London Assembly calls on mayor to stop commercialisation of RAF Northolt Airport


The London Assembly has let the UK’s Ministry of Defence know how it feels about a proposed plan to commercialise RAF Northolt Airport, with one member calling the proposal “daft”.

And members have called on London Mayor Sadiq Khan to do “everything possible” to help them stop the plans going ahead.

RAF Northolt is currently a mixed use business aviation and military airport close to Heathrow in west London. If the commercialisation were to go ahead, it could open up to a limited amount of passenger flights, with Flybe previously saying it would like to operate two domestic flights per day.

According to the Assembly, Northolt’s runway was recently closed for improvements that would allow the operation of larger aircraft. But, as the airport is under military control, it is not subject to the same strict controls as a civilian airport.

“It is a fact that such works were going ahead without any significant consultation with local stakeholders, as of course the MOD are not normally obliged to do so – it’s military,” said James Dillon-Godfray, head of business development at London Oxford Airport. “What makes NHT different in this context, however, is that slowly it has become a commercial airport in practice with the vast majority of flights being civilian, not military.”

A motion, passed by the Assembly, says that, although the total number of aircraft movements allowed at the airport has been increasing steadily, the mixture between civilian and military flights has been tipping more in the favour of civil flights. And Assembly members argue that this shift has happened without the usual process and planning because the airport is under MOD control.

“There’s appropriate air travel and there’s inappropriate air travel – just as there are appropriate airports and inappropriate airports. This plan is plain daft,” said Andrew Boff, Assembly member. “Londoners do not need another airport and the Ministry of Defence needs to stop using its military status to get these plans through by stealth.”

The motion was raised as part of the London Assembly’s Plenary meeting on 7 September 2017.

“This Assembly therefore calls on the Mayor to work with local residents in doing everything possible to campaign against RAF Northolt becoming a commercial airport,” says the text of the motion.

The MOD contracted Ernst & Young in 2011 to do a feasibility study on the commercialisation of the airport. The report, delivered the following February, suggested three different options:

  • increase Northolt’s annual movements to 20,000, but with the MOD retaining ownership. This option would not require a CAA licence.
  • have a privately owned, CAA-licenced airport that would allow up to 50,000 movements per year.
  • keep Northolt under MOD ownership but privately operated, thus negating the need for a CAA licence. This option would also see the airport accept up to 50,000 movements a year.

Ernst & Young suggested that the second option would be the most attractive to civilian operators, with the third being neither realistic nor viable.

The report surfaced in 2015 following a Freedom of Information request by David Gurtler, a director of Alpha Planning Ltd, which provides planning advice to industries. The full report can be read here, although several key items, including costings, have been redacted.

Northolt Airport has been at the centre of controversy for several years. In 2014, Biggin Hill and Oxford airports got together to force a judicial review following an application by Northolt Airport to increase the maximum allowed movements from 7,000 to 12,000 a year.

The airports argued that there were safety concerns at Northolt due to it being under military control, rather than having to adhere to the same stricter Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) controls that they face.

As a result of the ruling, the CAA is now responsible for all civilian aircraft using government-owned military airfields. Responsibility for military flights remains with the Military Aviation Authority.

You can watch the full webcast from the London Assembly’s plenary meeting by clicking here, and skipping forward to the 3h14m point.