Booming airline traffic is squeezing business aviation at crowded airports throughout Europe, and there’s no solution in sight.

Airport crowding will be a major talking point this week in Geneva, where the difficulty in solving the problem can be seen first hand. Geneva is the Continent’s third busiest business aviation center and Switzerland’s second busiest for airline traffic; its operators try to cater to both but when slots become scarce in winter, business aviation bears the brunt of the rationing.

“The airlines are expanding their routes massively and sucking up slots throughout Europe,” says Jason Hayward, general manager for Universal Weather & Aviation at London Stansted.

According to the Airport Council International (ACI) Europe, the problem is compounded by airline passenger traffic in Europe’s growth of 6.1% in 2018, bringing the total number of passengers using Europe’s airports to a record 2.34 billion. And based on Europe’s airports welcoming an additional 136.6 million passengers in 2018, Oliver Jankovec, director general of ACI Europe, adds, “This means in just five years, passenger traffic has expanded by more than a third.”

Business aviation’s long-term trend in Europe is one of growth too. According to the European Business Aviation Association, business aviation currently transports slightly more than 3 million passengers annually with a fleet of 3,800 aircraft of all types.

The 2019 EBAA Yearbook notes that since the advent of the Romanian European Council Presidency in January of this year, business aviation activity in that country alone has increased by 25%, compared with the same period in 2018.

“This,” says EBAA, “demonstrates the ever-pressing need for the closely tailored, flexible, point-to-point transportation for governments, businesses and local communities in the most time-efficient way possible that business aviation provides.”

With global passenger traffic expected to double by 2037, EBAA has called for an inclusive European aviation framework to enable improved connectivity, efficiency, European competitiveness and regional cohesion across the continent.

The association has also called for regulations that allow business aviation the same level of access to airports as scheduled operators. To that end it is working with the European Commission, European Parliament and EU member states to “retain fair and equitable access for business aviation at regional airports across Europe, where continued access is threatened by the growth of scheduled carriers who benefit from automatic preferential rights.”

“Business aviation,” says the association, “is a cornerstone of the European air transport value chain, providing its users with an efficient and flexible means of transportation and access to airports matters.”

EBAA has further emphasized the economic importance of business aviation, pointing out that a total of some 374,000 European jobs are either directly or indirectly dependent on the European business aviation sector, and that the industry represents EUR87 billion in output, EUR32 billion in gross valued added, and EUR25 billion in salaries.

According to Edmond Rose, Airport Coordination Ltd. CEO, the problems with airport access come mainly from the lack of available slots, especially at specific times of the day. UK-based ACL is one of the world’s leading airport slot coordinators and handles some 3.7 million flights annually.

Access is typically more limited at certain times of the day, points out Universal’s Hayward. “Airports in Europe are dominated by low-cost airlines and they have to deal with the first wave of outgoing flights between 5 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Other busy periods are late afternoon and evening between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and the last wave is between 10:30 and midnight.”

He notes that at airports with night noise restrictions, slot access affects all flights, both commercial and business aviation. “These restrictions have become tighter in recent years, making access harder.”

Slot availability at European airports is often seasonal, and airlines book their slots season by season so they can publish their schedules well in advance. “In fact, they’ve already published their schedules for this coming winter,” Hayward says.

“Access to Nice Cote d’Azur Airport is jammed in the summer, and Geneva Airport in the winter, and Paris Charles de Gaulle is jammed all year round,” he explains. “I saw the general manager of the Nice airport in April and he says they were already bracing for the summer tourist season.”

Airports are very much driven by the best economic value for slots, Hayward adds. “They’re more focused on revenue derived from a 160- passenger Ryanair Boeing 737-800 than from eight passengers on a Gulfstream business jet.”

The situation is similar with regard to fixed-based operators, for whom slot access is the lifeblood, he says. “In some cases, you can see the life being strangled out of them by limited slot access for business aviation.”

Ramp space at high-capacity airports is also a limiting factor, so it is not uncommon for business aircraft to be required to drop off passengers and then fly to an airport where parking is available, returning later to pick up their departing passengers.

“Universal works closely with the British Business and General Aviation Association and with the European Business Aviation Association,” Hayward says. “And we lobby hard to point out the value of business aviation to the local economy, rather than just the direct value of slots to the airports by airline traffic.

“It’s important to get individual operators on board with the lobbying effort. If only a few operators do so, the government responds, “Well, you’re the only ones complaining about the lack of access.

“In the U.S., operators are more willing to stick their necks out; I would urge individual operators in Europe to do the same. What we’d like to see is a system that sustains everyone – business aviation, FBOs, airports and the airlines.”

While the competition for slots continues, there are airports in Europe that have reached an accommodation with business aviation. Among these is Geneva, with more than 187,000 total movements annually.

At Geneva, Slot Coordination Switzerland delegates slot allocation. The objective is “to make full use of the applicable airport capacity for the benefit of all types of traffic [and] ensure that general aviation and business aviation operations are administered in a neutral, non-discriminatory and transparent manner,” SCS says.

One of the major beneficiaries is Geneva Airpark, a 108,000-sq.-ft. private general aviation hangar complex that will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year at EBACE 2019.

While not an FBO by definition, the airpark offers ramp parking for business aircraft and a range of services, many of which are typical of a top-flight fixed-base operator, from fueling and aircraft crew assistance to aircraft cleaning and free Wi-Fi access.

It is described as a global service solution “to facilitate arrivals and departures of private and business aircraft, optimize operations and ensure a welcome of high quality.”

According to Edmond Rose, CEO of Airport Coordination Ltd. (ACL), the problems with airport access come mainly from the lack of available slots, especially at specific times of the day.

ACL works to ensure that all operators have fair access to European airports. “This is within the terms of the EU slots regulation, which gives priority in slot allocation to commercial air services and provides for ‘grandfather rights’ which entitle operators to use the same series of slots from season to season, provided they operate the slots at least 80% of the time.”

Is airport access a government problem, or one that private investors should fix? Two shining examples of how it can be done are London’s Biggin Hill and TAG Farnborough, both dedicated to business aviation with hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment. And Paris has largely sidestepped the slot issue with Le Bourget, developed and managed as its business aviation airport by the state-majority-owned Groupe ADP. That will likely fall into private hands after the French national assembly voted in April to privatize the company, which also operates Charles de Gaulle, Orly, and numerous regional airports throughout France.

The session will feature a number of stakeholders who will share their experiences and perspectives on major issues regarding airport access, including slot availability and parking ramp capacity. It will also highlight solutions and best practices to improve access for business aviation operators to European airports.