One of the main planks of the recently published 2015 Security and Defence Review (SDSR 2015) was the call for and clear determination of both Government and Ministry of Defence to promote and support innovation. It was a good call and one that was very well received. We need new initiatives, ambition and if we are going to continue growing our economy we are going to need plenty of innovative cost effective ideas and solutions.
The prosperity agenda was an important part of SDSR 2015 and the hope is that Government will be as good as its word encouraging innovative ideas and solutions that allow industry and the MOD defence customer turn ideas into actions and real solutions. We must look forward rather than back for the creation of new ideas, better and more cost effective methods of operation, new technologies and importantly, making better use of existing assets. An excellent example of innovation and one that would see better use being made of existing assets was recently put forward to the MOD by the Exeter based low cost regional airline, Flybe. The proposal is based on making better use of the RAF Northolt and it is this interesting and workable idea that I will concentrate on today.
Lying under fifteen miles from the centre of London and approximately ten miles from London Heathrow Airport it strikes me almost every time that I drive past the base on the A40 that RAF Northolt is an underused asset.
Originally opened in 1915 and subsequently home to a number of RAF fighter squadrons during the Battle of Britain period it was fitting that during September last year RAF Northolt should host the 75th anniversary Battle of Britain dinner. This was a great occasion and a fitting reminder of the strategic importance of the RAF Northolt base. Last used as a forward air base when it had become a temporary home for Typhoon Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) aircraft capability during the 2012 Olympic Games, RAF Northolt is today home not only to 32 (The Royal) Squadron, which operates the Queens Flight, but also the Central Band of the RAF and the Queens Colour Squadron. An important operational base from an RAF perspective Northolt it is still occasionally used by large military aircraft as exampled recently when an RAF C-17 Globemaster used the base in order to transfer a seriously ill EBOLA patient to the specialist Royal Free Hospital in London.
The innovative proposal put forward by Flybe is aimed at making the existing RAF Northolt assets work harder and that, as a direct consequence, would provide substantial additional benefit for the Royal Air Force budget. Under the proposals the Royal Air Force which I estimate accounts for around 27% of existing RAF Northolt aircraft activity would continue to retain absolute primacy of operation. This is hugely important as quite apart from handling military and royal flights, VIP passenger arrival and departures, RAF Northolt is also where aircraft carrying Heads of State and political leaders frequently arrive and depart.
RAF Northolt has for many years been successfully used by the private corporate jet sector. Whilst this has provided an extra source of income that to some extent has assisted in reducing base operating costs for the RAF with the maximum number of passengers carried on civilian aircraft using Northolt limited to 29 per aircraft and with scheduled commercial passenger services still not permitted income derived from Northolt is certainly not as lucrative as it should be.
Royal Air Force activities apart arguably RAF Northolt has become the preserve of private jets owned by the wealthy. I am told that private jet flights carrying only a handful of passengers at most account for well over 60% of RAF Northolt flight activity. To some this will seem rather at odds with making the best use of MOD assets and benefitting the wider and there are surely better and more lucrative ways to make the RAF Northolt infrastructure assets work better.
Now that the previous self-imposed limit on commercial flights has been officially raised from 7,000 flight movements per annum to 12,000 the extent of under-utilisation of available capacity at RAF Northolt will become even more noticeable unless it is to be allowed to fill up with more privately owned and flown corporate jets. My view is that given that they bring little benefit to a wide section of the community let alone the national or regional economy few would wish to see the extra capacity being given to private jet operators unless of course they are prepared to pay a very much higher price. But quite probably they would welcome a new generation of quiet jets operating under a strict regulatory basis and that do bring benefits and jobs to the local economy and provide other community benefits as well.
Flybe has proposed running two flights a day to several UK based destinations that I believe include Liverpool, Prestwick, Inverness, Teeside and Londonderry. As previously mentioned, scheduled flights are currently not allowed from RAF Northolt although private operation is only restricted in terms of maximum number of flight movements per annum and number of passengers carried in each aircraft.
In order to persuade the MOD to change the present flights restrictions Flybe has quite sensibly suggested that rather than base restrictions solely on aircraft movements and passenger seat capacity which at present is restricted to 29 it would be better to restrict aircraft movements based on Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) for all commercial aircraft using Northolt Aerodrome. The suggestion put forward is and MTOW of 30 tonnes. This would seriously restrict aircraft types using the aerodrome to basis turbo-prop and small jet aircraft but the low weight would have the added advantage of benefiting airport taxiway and runway infrastructure.
While there is a long way to go before any change in MOD policy seems likely not only has the seed of this idea been sown and already seen to be growing as an idea but I get the impression that the idea has not fallen on deaf ears in Whitehall. Indeed, my understanding is that the Royal Air Force is also supportive.
What Flybe are attempting to do at this hugely important RAF airbase makes a good deal of sense to me and I hope that the proposals are taken forward to a next stage. RAF Northolt is clearly underutilised and while it remains a crucially important airfield for the Royal Air Force it is an assets that clearly needs to be far better utilised than it currently is.
Flybe are proposing to use the Bombardier Q400 turboprop plane of the proposals that it has put forward to the MOD gain support. With a capacity of 78 passengers operating up to 20 movements per day (ten take-offs and landings on planned domestic routes) this is not only an innovative solution to a problem it is a win-win for those that would like to see more flight capacity devoted to domestic flight routes and airports. The Bombardier Q400 aircraft has another trick u its sleeve. It is a very quiet aircraft and similar to that of the Royal Air Force operated BAE 146 aircraft flown by 32 Squadron and that have long been known as the ‘whispering jet’ in recognition of this being an extremely quiet aircraft. Indeed, I would conjecture that if the plan for RAF Northolt was to go through and assuming some business jets currently operating from Northolt are displaced to other local and regional airports such as Farnborough or maybe Oxford, noise levels at Northolt could actually be dramatically reduced.
Clearly if such a plan is implemented operating terms and conditions would need to be changed. Services and aircraft maintenance would be regulated in the normal way. There would be a requirement for a small amount of additional infrastructure spend such as a small building to be used as a terminal in order to separate Royal Air Force requirements from those required to handle passengers and meet necessary flight standards, passport and other important security requirements.
In terms of transport arrangements to and from RAF Northolt one might envisage those passengers arriving at Northolt on a Flybe scheduled air services would either use existing tube services from South Ruislip to reach central London or, in the case of passengers wishing to transfer to Heathrow, perhaps on a special coach service. The small increase in road traffic should be easy to cope with particularly on the A40 trunk road. Indeed, as we are talking here about a proposal that envisages the airline carrying between 1,000 and 1,500 passengers a day in a total of twenty aircraft movements I rather doubt that this could lead to a significant increase in road traffic
To me the benefits far outweigh any negatives. The Royal Air Force has been driven by innovation throughout its near one hundred year history and is as far as I am aware more than content to support the Flybe proposal to make better use of RAF Northolt.
Certainly the Flybe proposal would help bridge the north/south divide and make regional travel by air rather a lot easier. The Flybe proposals not only play well into the Governments innovation agenda but into the prosperity agenda as well. Indeed, the innovative solutions put forward by Flybe for RAF Northolt play very well into the whole Northern Powerhouse debate launched by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The airline is itself already well used to operating alongside the Royal Air Force at Newquay Airport in North Cornwall which shares the same runway as RAF St Mawgan and more recently at RAF Brize Norton where the airline is responsible for maintenance of the RAF fleet of Airbus A400M Heavylift aircraft.
Flybe estimates that by operating from RAF Northolt an additional 300,000 passengers a year would likely benefit from better access to and from regions in the UK. Clearly the proposal opens up the possibility of opening up a number of domestic air routes to and from London some of which had been previously operated from Heathrow until the valuable aircraft landing and take-off slots were required for more profitable international routes.
If significant importance in an age where all money saved from cost of operation by the RAF in one area can be ploughed into other capability requirements means that allowing scheduled regional air services to operate from RAF Northolt as they had seventy years ago for a time done before Heathrow Airport became operational to commercial air traffic will provide the Royal Air Force with a much needed additional income source.
The bottom line is that local area residents would benefit too in respect of reduced aircraft noise and from an environmental aspect, 20 aircraft movements a day with a maximum of 78 passengers on each aircraft compared to an unspecified number of noisier aircraft flights that are often carrying only a couple of passengers on board.
CHW (London 5th January 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS