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Rotorcraft Sidelined at London Conference

By Commentary by Andrew Healey | February 3, 2014
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New runways at Heathrow (inline, offset or displaced), a second strip at Gatwick or a whole new hub built on a greenfield site to the east of the nation’s capital. Whatever option the British government selects as the most promising answer to London’s chronic airport congestion, it isn’t likely to involve helicopters.

At a January conference in central London, more than 400 delegates were briefed on the four shortlisted proposals for easing the logjam, submitted last summer to a government-appointed Airports Commission. Both Heathrow and Gatwick operate at over 90 percent capacity and, for the former, 98 percent is not unusual. Passengers know that even a small incident there can have a huge knock-on effect on airline schedules, and can last for several days.

Given the prominence afforded to minimizing noise pollution, coupled with the conviction of each contender that, if only they can get the gig, capacity aplenty will be on tap from Day One, a proposal for using helicopters to link other airports was always going to be a long-shot. And so it proved: conference delegates now had bigger fish to fry.



Air-link Rejected

Plans that failed to make the cut included one to construct a high-speed rail-link encircling the capital and linking spare capacity at other, together with less ambitious ideas to utilize the hard shoulders of motorways to improve road access. The very last paragraph of the document seeking comments on the proposals, had referred to the long-defunct helicopter (S61N) service between Heathrow and Gatwick. Despite a last-minute attempt by the British Helicopter Association to add its weight to this idea, it too received short shrift in the short list.

Has an opportunity now been missed? Restoring that link and establishing ones with other airports, each connecting to Battersea Heliport and perhaps even to an aircraft carrier hulk sited near London’s financial center (see below), make sense only as long as these “official” options (and their associated surface transport infrastructure) do not exist. By 2025-2030, any ambition for helicopters to fly scheduled services in the London area may well have gone forever. And there are no big ‘H’s visible on the various plans.

At the conference, a glimmer of hope was offered by Jaguar-LandRover CEO Ralf Speth, whose sales-force plow a weekly furrow between their Midlands headquarters and Heathrow, “because only LHR serves the range of destinations that we need.” Even he admits to spending too much time on the M40 freeway. Surely a potential customer for a corporate helicopter?


Illustrious Option

One event that could yet improve the rotary-wing business case involves the imminent retirement of HMS Illustrious, the last of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers. The Ministry of Defence is asking for suggestions as to how the vessel may be employed in the UK.

Bids for the vessel’s future use must include plans for part or all of the ship to be developed for “heritage purposes.” Unless this writer has misread that phrase (you try getting the MoD to comment), surely that makes a heliport the logical answer? Such a facility could take up half the flight deck, one of the lifts and a proportion of the hangar, which could also be used for independent maintenance services. Add some soundproofing and the rest of the ship could be used for other purposes. Moor it at Greenwich, near to London’s financial heartland, and you have a purpose-built heliport where it matters most. Market forces will do the rest.

An industry day to examine various “illustrious options” is yet to be confirmed. The government’s preferred runway option, meanwhile, will not be announced until the summer of 2015, after a general election to be held in May. After initially promising that no new runways will be built at Heathrow, Prime Minister David Cameron is widely expected to make a U-turn.

Related: Transport News


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