Business travel: Runway success

Business is booming at Biggin Hill, the former WWII fighter base that is now London's fastest-growing airport. All thanks to the increasing number of travellers who forsake the hurly-burly of Heathrow, Gatwick et al for the speedy, tranquil and exclusive world of private aviation. Andrew Saunders samples a day in the life of the executive jet set.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The runway has been checked, the fire-fighters have tested their safety equipment and, up in the 1950s-era control tower, the air-traffic controllers have donned their headsets and checked the weather and visibility. It's not yet 7am, but Biggin Hill airport, situated in the leafy Kentish suburbs 12 miles south of central London, is open for business.

Parked out on the tarmac are some 15 executive planes with a combined value getting on for a third of a billion dollars. At the front are the entry-level VLJs (Very Light Jets) - $1.5m craft so diminutive that some of them don't even have a loo - and behind them the range goes right up to the ultimate in high-altitude status symbols, the intercontinental machines. Planes like the Bombardier Global Express, Dassault Falcon and Gulfstream G550 are as big as a Boeing 737 and can fly a dozen or so passengers over 6,000 nautical miles non-stop, in an atmosphere of utter privilege. Price? A cool $40m-$90m, depending on model and specification.

Welcome to the upper reaches of 'general aviation' (GA), a catch-all industry term used for privately owned and operated aircraft: that's everything from weekend pilots and flying-club members right up to medical evacuation flights and - the bit we're most interested in here - executive jets. If a flight isn't available to the general public (and you don't see much of the general public round here), it's probably a GA flight.

0715: Inside the modest passenger terminal, Pauline Kent is ready at her snack counter. She hasn't had many takers for breakfast yet. Although Biggin Hill is open from 6.30am, operating restrictions imposed in deference to local residents mean that things don't really get cracking until after 7.30.

But don't let the peace and quiet fool you - the executive flying business is booming, according to the airport's business development director Robert Walters. 'Our typical traffic is now 50-60 movements a day - 100 if it's busy. That's 50% up on two years ago, and 80% of it is business flying.' At weekends, Walters claims, Biggin Hill can be busier than Heathrow - in terms of aircraft movements, at any rate.

As for the planemakers, order books are full and production of exec jets is expected to almost double to 1,700 aircraft a year over the next decade.

0742: A mid-sized Cessna Citation jet - $15m to you, squire - touches down, inbound from Kortrijk in Belgium. It's the first 'movement' of the day, but there are no passengers on board - they will be along later. The plane parks up and its crew prepare to pass the time until their customers arrive. This is probably the only branch of aviation where the aircrew wait for the passengers rather than the other way round.

Ten minutes later, a trio of sober-suited corporate execs stride out of the terminal building and board a twin-engined turboprop - roomy and relatively cheap to operate, if less glamorous than a jet. The plane is operated by a 'large plc' and today it is flying up to Chester and then to the Channel Islands. Not only does flying save time, says Walters, but passengers can also do confidential work while they travel, because there are no other passengers around to eavesdrop. 'The aircraft acts as a flying boardroom,' says Walters. Only a minute or so after they board, the steps are pulled up and the plane is on the move.

You don't have to be Einstein to grasp the appeal of this way of travelling. Tests conducted at Heathrow last year revealed that passengers' heart-rates can exceed those of Formula One drivers during a Grand Prix race. The neuropsychologist who monitored the tests concluded that some aspects of the Heathrow ordeal are more stressful than being mugged.

By comparison, Biggin is a sort of anti-airport, a haven of polite, tranquil efficiency designed to deliver exactly the opposite passenger experience. So there's no hour-long queue for check-in or security, no forced shopping to relieve the boredom of waiting (and boost the coffers of the operator), and no 15-minute walk to the gate. You just turn up, have a word with the greeter at the desk, show your passport to the security officer (an ex-Special Branch man) and walk out to the plane.

'We're a port of entry,' explains Walters. 'We have all the facilities of a large airport - immigration, security, passport control - just on a smaller scale.'

Another thing Biggin does have in common with at least the older parts of Heathrow is the dowdiness of the building itself, a hotch-potch of conservatory-style extensions arranged around an institutional-looking 1950s core. But as the average time from arrival at the airport to boarding the plane is less than five minutes, the only people who spend any time in it are airport staff and waiting aircrew.

0922: The crash alarm sounds and the firefighters drop everything and race to their appliances. CAA regulations state that they have to be able to get from their depot to any point on the airfield, and to have started to fight any fire there may be, within three minutes of the alarm sounding. That's a pretty tall order, says training officer Mick O'Brien - Biggin Hill is a 500-acre site and the main runway is 6,000 feet long.

'We're very proud of the training we do that enables us to hit that target,' he says. It's a task made even tougher by the fact that when they aren't on fire duty, the fire team has to double - or rather triple - as baggage-handlers, ground control staff and paramedics, and even service the toilet and water facilities on the aircraft. Make no mistake, these guys are busy.

The call is for an inbound jet whose pilot has reported a problem with the landing gear indicator lights. After a low fly-past to confirm that the wheels are down, the plane lands safely. The fire tenders chase it down the runway just in case.

'That's how you want it to be,' says O'Brien. 'We train and train, but hope we never have to use our skills for real.'

Sometimes they do. O'Brien has attended several incidents - 'proper crashes' - and was one of the first on the scene when, back in March, a Citation crashed onto a house in nearby Romsey Close shortly after taking off from Biggin. All five people on board, including racing driver David Leslie, were killed, and the house - fortunately empty at the time - was destroyed.

Notwithstanding such occasional grisly reminders of what can happen, business-jet flying has a good safety record. One interesting comparison recently concluded that it is safer than driving a car and about as safe as travelling by train. But nervous sorts looking for the absolute last word in accident risk minimisation should probably stick to scheduled flights. Large, modern airliners travelling regular routes between large dedicated airports are statistically just about the safest way yet devised to get from A to B.

1105: A dark-blue helicopter clatters in to land in front of the terminal building. The ride from Battersea heliport takes only seven minutes. It's a sleek, twin-engined job - eye-wateringly expensive to run. Three passengers emerge, at least one of whom, I'm told, is a 'prominent banker' - names are strictly confidential. Airport staff escort them all of 50 metres to a waiting Hawker jet. It's taxi-ing to the runway for take-off a minute or two later.

The airport started life as a Royal Flying Corps base in 1917. It was home to Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons during World War II, but it's now owned and operated by Regional Airports Limited. Founder and chief exec is Andrew Walters, Robert's father. Walters senior, an ex-army helicopter pilot, bought a 125-year lease on the airport back in 1994 from its owner, the London Borough of Bromley.

'It was in a parlous condition - the runway surface was breaking up so badly we had to sweep it before every jet take-off,' he recalls. 'I think the council probably thought they could close it eventually and use the land for housing. But I could see it was a good opportunity for a commercial airport.'

Now, after 18 years of careful investment and repair work - 'we do occasionally come across the odd old bomb crater from 1941' - the airport finds itself in an increasingly strong position. All the other London airports are approaching capacity - landing slots for private jets at Heathrow are almost impossible to come by, and both City and Farnborough, traditionally the two most favoured airports for business fliers, are also congested and expensive to use. Farnborough in particular - licensed for 60,000 flights a year - is pretty much full. But because of its military origins, Biggin Hill is licensed for 125,000 flights per year and has plenty of room to spare. Consequently, it is now London's fastest-growing airport, as news spreads of its utility as a base for both the super-rich - from fashion designers to oligarchs, pops stars to industrialists - and the growing cohorts of corporate fliers. If the £100m sale of the firm's other asset, Southend Airport, goes according to plan, Biggin is set for a £35m cash injection in the not-so-distant future.

1215: Spotting his chance, the pilot of a newly arrived two-seater light aircraft threads his way between the rows of prestigious jets to park right by the terminal door. It's a bit like someone jumping the queue at The Dorchester in a Mini Metro, and a reminder that Biggin Hill remains a major centre for amateur and weekend fliers, too.

1430 Tomislav Radic is the pilot of a brand-new Cessna Citation XLS. He arrived yesterday and was diverted to Biggin because he and his crew missed their landing slot at Luton. He, his first officer and flight attendant are waiting for their passengers to return before they depart for the two-hour trip back to Belgrade. 'They are stuck in traffic,' he says. 'They could be here any time.'

Radic works for a charter company, which owns a handful of executive jets and hires them out - fully staffed - to its customers. 'We are very busy,' he says. 'I do 60 or 80 hours of flying a month and my firm is having to turn business away. More and more business people are flying this way.'

In recent years, executive jet use has been made more affordable by the proliferation of charter and fractional-ownership operations. Fractional ownership works like a timeshare, but instead of buying the same fortnight in July every year, you buy a chunk of flying time that you can use more or less at your own discretion. Firms like NetJets - one of Biggin's best customers - have used smart marketing and more reasonable economics to persuade many businesses of the benefits of having regular access to an executive jet without the pain of a pricey asset sitting idle on the books in between flights. But at upwards of $8,000 an hour, it's still not exactly cheap.

1550: A sleek BMW 750 limo with privacy glass draws up outside the terminal. Its chauffeur strides in, checks with the desk and breezes out again. The car proceeds to the tarmac, where the anonymous passenger boards the waiting plane, without having so much as set foot in the terminal.

Since 9/11, security has become a big sell for executive aviation. Not only are airline security procedures onerous and time-consuming, goes the argument, but what about everyone else on the plane? Why travel in an airliner with 300 total strangers when you can fly in a business jet with half a dozen close colleagues who you are confident do not have Semtex hidden in the heels of their loafers? John Dugdale, another ex-Special Branch police officer, is in charge of security at Biggin Hill. 'Security at a large airport takes hours, even if you are flying first-class. What we offer is a quick, personal service - we can do full security screenings, but in minutes not hours.'

Walter Pellegrin, an executive jet pilot from northern Italy, agrees that the customer service at Biggin Hill is excellent. 'It's small and intimate, and being able to drive the car out to the plane is unique, I don't see that anywhere else.'

At 61 he's been flying for 41 years. 'I used to fly for a small Italian airline. This role is very different; it's more challenging than I expected. An airline pilot flies - and that's all. You never see your passengers. For an executive jet pilot, flying is the easy part. The main thing is to satisfy the customer. They are not flying Ryanair and they want the best service.'

1740: Behind his desk next to the snack bar, David Lloyd is taking a call from a Russian client. Lloyd runs the eponymous Lloyds of Bromley car service, with a team of 12 regular drivers and an all-Mercedes fleet dedicated entirely to the onward travel needs of Biggin Hill customers.

A pick-up that was supposed to have happened at 1630 in the capital's West End has just been put back to 1930. Lloyd calls the driver with the good news. 'He's just going to have to wait,' he says matter-of-factly. 'If I didn't have loyal drivers, I'd never cope in this business.'

But there are compensations. 'I get to know the customers, and what they like. We had Michael Schumacher in the other day; he knew exactly what he wanted. Air-conditioning at 22 degrees and all the windows shut.'

Celebs of both the business and corporate variety are a commonplace here, but mostly they don't like to shout about it. One big name who is not shy of letting his interest in Biggin be known is Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone. He owns a large chunk of the site - the part that used to be the RAF pilot training school - and keeps half a dozen aircraft based at Biggin.

Biggin is also popular with well-heeled animal lovers - Elton John among them, reputedly - as it is the only UK airport other than Heathrow to allows pets to travel without lengthy quarantine stays, via the pet passport scheme. Rumour has it that one of the larger jets based here has departed for foreign climes more than once with only the owner's two dogs and a manservant for passengers ...

1815: Radic and his crew are still waiting for their customers to turn up, but he remains sanguine. As far as he is concerned, it's all part of the service. 'Our passengers don't care about the cost; they just want to go where they want to go, when they want to go there. Our job is to give them want they want.'

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Leading from a distance: Remote working for the C-suite

Leadership lessons video panel: Chris Hirst, CEO of Havas Creative; Matt Peers, COO of Linklaters;...

There’s little point saving your business if you let your market die

Opinion: The nature of the coronavirus pandemic demands we look out for each other.

C-suite and furloughed

Use this as an opportunity to take a breath and get some perspective, says this...

Books for CEOs: Daniel Goleman, Jack Welch, Nelson Mandela

Beaverbrooks CEO Anna Blackburn shares her reading list.

What happens next: COVID-19 lessons from Italian CEOs

Part I: Marco Alvera, chief executive of €15bn Lombardy-based energy firm Snam, on living with...

Coronavirus communications: Dos and don'ts

Uncertainty and isolation make it more important than ever to be seen, to be heard...