The year 2006 was a busy one for Farnborough airport. Owners TAG Aviation unveiled its new business aviation terminal, part of a £45m redevelopment of the site, while the airfield also welcomed its biennial show, with the added kudos of the world’s largest aircraft, the Airbus A380, landing in Farnborough on its first trip to the UK. In too came a new CEO, Brandon O’Reilly, previously of such airline behemoths as United, BA and American Airlines, who is charged with taking business aviation at the airport to new levels.

Since permission was granted to use Farnborough as a business aviation airport in 2003, yearly movements (flights in to and out of the airport) have steadily increased to over 20,000. High net worth individuals and international companies are increasingly considering private jets as a convenient and cost-effective alternative to business and first-class commercial air travel.

But the key to Farnborough’s pulling power is the fact that it offers a dedicated business aviation service, rather than a private jet facility within a commercial airport. O’Reilly says: “There are very few dedicated business aviation airports – there are commercial airports such as Luton and Stansted [which offer private jet services], and then there are smaller airports which also deal in general aviation such as flying clubs, etc. But the facilities at Farnborough are absolutely dedicated to business aviation – there’s nothing else like it, certainly in Europe.”

One of the things that strikes you when walking into the terminal building at Farnborough is how unlike an airport it feels. Reid Architecture, responsible for several of the recent BAA building projects, has created a sleek, ultramodern building (shaped like a shiny, hovering wing when viewed from above) – check-in desks are replaced with a welcoming reception area, and there is a general feeling of space and calm, a world away from the normal hustle and bustle of a commercial airport. The terminal was designed to serve up to 100 passengers per day although, as O’Reilly explains, the majority of customers don’t actually enter the building at all, as they are driven straight out to their aircraft following a security check.

“Only 10-20 per cent of our customers come through the terminal – we have around 50 flights taking off per day, with the average number of passengers per flight being around two people. So that’s 100 outbound passengers, of which only 20 or so will use the terminal. There’s plenty of space, and that’s what customers are paying for – privacy, space, no queues, no crowds. People are just fed up with standing in queues at major airports – they want a different type of service for the large amounts of money they are spending in business and first class. ”

O’Reilly adds that, while the issue of security itself is not necessarily the reason why some are switching to business aviation, the amount of time spent pre-flight to ensure this security at major airports certainly is. And of course the lack of queuing at Farnborough also extends to the aircraft themselves – being a private aviation-only airport means flights rarely get delayed by other incoming or outgoing aircraft, as can be the case with commercial airports trying to cope with huge numbers of scheduled flights.

Farnborough’s origins as a military base (see box overleaf) has left the airport with a runway capable of accepting aircraft of all sizes, as was demonstrated last year when the A380 landed there. However, under the terms of the current 99-year lease, business aviation at the airport is limited to aircraft weighing a maximum of 80 tonnes, although this is sufficient to accommodate larger, long-range private jets such as the Boeing BBJ2 (effectively a 737 800 kitted out as a corporate jet). This allows a large degree of flexibility in terms of the flights that can be taken to and from Farnborough.

O’Reilly explains: “The majority of our market comes from Europe, although there is a growing element from the US, as private jets are now increasingly long-range jets. The market that is starting to emerge is Russia, and to a lesser extent Asia. In terms of the biggest users here, Gama Aviation [a charter company] is our biggest customer and then NetJets, which follows the fractional ownership model. BBJs are a regular feature here, down to smaller jets such as the Bombardier Global Express, Cessna Citations, Gulfstreams and Learjets.”

Several of these aircraft manufacturers rent space in the newly built hangars and offices within the redeveloped site, and O’Reilly is confident that, with the new terminal built and a 174-room hotel located on the southern side of the airfield due to open next year, business is starting to boom at Farnborough. Figures for January to October 2006 show a 20.5 per cent increase in movements compared with the same period the previous year.

However, this growth in itself presents challenges. O’Reilly forecasts that the airport will reach its limit of 28,000 yearly movements within the next few years, and the site must comply with fixed hours of operation (7am-10pm weekdays and 8am-8pm at weekends), unlike airports such as Luton which run 24 hours a day – weekend movements in particular are strictly limited.

“We are currently looking to increase the number of flights allowed at weekends,” he explains. “We’re capped at 28,000 flights for the year, but of that only 2,500 are permitted at weekends. We reached this figure very quickly, so we’re looking to increase the weekend movements simply because we’re having to turn down business.”

One of the key factors bringing this business to Farnborough is its location, with direct trains from London serving two stations in the town and the M3 just a few minutes’ drive away.

“To be within 35 minutes of London at an uncongested airport dedicated to business aviation gives us a huge advantage,” adds O’Reilly. “Our proximity to Heathrow also means that we get customers coming in from very small airports in Europe, and then transferring to Heathrow for long-haul services elsewhere in the world. For instance, a customer looking to fly to somewhere in Europe from the UK might have to take two or three commercial flights to get there, whereas from here it can be done in one.”

Business aviation is still in its relatively early stages, and private charter companies will face stiff competition from the increasing number of scheduled business-only airlines such as Maxjet, Eos and most recently Silverjet. But O’Reilly is confident that providing an uncongested, dedicated service within reach of London will ensure Farnborough’s future. “Business aviation in general is growing significantly, but we need to make sure that it maintains its huge differential between flying on a commercial jet and flying privately. And that’s where somewhere like Farnborough, which is unique in terms of an airport where private jets can land, really has a future.”

Tried and tested review
Flight check: Cessna Citation X executive jet, Farnborough-Vitoria, Spain

The history of Farnborough airport

Farnborough has been part of aviation history since 1908, when it was the scene of the UK’s first recorded flight in a powered aircraft. Now known as TAG Farnborough, the site has gone through many guises, most notably as the headquarters of the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) and the home of the Farnborough Airshow (since 1948).
The RAE was so central to aeronautical research that during the Second World War Hitler avoided bombing the site, in the hope he could use it for future research once England was occupied. Among the many achievements during its history, the RAE was responsible for fatigue-testing on the Concorde prototype during the 1960s.
In the early 1990s, the Ministry of Defence decided the airfield at Farnborough was surplus to requirements, and in 1997 the site was sold to TAG, on the condition it was to be used only for business aviation and for the biennial airshow, next due to be held in July 2008.

Fact box

Getting there TAG Farnborough Airport is 35 miles south-west of London. South West Trains runs regular services from London Waterloo to Farnborough (Main) station, with journey times of around 40 minutes. The station is a five-minute taxi ride from the terminal entrance at Ively Gate. Those travelling by road should take the M3 southbound to Junction 4, before joining the A331 and then the A3011, from where the airport is signposted. A taxi from central London will cost around £85.

Contact +44 (0)1252 379 000,

Hotel options

Holiday Inn Farnborough

Just east of the airport, this 142-room hotel has a health centre including swimming pool, sauna and gym. There are also four meeting rooms, the largest of which holds 180 delegates theatre-style.
PRICE Rates start from £116, room only.
RESERVATIONS +44 (0)870 400 9670

Premier Travel Inn Farnborough

This budget option is located to the north of the airport and has 62 ensuite rooms, all with wifi internet access, and a Brewer’s Fayre restaurant.
PRICE Weekday room rates from £58, room only.
RESERVATIONS +44 (0)8701 977 101

Potters International Hotel

Less than two miles south of Farnborough, the Potters International Hotel has 100 rooms, all with wifi internet access. The hotel has a health centre with gym, swimming pool, spa bath, sauna, steam room and solarium, as well as four function rooms, a restaurant and two bars.
PRICE Rates start from £110 including breakfast.
RESERVATIONS +44 (0)1252 344 000

Lakeside Leisure Complex

Four miles from Farnborough in Frimley Green, the Lakeside Leisure Complex comprises conference and banqueting facilities, several restaurants, bars and nightclubs, as well as the Lakeside International and Continental Hotels. The former has 98 rooms, as well as a health centre including swimming pool, gym, whirlpool bath, sauna, solarium and steam room. The newer Continental Hotel has 68 rooms and guests enjoy use of the health centre facilities at the International Hotel.
PRICE Weekday rates at both hotels start from £140 for a double room including breakfast.
RESERVATIONS +44 (0)1252 836 565