Sounding Board: Five Minutes With Robert Walters, London Biggin Hill Airport Commercial Director
Since joining the family business in the 2000s after a spell working in insurance, Robert Walters has had an unbetterable view as Biggin Hill has undergone a radical transformation. His father, Andrew, bought a 125-year lease on the airfield in 1994, and set about turning the former Royal Air Force base’s fortunes around. Robert became business-development manager in 2006 and has been involved in building and maintaining the relationships with tenant businesses, political leaders and the wider community that have been vital in making the airport one of Europe’s busiest bizav locations.
Biggin Hill is the only dedicated business-aviation airport that sits inside the M25, London’s unofficial border. In 2017 the airport secured extended opening hours, and shortly after, Bombardier chose Biggin as its primary European operating location. The firm is in about to open a second, larger, maintenance center; Castle Air, which operates a helicopter shuttle service connecting Biggin Hill with Battersea heliport, and Oriens Aviation, the exclusive UK distributor for Pilatus and Tecnam, are both in the process of doubling their footprints at the airfield. The site’s history is still prominent, courtesy of a thriving heritage hangar which offers passenger flights on two-seat Spitfires, while a cafe on the airport’s perimeter gives a focus to the airport’s day-to-day interaction with the local community.
Walters, now the airport’s commercial director, spoke with The Weekly of Business Aviation during a visit to Biggin Hill ahead of EBACE.
Q: The years since the pandemic hit have been challenging, but the recovery appears strong. How has it looked from your perspective?
There were three months of pretty tough times for the whole aviation industry, but here at Biggin Hill, we remained open, and we were the only airport that actually did remain open. We never shut for a minute. As a result of that, we made quite a lot of new friends; and then as travel started to unlock a little bit, those who knew about business aviation jumped back in. Those who didn’t that needed to fly by choice or necessity started to explore the opportunities of what business aviation could offer them, and found it to be a very sticky product, if you like. There is an element of luck because we never saw COVID coming. It’s magnified the benefits of it, and as a result of that, the business aviation community now is certainly having a positive time.
Having said that, obviously the Russia-Ukraine crisis presents some people in the industry more challenges than others. That piece of the puzzle is yet to be really defined, and we don’t know. All we can say from our perspective is we are very fortunate that while there’s been a degradation obviously in that business, for us, it’s been more than made up for other areas. We’ve seen no degradation in traffic, which is 48% up in Q1. We’ve just finished April, and that is somewhere in the order of 65% ahead of April 2019.
Q: Those numbers, of course, are both a result of, and a driver to, the various subsidiary parts of the ecosystem that has built up at the airport.
It’s increased demand and capability. More planes are coming in for maintenance, so we’re adding more jobs, and that makes Biggin Hill a more relevant place in the local community. That’s the fundamental pivot point: if we are to be successful as a business in the long term, remaining relevant to our local community is our number-one ambition, because the moment we don’t become relevant is the moment that our local community will not support us in the things that we want to do. And so, the increased job creation is fundamental to our success.
So, while the airport has enjoyed a very positive time of late, so have all our tenant businesses. They haven’t sat on their hands....Whether it be Bombardier with the new service center that we’ve just delivered them and built for them over COVID ―we’ve delivered it on time and on budget; we started in March 2020 and we handed it over four, five weeks ago―or whether it be the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar who are maintaining and building Spitfires, or whether it’s Castle Air who are now expanding into much wider portfolio of helicopter MRO maintenance. Every company on the airfield has got a story of their own, and it’s a sum of all the parts which is creating the benefits to the whole of the airport.
Q: Presumably you’ve also had to invest in infrastructure to support the increased utilization?
We’ve been on a journey to improve our infrastructure and our offering over time, and we are starting to get to a point where making that choice of using Biggin Hill is far more compelling than it ever used to be. That’s really important. The facilities are of a standard that people would expect now. We just refurbished nearly all of our main taxiway systems; we’ve just put in a brand new ILS during COVID; we’ve just about finalized our new instrument approach on the other end of the runway. We are more than halfway through the build of our new hotel, which will open later this year. When people are looking to choose an airport to base a plane, or an airport to choose as your arrival and departure point, all of these factors come into play.
Q: Of course, you can’t afford to stand still. What sort of things are you looking at next?
The future is really interesting, for a couple of reasons. The first is because of our location. We set up the London Heli Shuttle, and we have this on-demand service which is unrivalled, six minutes between here and central London. But what that has done, it’s helped to shape the views and thoughts of people who are starting to enter the electric VTOL space. We are sitting back and learning and watching and understanding, and we’re convinced that Biggin Hill has a role to play because of our location, because of our proximity to 10 million people within eight minutes of flight on one of these vehicles. So, we have designated a parcel of land where we want that to be the future innovation space―the future-flight sector of the airport where we can support that type of operation, whether it be back-office, training operations, et cetera, where they can run their London operation from. There is a very blatant activity that can be conducted here by these types of aircraft. In time, they will [either] supersede or they will complement helicopters. To be able to do the London Heli Shuttle in one of those will be a possibility.
We still do not know the true performance and the true price point of what these products will be, but there’s no question that the community here around the airport would potentially benefit tremendously for having VTOL connectivity here, whether it be to central London or some degree of regional connectivity. Because of the environmental benefits and everything else, you could argue that it could be better than trying to get on a bus or a train. All of these things are yet to be defined, but we think that the potential is wider than purely just for business aviation―we think there’s application for the local community also.
Q: Large-scale additional requirement for electricity on-site implies a significant project to upgrade the airport’s power network. Is that something else you’re looking at?
One of the other projects that we are working on, hopefully with the support of the local council―we’re going through the local plan process to consult on this―is the building of a solar farm. There are two reasons for doing it. One is, it’s all a part of our sustainability ambitions in terms of if we can try and deliver clean energy to the site. Ultimately, we would love to run the site on clean energy―that would be the ideal. If we build a solar farm and have some grid connectivity we can sell it to the grid, but also to be able to feed our future innovation site. We want that site to be connected to the solar farm.
And so, the two are intertwined. That it makes it quite a unique proposition―again, more compelling for those types of operators to know that they are setting up at a base which is the closest international arrival point to London, with clean energy, with a wide ecosystem to support, and with the hotel, with all of these things. We’re not jumping for joy yet, because there’s a lot of work to do, and we need to sit and listen and understand from the OEMs what the capability is―but at the same time, we need to make sure that the policymakers truly understand what they are and what their capabilities are.
Q: You’re going to be at EBACE, in your customary prominent position. How important is the show to the airport, particularly this year, as you look to consolidate gains made following the pandemic?
We’ve been exhibiting there for over 20 years now, and while it is a tremendous investment to exhibit, we think that it’s really important that we make that investment so that our customers have the ability to come and see us, to tell us all the things we are doing right and wrong. We are there to receive constructive feedback and to meet and reconnect. Customer retention and getting new customers are of equal importance. In terms of retention, you have to remain in contact―and us making that effort is part of that.