With its discreet location on the edge of suburban south London, removed from the congested airspace around Heathrow, Biggin Hill airport has long been a handy option for those who like to do their air travel by private jet.
The former Second World War fighter base nestling on the cusp of the North Downs regularly hosts luxury flights carrying customers from Formula One technicians to Premier League footballers to unnamed potentates arriving from places such as Saudi Arabia travelling on aircraft registered via holding companies and charter firms.
But in a sign of the changing times for an aviation sector decimated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the list of those making their way to the bijou airport in the London Borough of Bromley to ease their way into the leather seats of a Cessna Citation is increasingly attracting a (moderately) less monied clientele as the private jet business seeks to steal a march on scheduled airlines operating out of queue-heavy mainstream airports.
Hyer Aviation, a Dutch chartering company, this week announced it is launching Britain’s first pay-per-seat private jet service out of Biggin Hill and Farnborough in Hampshire, allowing passengers to slash the cost of an experience normally reserved for high-powered executives, celebrities and oligarchs. The concept, modelled on the UberPool cab-sharing service which allows passengers to spread the cost with those headed to the same destination, allows customers to effectively book a seat on a private jet rather than hire the entire aircraft.
As a result, Hyer is insisting it can slash the price of a flight from Biggin Hill to Edinburgh to about £1,400 per passenger, compared to up to £8,000 to charter a whole jet. Its first flight, from Biggin Hill to Amsterdam, is due to take off on 3 July with subsequent destinations including Cannes (£1,205 per seat), and the Mediterranean party capital of Ibiza (£1,400 per seat).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hyer and other companies seeking to champion the advantages of private jets to this new demographic of well-heeled middle-class flyer (the haves, as opposed to the have-yachts) are at pains to underline the convenience and “safety” of their offer with passengers able to arrive up to 15 minutes before take-off and avoid queues, and crowds, at conventional terminals.
A study by the International Air Transport Association has acknowledged that passengers could spend up to an additional four hours at an airport if travel demand reaches just 75 per cent of pre-Covid levels, a figure that rises to 6.5 hours if there is a full return to pre-pandemic volumes.
Private jet industry insiders told iweekend that the pay-per-seat model, which is already on offer in the Netherlands and the United States, is viewed as the next big thing in the sector with several operators developing apps capable of linking customers to jets and destinations. According to one pre-pandemic study, some 90 per cent of people who could afford to use private jets were not doing so.
One chartering executive said: “If we can persuade those with that little bit of extra cash that taking a private jet only costs as little as 50 per cent more per seat than business class on a scheduled flight and you can avoid all the hassle and exposure to others at a Heathrow or a Gatwick, then there are real opportunities out there. The idea of being able to take off, sip a glass or two of Chablis and touch down on the Cote d’Azur in the same amount of time it takes you to huff and puff to the departure gate at a normal terminal – let alone getting through immigration and health checks on the way back – is a no-brainer.”
It is not, however, a concept being welcomed with open arms by all and sundry, at least as far as Biggin Hill is concerned. Bromley Borough Council, which owns the airport, last month rejected an application by the operator to alter the terms of its lease to explicitly permit it to accept flights carrying passengers paying direct fares. Residents around the airport have raised longstanding concerns about noise levels and extended operating hours at the airport.
Biggin Hill Airport Ltd (BHAL), the operator, which argues that the change to its lease agreed 26 years ago is simply allowing it to move with the times and would not result in a significant increase in the number of flights, has vowed to fight any rejection of its proposal by taking its case to a specialist tribunal. The operator said it has no intention seeking to accept flights from scheduled airlines such as easyJet or Ryanair.
In the meantime, both the airport and Hyer Aviation argue the proposed model for its ride-sharing flights is equivalent to chartering a whole jet and as such is not in breach of existing rules. Andy Patsalides, BHAL’s head of marketing, said: “[Hyer Aviation] can operate from London Biggin Hill by chartering a whole aircraft and if they, the charterer, elect to recover some costs, they can do so by selling the seats that are not being used. The terms of our current lease do not permit direct pay-per-seat operations.”
Hyer Aviation emphasised that its service would remain within the rules wherever its flights operate from. Max van Doorne, the company’s director of business development and operations, said: “In the end, it is a private flight. The passengers will be able to be in touch with one and other before flight. If [flying from] Biggin Hill poses a problem, we can easily switch to another London airport.”
More generally, the wind appears to be blowing favourably in the direction of the luxury jet market. An industry analysis seen by iweekend said that while scheduled airline flights remained at least 50 per cent below pre-pandemic levels in the first three months of 2021, flights by business jets were just 10 per cent down.
Air Charter Service, which bills itself as the world’s largest aviation charter company, said bookings for private jet leisure trips rose by a quarter in April compared to the same month in 2019. An analysis of Civil Aviation Authority figures shows that business jet flights in April from Biggin Hill, which also operates as a maintenance hub for private jets, had returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Mr Patsalides said: “During the pandemic many people realised the value of private aviation and dedicated business aviation airports.”
Among them, it would seem, have been none other than Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was roundly criticised by environmental activists last month after the i revealed he appeared to have used a private jet linked to Tory donor Lord Bamford to criss-cross the country ahead of May’s local elections.
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Hyer Aviation said it offsets all the emissions caused by its shared flights by investing in certified carbon-reducing projects.
But campaigners remain highly critical of the environmental cost of flying by private jet, which is estimated to emit ten times as much greenhouse gases as an equivalent journey in economy class in a scheduled flight.
A study this month by Transport and Environment, a Brussels-based think tank, showed that CO2 emissions from private jets in Europe rose by nearly a third between 2005 and 2019 – outstripping scheduled flights. The biggest source of pollution was jets departing from the UK and France – accounting between them for 36 per cent of all private flight emissions in Europe.
Campaigners say the private jet sector is nonetheless in a strong position to play a pioneering role in making aviation carbon-free by funding the research needed to mass produce electric-powered long-distance aircraft, with four out of five flights in Europe within range of electric planes being developed for later this decade.
Leo Murray, director of innovation at climate charity Possible, said: “Private jet use represents the most extreme end of the climate injustice that characterises air travel. Banning fossil-fuelled private jets at UK airports within the next five years could help accelerate the introduction of electric flight, by incentivising the super-rich private jet user base to invest in these emerging solutions.”
“Chicken, beef or dog biscuit, sir?” Wealthy pet owners have started a new aviation trend of paying for their animals to fly to the UK on private jet “ride-sharing” flights.
A shortage of scheduled airline capacity, where pets are normally carried in heated cargo holds, means one jet chartering company has arranged three flights from Hong Kong and New York in recent weeks to meet demand.
The flight from Hong Kong has been organised by a veterinary surgery for clients who need to transport 10 cats and dogs to Britain, alongside their owners. The flight, to take place later this month, has been organised on a “ride-sharing” basis with passengers of the human variety splitting the cost and pampered moggies and pooches getting their own seats.
Air Charter Service (ACS), the company which organised the flights, said it was getting several requests a week from clients needing to travel alongside, or be reunited with, their pets. It said the rise of cost-sharing flights for animals was a new phenomenon in the private jet market.
Andy Christie, group director of private jets for ACS, said: “Owners are looking to fly with their beloved animals when travelling, with some of these clients relocating permanently, and this has proven to be a relatively cost-effective way of transporting their pets.”
The first ride-sharing pet flight took place earlier this month from New York to London and is understood to have been organised by a group of British ex-pats needing to bring their pets, including two bulldogs, back to the UK. A return flight has already been booked.
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