The growing success of Oxford airport is down to the city's ‘unique attributes’ in relation to London, according to its director of development. 40 per cent of its flyers are on their way in or out of the capital, and this is only set to increase in the near future.
It would be hard to find an Oxford resident who hasn’t been to Oxford railway station or Gloucester Green, where the coaches stop. And yet few have used Oxford Airport. Fewer still are aware of what a thriving global transport hub the airport is these days. It’s the sixth biggest business aviation airport in the UK (after Luton, Farnborough, Biggin Hill, RAF Northolt and London City). Eight thousand passengers come through Oxford Airport on five-and-a-half thousand flights each year. Flights jet in daily from all over the world.
Who are these passengers, and why aren’t we among them? Well, by and large, they are not ordinary Oxford people. They are, in the words of the airport’s director of business development James Dillon-Godfray, ‘serious industrialists and business-people with great empires, operating globally’. They are also ‘high level dignitaries; heads of state and royalty; celebrities; sportspeople’. 90 percent come from Europe but the other 10 percent fly direct from the Middle East or the US.Oxford Airport lies 40 miles to the north-west of Greater London and is quieter than the main airports, which has attracted many business customers
Oxford Airport – or to use its official title, London Oxford Airport - is far more extraordinary than it appears at first sight – a badly signposted car-park leading to a tiny, anonymous terminal. Most Oxonians would not recognise the provincial suburb of Kidlington as on any level an outpost of London – and yet calling the airport ‘London Oxford’ is not just rebranding. For ordinary people, London is an hour or more away – but for the billionaire customers of the airport, it’s a 22-minute, £2000+ skip by helicopter - to Battersea heliport, owned by investors the Reuben brothers, who also own our airport. The helicopter route is in use between London and Oxford everyday.
The growing success of Oxford airport, Dillon-Godfray says, is down to the city of Oxford’s ‘unique attributes’ in relation to London. 40 percent of its flyers are bound for or from London – and even for those who don’t take advantage of the popular helicopter link, he explains, it’s easier to drive down the M40 than using other more congested arterial routes into London from Gatwick, Luton, Stansted or Heathrow.’
Things are changing fast at the moment. The airport was founded in the 1930s when aviation was in its infancy and municipal airports became a must-have for British cities. Oxford City Council decided the current spot between Kidlington and Blenheim was a good flat piece of land, bought it from the Blenheim estate and some farmers for £19,000, and established an aerodrome. In the Second World War, the airport was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence, and it remained an RAF training base until its return to civilian use in the 1950s. From then until a decade ago, it was famous for being Europe’s leading centre for pilot training – 25,000 pilots were trained here and went to fly for around 80 airlines around the world.
But that wasn’t to last. Ten years ago, with the rise of flight simulation pilot training and the pilot training school’s move to Phoenix, Arizona, to escape the unpredictable British climate, the airport faced a rapid decline. It was then, says Dillon-Godfray, that ‘we decided, to survive, to go commercial’.The airport intends to be the primary aerospace industry hub between Heathrow and Birmingham, and the Thames Valley's default regional airport
Settings its sights on the executive and VIP private jet market, Oxford built a shiny modern executive departure/arrivals terminal. It has several lounges (enough to segregate celebrity flyers for their privacy, though they never have to wait – they go from touchdown to being chauffeured out of the airport gates within precisely four minutes), stacks of $50-a-copy Elite Traveler magazine for private jetters, a boardroom (so that executives can fly into Oxford just for an hour’s meeting) and a hotel-style check-in desk.
And business is booming. As Dillon-Godfray explains, Oxford Airport services ‘the largest motorsports industry infrastructure of anywhere in the world… this is the hub for the Formula One industry; this is where they fly in and out of - drivers, engineers and team leaders. Just down the road at Enstone is Renault Formula One; they fly engineers once or twice a week to and from the Renault base in Paris. Silverstone is the epicentre, but between Oxfordshire, Milton Keynes and bits of Northamptonshire is the highest concentration of high performance engineering skills and knowledge anywhere in the planet. You’ve got BMW Mini just down the road and Honda in Swindon, and just past Banbury you’ve got Aston Martin and Jaguar Land Rover – all major industrial players on our doorstep.’
Other flyers include the likes of Richard Branson and James Dyson, as well as surgeons accompanying organs for urgent transplants, and even, occasionally, Oxford University academics. ‘Some of the really serious professors have flown out of here from time to time on private flights to attend very high level conferences like a UN conference in Zurich where they’re the world expert and their itinerary is crazy,’ says Dillon-Godfray. ‘And if you look at who has spoken at the Oxford Union, a lot of them have flown in.’The site was first used as an aerodrome in the late 1930s and from the mid-sixties, it was best known as the home of the Oxford Air Training School
The good news for ordinary Oxford residents is that commercial passenger flights are high on the airport’s agenda. It has already tried a number of times to introduce services for the public, flying to Edinburgh, Jersey and Geneva, first starting around six years ago, but each attempt has, sadly, failed after a few months – and the latest plan, for Links Air to fly between Oxford and Edinburgh this spring, never even got off the ground.
There has been no issue with popularity, says Dillon-Godfray – ‘people loved it, but from our point of view [the flights] were a huge amount of hassle for very little money; it was very difficult to make any profit out of those kind of services. The types of airline prepared to take the gamble were also the ones run on a shoestring. They had very little cash reserves. With Edinburgh flights, we started to see seats fill up quite nicely by month three, but the airline ran out of cash and weren’t able to pay their bills.
The airport hopes to entice ‘one of the big boys who have cash reserves to sustain the whole thing for the first six months’. Says Dillon-Godfray, ‘we aspire to restart the Edinburgh services as soon as we can. We’re talking to a number of airlines that could do it in theory. It’s all about the commercial terms. Fuel prices have come down but other costs have gone up, airlines are under a lot of pressure and very few have spare capacity. We’re not top of anybody’s list. Regional airlines are not about to try their luck at a new airport no one has tested before. They’ll say “We’ll give it a try but we don’t want you to charge us a penny for the first year, and give us a couple of thousand pounds a week towards marketing.” The airport owners will say that’s not acceptable.’
In terms of future destinations, the airport is keen to fly ‘business oriented routes’ to Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin, Glasgow, Paris and Geneva, on regional turboprop aircraft with 30-80 seats. ‘With any luck we should see something starting within the next year. Once it ticks away nicely then the airline would be more inclined to start a new route to another destination,’ says Dillon-Godfray.New scheduled airline services from the Airport are currently under review
The top international destination under consideration is Amsterdam, which has considerably more global connections than Heathrow. Dillon-Godfray says: ‘If you could get a cheap flight from Oxford to Amsterdam, which interlinked with a flight to Beijing or Kuala Lumpur, chances are it would be cheaper and more convenient than flying from Heathrow. It’s what we aspire to do, and one day it will happen…in our lifetime. I would love to see it start next year but it may take a few years depending on state of the industry and market.’
Nonstop flights can and do come into Oxford from anywhere in the world, although the relatively short take-off runway means the furthest destinations directly flyable from Oxford nonstop are the likes of Chicago or the Middle East. Big players like Easyjet and Ryanair can’t use Oxford Airport commercially because of the runway length, but a regional airline like Flybe with 50-seater planes would be one of the best possible partners, adds Dillon-Godfray.
He adds: ‘One of the strange things about Oxford is that there are 57 cities in the UK, and of those, Oxford is one of the most isolated in terms of access to commercial air services. It’s over an hour to Heathrow, Luton or Birmingham. You can almost name any other city with a regional airport closer. So we’re quite unique.’
Undoubtedly, there’s a gap in market – no one wants to go from Oxford to Edinburgh with the current slow, overpriced trains, which would surely be easy to undercut. Dillon-Godfray agrees. ‘It’s absolutely got viability.’ Watch this space.