In a general round up of airport news from around the UK, FTN takes a look at some of those airfields currently under threat and some which are living the high life. With apologies to those airfields that have been inadvertently left out from this report, here’s the current UK airfield scene as FTN perceives it.
First on the threat list is Old Sarum airfield in Wiltshire, which has been very quiet for the last few years after the owners booted out all aircraft operators in 2019 except the skydiving company and associated flying school. The latest news from Old Sarum is that the owners have recently entered a new planning application with the local council to build up to 315 houses on the historic site.
The planning application, which is currently in the consultation phase, also includes provision for continued aviation activity, stating that in addition to the 315 new homes, the site will also be used for a “mixture of employment, commercial – leisure, and aviation uses, including a ‘flying hub’ compromising control tower, heritage centre, visitor centre, café – restaurant, parachute centre, aviation archives and aircraft hangars.”
There’s a fair amount of scepticism over what actual aviation activity would be permitted to continue under this new proposal however, given the history surrounding the previous planning application.
When the previous planning application to build houses on Old Sarum airfield was rejected by Wiltshire Council, it was noted that the owner’s fall back position was that even if planning permission wasn’t granted, flying could continue at Old Sarum.
However, just two weeks after the decision, aircraft owners were given notice to quit. The only aviation activity that was permitted to continue was the skydiving operation and associated flying school, and allegedly only then because the company had an unbreakable contract to continue operating at the airfield.
The timing of this latest planning application is interesting in that it is understood that Wiltshire Council are in the process of removing a policy which currently allows redevelopment at the airfield, having now decided that the site holds historic importance and shouldn’t be turned into a housing estate.
The second airport on the threat list is Doncaster Sheffield Airport in Yorkshire. As regular readers will be aware, the airport closed in November 2022 when the operators – Peel Group – declared that it was no longer commercially viable following Wizz Air’s decision to terminate the majority of its flights from the airport.
The local authority covering the airport, Doncaster Council, made an application for a judicial review in an attempt to question the legality of the closure process, but the application was refused.
Subsequently, the Mayor of Doncaster stated that the council was beginning the process of attempting a compulsory purchase (CPO) of the airport to bring it into public ownership. South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority then offered to subsidise Peel’s losses if they agreed to continue operating the airport for two years whilst negotiations with a buyer took place, but that was rejected, as was the CPO proposal from Doncaster City Council. All seemed pretty bleak for the South Yorkshire airport therefore.
Then, in early October 2023, The Mirror newspaper reported that South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority and Doncaster City Council were “on the verge of agreeing a deal” with the Peel Group on the purchase of the lease, which could see the airport reopen and “become profitable within five years.”
Third on the threat list is Coventry Airport, home to four flying schools. The ‘gigafactory’ proposal – a plan to turn the airport into a factory producing batteries for electric cars – has been ongoing for three years since the airport operators, the Rigby Group, in a joint venture with Coventry City Council, proposed the idea in February 2021.
While planning permission was granted last year, all has been quiet since then with no one apparently interested in investing in the gigafactory – including its nearest neighbour Jaguar Land Rover – but recently Coventry City Cllr Jim O’Boyle told the press that they were in “advanced discussions with leading Asian battery manufacturers who want to develop a presence in the UK” and that any such deal would be warmly welcomed by government, who would roll out the red carpet for an investor, providing them with an “unprecedented regional incentives package” to help secure the deal.
Not so much under threat this time, but rather apparently in somewhat of a shambolic state judging by comments from the airport’s residents, is Swansea Airport, home to Cambrian Flying Club.
Back in January, FTN reported that Swansea Council had agreed to negotiate a new lease with the existing leaseholder, but after continued complaints from residents over how the airport was being run and maintained, and the subsequent suspension of the airport’s operating licence towards the end of January by the CAA due to a “systematic failure of safety management”, the Council instead commissioned a report to see what options were available to improve the situation.
Some seven months later and at the end of September, Swansea Council finally reached their decision, deciding to part ways with the current leaseholder, stating that it intended to go to court to take possession of the airport. While the legal process runs its course (and it’s not predicted to be quick) the council said it would continue to explore a range of options for a viable airport future. It said its aim was to achieve a seamless transition of the occupancy and operational arrangements should the legal action to retake possession be successful.
A council spokesman told WalesOnline: “Following service of notices on the company the next step is to go to court to gain possession of the lease from the tenant. It is a lengthy legal process that could take many months to complete. In the meantime we are also talking to Swansea Airport Stakeholders”
Alliance, a group of businesses operating at the site, about their potential options and ideas for the interim operation of the airport.
One final airfield potentially under threat is Thruxton Aerodrome. While there has been no official news yet, it’s understood that property management company Xlb Property has been tasked to undertake an ‘asset management programme’ of the Hampshire airfield and racetrack. While no mention of sale for redevelopment has been mooted, Xlb do mention on their website that one of its objectives with Thruxton is to “promote strategic land through the planning process” which FTN understands could be developer speak for redevelopment on the airfield. There have been rumours of the airfield being redeveloped into warehousing for the likes of Amazon, but so far nothing concrete (excuse the pun) has emerged.
On the brighter side of this airfield round-up are Barton, Blackpool, Gloucestershire, Kemble, Oxford and Sherburn.
Barton Aerodrome in Greater Manchester recently became the first airfield in the UK to gain approval from the CAA for a new low-cost safety system providing real-time information to air traffic staff, working in the UK’s oldest operational control tower.
The system, known as a Flight Information Display (FID), looks similar in appearance to a radar screen used at large airports, but uses a low-cost receiver aerial, from avionics manufacturer uAvionix, mounted on the control tower roof to receive data transmitted from aircraft providing their position twice a second using a system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B).
This data is then plotted on a map of the airspace around the airfield allowing the air traffic team to have increased situational awareness and to be able to warn pilots of other aircraft and airspace.
The project has taken six years to complete and is the brainchild of aviation consultant Steve Hutt who operated under the governance of Airspace4All funded by the CAA’s Future Airspace Strategy Facilitation Fund. Key to the project was the development of a new CAA policy permitting the use of FIDs by Air Traffic Units. Blackpool Airport has recently unveiled new plans for five new hangars, claimed to be the first new major developments at the airport in more than 15 years.
As part of the Blackpool Airport Enterprise Zone, outline planning consent is being sought for three 20,000 sq. ft hangars suitable for general aviation aircraft, as well as two hangars for MRO activities on commercial aircraft.
Commenting on the proposals, Cllr Gillian Campbell, chair of the board at Blackpool Airport Operations, said: “This is a major step forward for our historic airport. For over 100 years Blackpool Airport has been a huge part of our local area and economy. It is a mammoth task to redevelop it while also keeping it open for our customers, but we will make it work.
“Our general aviation community is vitally important, along with our flight training operators, and these new hangars will create purpose-built facilities for them close to the runway. We can then explore further potential developments over the coming years.
“The future for Blackpool Airport is exciting and we are moving in the right direction to becoming a leading transport hub with potential to grow.”
Gloucestershire Airport has also announced development plans recently, confirming that it is joining the Project Heart initiative to create, store and distribute green hydrogen. Project Heart is a collaboration between Protium, a green hydrogen energy services company, Haskel, who manufacture hydrogen compression systems and Nel Hydrogen, a hydrogen generation and distribution specialist.
The new airport-based facility is expected to start producing hydrogen next summer and will initially be providing fuel to R&D projects such as ZeroAvia’s hydrogen-electric aircraft development project over at nearby Kemble Airfield in the Cotswolds, which is gearing up to receive a hydrogen ‘refuelling solution’ for ZeroAvia’s R&D project.
Oxford Airport has made it to this list following approval for its recently approved R&D Science Park. Comprising a 200,000+ sq. ft development at the airport, it will include up to seventeen units (ranging from 7,700 sq. ft to 56,300 sq. ft) marketed primarily for “start-ups and spin-outs from the University science ecosystem,” these “laboratory enabled, Grade-A accommodation facilities” will nonetheless be open to any business, with airport business development manager James Dillon-Godfrey expressing a personal interest in attracting aviation technology companies.
In other developments at the airport, the owners are also investing heavily in additional infrastructure including a major new hangar complex, seven new helipads and the provision for additional electric charging solutions. A new fuel tender will also see SAF available from the airport as early as next year.
Sherburn Airfield, home to Sherburn Aero Club, is the final airfield on this brief list, here by virtue of having been granted approval by the CAA a couple of months ago to operate GNSS Instrument Approach Procedures (IAPs) to two runways.
The CAA has granted approval for GNSS approaches to runways 10 and 28 at the Yorkshire airfield, which are now up and running. No new volumes of controlled airspace have been introduced as the procedures are flown in open Class G airspace.
The only change imposed is a slot allocation system to ensure there’s no possibility of aircraft being booked into Sherburn and neighbouring Leeds East Aerodrome concurrently.