Although the hyper-rich are still arriving at the games by jet, the typical London business air traffic has slowed because of increased regulations and a plan by the authorities to limit access to runways and helipads.
This time last year Nick Candy’s Challenger 605 business jet was kept busy flying the U.K. real estate magnate to destinations across Europe.
In the summer of 2012 the Bombardier Inc. aircraft has made fewer trips as Candy takes time out in London to watch the Olympics. Other corporate jets are seeing less action as the games deter overseas business people from visiting Britain.
Airports including Oxford and Farnborough report fewer business flights, and London Heathrow, Europe’s top hub, has banned private planes following the closure of airspace above the capital for the duration of the games. While Olympic events such as the opening ceremony and men’s 100 meters final have led to traffic surges as VIP and celebrity visitors including Madonna and Brad Pitt fly in, that’s brought complications as aprons become crowded and turnaround times come under pressure.
“To some extent the aviation community has shot itself in the foot by implying that it was going to be so challenging and constrained,” said James Dillon-Godfray, commercial director at Oxford airport and Battersea heliport. “The volumes of business aircraft and executive aircraft that were predicted two or three years ago are just not happening.”
Britain’s Civil Aviation authority anticipated a maximum 5,000 extra private aviation movements in southeast England during the two weeks of the games, up 33 percent on 2011. The real increase may be about 20 percent, Dillon-Godfray estimates.
Flights above London are restricted to the police, armed forces, emergency services and an Olympic-broadcast helicopter, with infringements triggering prosecution or even “interception by armed military aircraft,” the CAA says. London’s skies are being patrolled by Royal Air Force Typhoon jets and Puma helicopters, backed up by six surface-to-air missile batteries.
Some 32 airports across southern England, extending as far from London as Coventry, are also having to coordinate takeoff and landing times to avoid overcrowding along flight-paths that have themselves been redrawn for duration the games.
Battersea, London’s premier heliport, is operating only after authorities were persuaded that it posed no security threat, according to General Manager Simon Hutchings, who says the U.K. aviation industry has “mixed feelings” about the games.
From July 14 to Sept. 12 no flights are permitted within London east of Battersea Bridge, according to the heliport’s website. Prior to the Olympics, choppers were able to serve the Vanguard Helipad south of the Canary Wharf financial district.
RotorMotion, which operates three AgustaWestland AW109 helicopters based at Redhill, six minutes by air from Battersea, has only three bookings for August after anticipating dozens of extra flights, according to Operations Manager Sue Spencer.
“We thought ‘great, the Olympics are coming, we’re going to be flying our socks off,’” she said. “But the traffic we are picking up is nothing like we hoped. We are very disappointed.”
Like other U.K. helicopter companies, RotorMotion operates “flat out” during sporting events such as the British Formula One grand prix, Spencer said, adding that the realization that there would be no dedicated Olympic helipad came as a blow.
Flight plans must also be submitted four hours in advance and everyone on board must have photographic proof of identity that matches the names on the roster. That’s been a “shock to the system” for helicopter operators which trade on their ability to go where they want, when they want, and typically employ visual flight rules — following railway lines and motorways — and aren’t required to supply plans, Spencer said.
Still, at Battersea the boost from Olympics traffic has compensated for the loss of some regular custom, with 276 more flights scheduled during the main games than a year earlier. The number was initially swelled by bulk bookings, supplemented by additional demand as wealthy sports fans make side trips.
The heliport — bought by brothers David and Simon Reuben for about 25 million pounds ($39 million) in February — is offering river-boat services to clients wishing to go further east and inconvenienced by the flight ban. Vessels provided by Water Chariots can reach the Olympic Park in about 70 minutes, though interest has been limited, according to Hutchings.
“We’ve remained open but we’re certainly not as flexible,” he said in an interview at the heliport, located next to the Thames about three miles upstream from parliament. “Normally we can give these people flexibility and meet their needs, so I was a bit concerned people might defer their business travel.”
Dan Foster, general manager of air traffic services at TAG Aviation Holding SA’s Farnborough airport, said business flights that usually constitute about 35 percent of aircraft movements have been “totally confused” by a combination of the Olympics, last month’s air show and the Islamic month of Ramadan, which has reduced the number of flights from the Middle East.
“Overall we’re about the same as last year, maybe a couple of percent down,” Foster said. “Those principals who might have come across in Gulfstream Vs may have come on scheduled flights because they perceived it was too busy to fly privately. We suspect some sponsors also chose to take scheduled flights.”
Heathrow airport, which operates close to capacity, opted to close to private and charter planes to ease operational pressure during the games, spokesman Richard Scott said today.
BAA Ltd., the hub’s owner, is making final preparations for Monday, the day after the closing ceremony, which may break departure records as people who arrived for the Olympics over the space of several weeks seek to leave in just a few hours, among them about 15,000 athletes, officials, sponsors.
Competitors will be able to check in their bags before leaving the Olympic Village and on arrival at Heathrow will use a special Games Terminal with 31 desks and seven security lanes. About 6,000 people will use the temporary facility on Monday and around 8,000 in total before it closes on Aug. 15, BAA says.
One area in which the Olympics have provided a boost for business aircraft has been sales, said Steve Varsano, who runs an auto-style jet showroom near London’s Hyde Park Corner, with visitor numbers swollen by wealthy individuals, games sponsors and sports officials keen to view the latest models.
“We’ve seen American, Chinese and increasingly Russian customers, as well as Brazilian government officials who’ve come to look around before the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics,” he said. “They are in town to see how London is handling things.”
Property developer Candy says people who left Britain or postponed visits overestimated the impact on ground transport of restrictions such as Games Lanes while failing to appreciate the chances to seal deals through Olympic-related hospitality.
“People were scared they wouldn’t be able to move around, but I honestly think it would take longer to get to Farnborough on a normal Friday,” he said in an interview. “Over these two weeks we will have done four sales, which is 100 percent due to the Olympics. I think they’ve missed an opportunity.”
For James Reuben, son of David and an investor in the family’s airports, the real test will be if the games encourage repeat custom. “We are seeing people fly in who haven’t been inclined to use Oxford or Battersea before,” he said. “That’s the driver for us — to showcase our investment to the world.”
With assistance from Roxana Zega in London. Editors: Chris Jasper, Sara Marley. To contact the reporter on this story: Eleanor Lawrie in London at [email protected] To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chad Thomas at [email protected]