Castle Air Expanding Amid 'Crazy' Helo Charter Market

Shuttle
Castle Air provides the Heli Shuttle service, which promises to get passengers from their jet to central London in six minutes.
Credit: London Biggin Hill Airport

"The market is just mad at the moment," says Declan Lehane, shaking his head in apparent disbelief. "I've been doing this since I was 15 years old and I've never seen anything like it. It's crazy."

Lehane is the ground-operations manager at Castle Air's base at Biggin Hill Airport outside London. The company, which was founded in Cornwall, England, in 1979, operates Biggin Hill's Heli Shuttle service, which promises to get passengers from the south London airport to Battersea, in the centre of the city, in six minutes.

The service is offered at two fixed prices: £2,400 ($3,000) plus tax for transfer on an AW109, or £3,000 tax-free onboard an AW139. Castle says there has been high demand for the service since its introduction in 2014 and the tempo of operations at Castle—for charter generally, and the Shuttle too—has only increased during bizav's post-COVID bounceback. 

"People are just traveling more," Lehane says. "There's no rhyme nor reason to it, really. Could be anything: sporting events, shooting events, people coming into the country and using the shuttle. Everything is up tenfold."

Castle also operates an approved maintenance facility for Leonardo aircraft, and manages helicopters for private owners. The tempo of those activities has risen, too; so much so that the firm will soon be taking over the hangar next-door as soon as it is vacated by its present occupant; Oriens Aviation, a Pilatus and Tecnam dealer, is moving to a larger facility elsewhere at the airport. 

"As a company we look after 54 aircraft, not all of them here," Lehane says. "But sometimes we're squeezing up to 20 aircraft in, so we've bought next door to give us loads more space. These aircraft don't like being outside, especially in the winter, so we need more room for hangarage. But it gives us the ability to do more maintenance."

The airport's business development director, Robert Walters, who sees the Heli Shuttle as one of Biggin Hill's key differentiators among airports in the London region, argues that the experience  at the site puts them in a strong position when electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) platforms are certified and capable of operating into and out of the city. Moreover, such operations could expand the airport's customer base into different demographics. 

This is an area Castle is still at the very early stages of assessing, but Lehane believes the pioneers of electric aviation will benefit from sharing operational experience with companies established in traditional rotorcraft—and vice versa.

"We could probably learn a lot from them, and they could learn a lot from us," he says. "If we all actually sat in a room together, we could probably all do quite well."

That said, Lehane expects that, even once a certified and operational eVTOL platform is up and running at the airport, there will still be strong demand for helicopters. He is careful to stress that his views are personal rather than necessarily those of the company—“it's not something we've sat down and had a meeting about," he cautions—but his belief is that eVTOL will complement, rather than replace, traditional helicopter charter.

"I don't think what we do today will be going away in the next 10, 15, 20 years," he says. "The types of people we fly, they're so safety conscious, and they have such incredible insurance requirements as to what's needed. I think we've got to concentrate on the business that we've got at the moment—however, we'd be silly to ignore it. If we could add to what we do and find a new market, a new clientele base, and do that differently, then 100% I think it's worth going down that route."