6 MARCH 2017


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Article from BTNews 6 MARCH 2017

ON THE SOAPBOX: Malcolm Ginsberg – editor-in-chief, Business Travel News

Malcolm Ginsberg has been the owner/editor of the award-winning Business Travel News since 1993 (then ABTN) and has been involved with regional airlines all his working life, sitting on the executive board of three, in their time high profile, operations. See www.ginsberg.co.uk

RAF Northolt to close!

Business Travel News has learnt that the Ministry of Defence is to close RAF Northolt for at least nine months from April 2018. 

The original plan was to shut the airport for runway strengthening in April of this year, but the work has been postponed for unknown reasons. While this seems to be known within the business jet community, there has not been an official announcement by the airport operator. The cost is put at £40m, deemed very high by experts in this area.

Perhaps this is why the MoD fostered the red herring that a change from private jet to scheduled services at the airport could not be considered. 

This leaves the government in a predicament. Should it allow the money to be spent?

Does it close the airport and turn over the 600-acre £3bn value site for much-needed housing and community use?

Does it allow RAF Northolt to reopen ‘as was’, for executive aviation (subsidised) and the military? The MoD and VIP flights represent just about 10% of the 12,000 civil movements presently allowed for executive jet use. It would seem the MoD is very concerned that with Heathrow R3 now on its way, questions will be asked why the RAF cannot in the future move into a small military enclave at Heathrow and benefit from the 24/7 availability and access by its largest aircraft.  

In 10-15 years’ time, the sale of Northolt would be a real bonus for the Treasury. The RAF might say it has made a big investment at Northolt, have a new runway and must stay at the airport. It is a very expensive airport for just 1,200 MoD movements per year!

The provinces have an urgent requirement for air links to London and Heathrow. BTN has long campaigned for the biz jets to be moved out of Northolt and, while R3 is being constructed, for the regional commuter services that are planned for the future Heathrow to move in on a temporary basis.    

Last year, Flybe approached the MoD with a plan for the current Northolt executive flights to be relocated to airports like Biggin Hill, Farnborough, Oxford and Luton and for regional flights to start. A plus for the Treasury, the RAF itself and the regions. This was turned down on dubious grounds. Clearly, the MoD knew of the airport’s future plans. It would have been embarrassing to find Carlisle, Liverpool, Newquay, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands (to name but a few) celebrating frequent London flights only for them to be stopped in just 12 months.  

The government should now take a hard look at Northolt and decide what Downing Street wants for the future, not just the RAF. It is part of the UK, Brexit and Heathrow conundrum. 

The three choices are clear.  

Close the airport.

  • Go ahead with the runway work and instead of the executive jets coming back in 2019, let in the domestic airlines.
  • Open up Northolt now for scheduled commuter services, giving a lifeline to the regions while Heathrow R3 is being developed and turning the airport into a cash generator for the Treasury (400,000 passengers against the present subsidised 25,000), giving the local community respite in terms of noise and a bonus regarding jobs and spin-off. We are told that with little remedial work, the current runway is good for 10-15 years.
  • The future of Northolt should be taken away from the MoD, de facto the RAF. The Chancellor was once the secretary of state for transport and was quick to get down to London City Airport and announce its expansion on his appointment.

Chris Grayling, the present high command in this area, has a fine airport knowledge, and Lord Ahmad, aviation minister, is aware of the Northolt potential.  

BTN’s campaign has been long. Ideally, we would like to see Flybe’s Q400 turboprops flying into Northolt now, perhaps even BA Cityflyer’s Embraer EMB 170s, and Loganair coming down from Prestwick with Saabs. But we can wait 24 months and see Northolt, while not quite returning to its glory days when it was Europe’s busiest civil airport, at least making a real contribution to the nation’s prosperity.  

Tomorrow (Tuesday 7 March), Lord Ahmad speaks at AOA’s annual Grosvenor House dinner. It would be nice to learn of the government’s view regarding Northolt. A silence is not good for Northolt, nor for the country.

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OUR READERS' FINEST WORDS (All times and dates are GMT)

All comments are filtered to exclude any excesses but the Editor does not have to agree with what is being said. 100 words maximum

Simon Grigor, Harrow

I don't disagree with the argument, but there are some 'cons' too. Links between Northolt and Heathrow are presently almost nil. Two bus journeys will take you from the main gate to LHR central, but that will take WELL over an hour in rush hour traffic. London City to LHR may well be a quicker transit. However, the idea of using the airfield for housing fills me with horror: the local infrastructure (especially the roads) is already seriously overloaded. Travel on the A40 past the airfield early morning and imagine the extra traffic brought about by all those new houses.....

Andrew Hughes, London

Does the proposed £40m works budget fix the well publicised safety issues around the approach/departure to Northolt? If Flybe had been allowed to operate scheduled commercial services then the difference between MoD/RAF and CAA safety standards would presumably have been magnified to a point where the CAA could no longer overlook the issue. It would be nice to think that public safety around aviation would be a level playing field. It seems this may not be the case where Northolt is concerned.

Brian Donohoe, IRVINE

I'm not so sure about your comment on the SoS In any event The Chancellor does and would be more likely to have the decision to take