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PremiAir, Europe's largest business aviation company focused on the executive helicopter market, together with its owners, luxury hotel group von Essen, took over management of The London Heliport at Battersea exactly a year ago, when demand for landing slots was outstripping supply by a considerable margin. Business aviation is, next to the low cost carriers, the fastest growing aviation sector and the need for rapid access in and out of the centre of London by helicopter has become a vital tool for an increasing number of time-pressed business travellers. However, London only has one licensed heliport. PremiAir Group managing director David McRobert, puts the case for a second site in London.
Right now, private jet travel has never been so buoyant. Growth at the principal business aviation airports Farnborough, Luton and London City tops the passenger tables month on month, while up and coming airports like Biggin Hill and Oxford are pledging sizeable investments to accommodate more traffic from the business aviation sector.
Executive helicopters play an important role in meeting private jet arrivals from around the world - delivering clients to their ultimate destination that, more often than not, only a helicopter can reach in the timescales that business executives require. To the business community time is everything, and for point to point travel for distances up to 200 miles nothing can beat an executive helicopter.
We see ourselves as operating a service that is a combination of aerial limousine service and time machine. As well as clients who live around the UK we have clients that regularly commute from around Europe into London. They regularly fly by business jet into one of London”s business airports on a Monday morning before 8.00am but if they then have to sit in traffic for two hours to get into the centre of London, the argument for a helicopter is clearly justified.
Helicopter transport can deliver them swiftly to the London Heliport in just 15 minutes from Farnborough or Luton and about 25 minutes from Oxford. And because we operate 24/7, it is not uncommon for us to get a call from the flightdeck of a Global Express or Gulfstream 550 in the early hours of the morning heading for London Luton from the USA or the Far East. Their clients have decided they want to get into London quickly and want a PremiAir helicopter waiting on the tarmac for them when they arrive.
PremiAir has access to more than 12,000 landing sites around the UK from which our twin turbine executive helicopters can operate safely in and out. Yet London, the world”s primary financial capital, with all its affluence and global business activity, still only has one licensed heliport - a crazy situation.
The London Heliport is situated on the south bank of the Thames at Battersea. Surprisingly for many it will mark its 50th birthday in spring 2009. Coinciding with this milestone, a new look, very modern heliport will be unveiled, together with an adjacent luxury hotel. The existing 1950s terminal building will be demolished to accommodate more helicopter parking, creating a facility that the business aviation world and the City of London can be proud of.
When our owners, the von Essen Group purchased the London Heliport in March last year it was necessary to restructure the landing fee tariff to make the investment viable, making the standard fee, for all but the very largest helicopters, ”450. These revised charges had no impact on the rising demand ” PremiAir”s charter division alone saw a 10% growth last year for example ” so in August we were forced to introduce a landing slot control system to keep movements below the 12,000 the heliport is allowed to handle each year. Operators were required to book their landing slots in advance with the heliport staff operating a strict ”first come, first served” system.
Clearly from a business perspective, The London Heliport does not want to turn any customers away. But sadly, in doing so we are denying London”s buoyant business community the ability to carry out business the way it needs to in order to be competitive and successful. For a city like London, now proclaimed to be the financial centre of the world, not to be able to support its business community with adequate business aviation facilities is just a ludicrous situation.
We are not alone in wishing to see London as well served by heliports in the way that New York is. However, despite the commercial helicopter industry and frustrated businessmen trying for many years to find new sites, the inevitable planning issues have always stymied progress. Business aviation badly needs another heliport, preferably in the east of London which could serve Docklands and its fast growing business community. Currently, London City Airport is not allowed by planning restrictions to have business helicopter movements unless in emergency situations; and this is unlikely to change. What a waste.
Some of the resistance to seeing more helicopters over London is unfortunately their ”perceived” safety record. It is a major gripe among commercial helicopter operators that whilst their operations are statistically as safe as those of regional airlines, the public often believes helicopter travel to be a much higher risk than other forms of commercial aviation.
Unfortunately for the commercial helicopter industry, the accident statistics of private helicopters often flown by inexperienced and poorly qualified private pilots is not good. Sadly, Monday morning papers all too often seem to feature a private helicopter-related accident which has occurred during weekend recreational flying and this damages the reputation of what, in its commercial form, is a highly regulated and very safe form of transport. Potential customers often seem surprised when we tell them that they are statistically far more likely to have a fatal accident driving to the Heliport than they will by flying in a commercially operated helicopter.
Noise is another contentious issue, but helicopters are now far quieter than they were in the past and the manufacturers are using new technology to continually reduce noise signatures.
We are certainly working hard to cater better for the needs of city business at The London Heliport and our new facility will be one of the best business aviation facilities in the world. Its adjacent luxury hotel, owned and operated by von Essen, will encompass seven floors of the 14-storey building, offering 70 rooms with views over the River Thames, a subterranean spa, roof top restaurant plus state-of-the-art meeting rooms and VIP lounges. Departing and arriving heliport passengers will use a separate, secure entrance into a superbly equipped private aviation passenger terminal ensuring discretion and privacy.
A hotel so integrated to a capital city downtown heliport is a world first for the aviation industry and here we are proud to be leading the way.