The Battle of London – London Biggin Hill Airport versus London Northolt Airport

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Spitfires over London Biggin Hill Airport

Fifty years ago, London’s Biggin Hill Airport, Oxford Airport and Northolt Airport were key assets for the Royal Air Force in the fight against the Luftwaffe. Now they are fighting each other.

Biggin Hill and Oxford Airport believe it is unfair that RAF Northolt, which is still owned by the Ministry of Defence, is competing with them for business. One of their biggest arguments is that that RAF Northolt is regulated by the Military Aviation Authority and not the Civil Aviation Authority. They say it is not a level playing (air)field.

Last year, Biggin Hill and Oxford Airports tried to stop RAF Northolt from operating civil flights from the aerodrome in court. They argued that as 95% of flights at Northolt are now civil aircraft, it should be forced to comply with civil aviation regulations. The judge did not agree with this, partly because, as he said: “The CAA’s Aeronautical Information Publication expressly makes clear that the CAA can give no guarantee that RAF Northolt meets the requirements of ICAO Annex 14.”

But Biggin Hill says the judge did make it clear it is the CAA and not the MOD that is responsible for the safety of civil registered aircraft using RAF Northolt. The judge also stated that the government could not continue to accept civil aircraft at it aerodromes if they were any less safe than their civil counterparts. Biggin Hill insists that this amounts to a clear instruction for the CAA to act.

The UK Ministry of Defence disagrees with this interpretation. A spokesman said: “RAF Northolt’s aerodrome safety standards are fully regulated by the MAA. A recent judicial review confirmed that no changes are required in relation to current aerodrome standards which are fully published and promulgated to civil users who operate at the aerodrome.”

“The aerodrome could not be licenced in its current form.”

After the trial, Biggin Hill and Oxford Airport found out that the MOD had commissioned a report by airfield design consultant, Mott McDonald regarding safety at RAF Northolt in 2012.

The report, highlighted several issues including roads close to the runway thresholds, non-compliant runway end safety areas and more than 300 obstacles that breach the Obstacle Limitation Surfaces.

These include the roof of a petrol filling station 105 metres from the end of the runway, which rises over 4.5m into protected airspace, 11 residential houses, a block of flats, and lamp posts and trees. Many of the obstacles have no obstacle lighting.

Mott McDonald said the “extent of [Northolt’s] non-compliance issues” was “sufficient to state that the aerodrome could not be licenced in its current form.”

“In court, our arguments regarding safety were rubbished by the MoD and the CAA.”

Biggin Hill has reacted angrily to the report. “In court, our arguments regarding safety were rubbished by the MoD and the CAA, who relied upon a 2009 light touch report by CAA which did not deal with safety in any detail. All along they were sitting on a very detailed 2012 report knowing that it entirely vindicated our claims and identified some very serious safety shortfalls at Northolt.” says Will Curtis, Managing Director of Biggin Hill airport.  Curtis says they are now considering returning to court.

“It is very worrying that, despite knowing that the airfield is potentially dangerous to civil registered aircraft, the MOD has chosen to significantly increase the number of civilian flights at Northolt, at the same time marketing RAF Northolt as ‘London’s Premier Business Aviation Airport’ and sending delegations of enlisted officers and staff to European trade shows at the taxpayer’s expense. Last year, our aerodrome technical survey found that some tree branches had encroached into our OLS slope by around 60cm. Within hours, the CAA issued a NOTAM to shorten our declared distances until a tree surgeon could be found to trim the branches,” says Curtis.

“I would argue that the CAA is very close to moral bankruptcy over this matter.”

Curtis adds: “RAF Northolt has a petrol filling station 105 metres from the runway threshold, encroaching into its cleared slope by 4.5 metres. In court the MOD argued that RAF Northolt could not shorten its declared runway distances because to do so would preclude it accepting larger business jet types which would cause a loss of revenue.”

“The CAA should have prevented this nonsense,” says Curtis. I always believed that the UK CAA put safety first, but now I am not so sure because over 10 months after the court case they have not yet acted to address this matter in any way. To say that we are disappointed with the Authority is an understatement – I would argue that the CAA is very close to moral bankruptcy over this matter.”

A spokesman for the UK CAA said: “”We give the highest priority to the safe operation of civil aircraft in the UK. A legal ruling in 2014 clarified the CAA’s role in regard to safety oversight of civil aircraft operating from RAF Northolt. As with all our safety activity this oversight is kept under constant review. We are satisfied that civil operations at RAF Northolt are currently being conducted safely.”

This is not the first Freedom of Information request that Northolt has been forced to comply with. Last year someone challenged them to give details on how much they had spent attending EBACE. Some people would prefer a judicial review to having to reveal air show expenses.

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