could foresee air traffic problems. Flybe was in fact not asking for more aircraft movements but a change in users, noisy private jets swapping for quiet turboprops, bringing in the revenue from 400,000 passengers rather than the present fewer than 25,000 private clients.

Paul Simmons left Flybe last December. The airline’s chairman, property expert Simon Laffin, took over the project, rejecting the Ginsberg/BTN strategy and bringing in a Westminster firm of lobbyists with no aviation experience. Progress has been slow. Chief executive Saad Hammad seems to blow hot and cold. Other airlines have expressed interest.

This time last year, London City Airport was re-engaged to handle civil operations at RAF Northolt, in effect becoming the airport franchisee. But who promotes a franchise? The operator or the owner? LCY or government?  

The BTN strategy includes closing Northolt when Heathrow R3 opens. The RAF base is worth £2bn at today’s prices.

See also BTN 19 October 2015 London Northolt (IATA NHT) ready for take-off

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