Getting stuck traveling on the roads in and out of Central London at rush hour is a frustrating experience.
With 8 million people living in the city and another 1 million commuting to work each day, it is no wonder that some people have decided that taking to the air by helicopter is an excellent way to escape the congestion. So, as in many cities across the world, wealthy individuals and business executives increasingly use helicopters to ensure that their time and money is not wasted in traffic jams. The work is a critical source of income relied upon by helicopter charter operators.
But now there are concerns that these operators could face pressure if tighter restrictions come into play. Politicians in London, including Mayor Boris Johnson, have called for a review of helicopter operations over the city following the fatal crash of an Agusta A109 helo on Jan. 16. Two people, including the pilot, were killed and several more on the ground were injured when the aircraft—operated by executive charter company Rotormotion Ltd.—struck a tower crane in poor visibility as it was diverting into the London Heliport in Battersea. Video footage and images on social media websites showed chaotic scenes of burning wreckage and flame-charred vehicles.
Although an interim report by U.K. accident investigators highlights that the operator's client that day suggested abandoning the flight because of inclement weather, companies understandably fear that any review coming out of such high-exposure events can bring tightened regulations that further squeeze their operations, which have already dwindled in the wake of the U.K.'s economic woes.
And their fears are well-founded. When a light aircraft flew into an apartment building in New York in 2006, theplaced tougher restrictions on light aircraft using some aviation corridors around the city.
According to Civil Aviation Authority statistics, helicopter traffic across London has dropped compared with 2007 and 2008. In July 2008, the number of helicopter movements traveling through or using the heliport was more than 4,300, while the highest recorded in 2012 was less than half that, with just more than 2,000 movements.
Londoners already hate helicopters, a view shared by residents of New York, Los Angeles and other major cities worldwide. This dislike has been further heightened by concerns over the recent crash, despite it being the first helicopter accident ever recorded in urban London.
“Any review raised over helicopter operations in London is a knee-jerk reaction,” says Michael Hampton, managing director of helicopter operator Capital Air Services. “London's airspace is extremely well-controlled and tightly regulated and the helicopter routes are very well-defined.
“Any changes or reductions from a review would be very damaging to the helicopter charter industry, which depends on flying customers into London. We are only just getting over the impact of the economic downturn of 2008, and more recently the Olympics, which forced a reduction in helicopter operations into London. It would also send a very sad message to the business community and rest of the world,” adds Hampton.
Helicopter operations over London are among the most tightly controlled in Europe and the world. Busy airspace over the city means helicopters are required to use heli-lanes that follow the River Thames. There are limits imposed on capacity, timing and routes, while local authorities routinely hold statutory consultative committee meetings to air any specific concerns. Single-engine helicopters face restrictions and can operate only a short distance away from the river as a precaution against engine failure. Twin-engine types have greater freedom of operation, and so are used by the Metropolitan Police and London's Air Ambulance. But even these vital services are criticized for their noise levels. The Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit has a Twitter account to justify the noise it makes to upset Londoners.
Politicians have tried to regulate the use of helicopters over the city in the past. In 1991, a parliamentary bill was tabled to create greater planning controls on heliports, to restrict noise levels and control the use of helicopters. Back then the concern was the increase in ad-hoc landing sites appearing across the city, while planning committees in different parts of London were investigating the potential for more heliport locations, such was the demand for helicopters.
The bill was unsuccessful, but so too was the plan to build more heliports, leaving Battersea Heliport, now known as the London Heliport, to deal with the inbound helicopter traffic alone. U.K. operators and those in other major cities anxiously await any review of regulations.