Is the UK general aviation (GA) sector withering on the vine? LAURIE PRICE FRAeS looks at why this underappreciated national resource, and the aerodromes that support it, are vital for the wider air transport industry.  

In the heady days of 1930’s, the UK led the world in production and innovation of light aircraft to supply the increasing demand and interest in aviation that was sweeping the country.  

Names like Miles, Whitney Straight, De Havilland, Chilton, were regular features in reports of air shows, air races and record breaking flights. Whilst their pilots such as Cobham, Mollison, and Johnson became national celebrities.

Despite some increased post WW2 activity in General Aviation (GA) as Tiger Moths and other light wartime types were sold into the civil market, the last UK produced light aircraft was the Beagle 206 that had followed the Beagle Pup whilst its big brother the Bulldog was produced as a military trainer by Scottish Aviation. Meanwhile the BN Islander light utility aircraft is now produced in Switzerland, primary production having moved from Bembridge IOW to Romania and Belgium and subsequently to Pilatus. Who now remembers GA projects like the BN Nymph, Trago Mills SAH, ARV2, Pilot Sprite light aircraft initiatives, which have all foundered?

Most of the major recent advances in GA aircraft design, development and operation have been to air sport aircraft including homebuilt  and microlight aircraft and gliders using new lightweight materials and powerplants. Lighter touch regulation that is vigorously encouraged by the LAA, BGA, BMAA,  HCGB and others, who between them support over 10,000 aircraft has allowed innovation to thrive and with it new aircraft, systems and products to be developed for GA. Those same organisations and their informed approach have enabled operations to mature. For instance, some LAA Permit Aircraft can now fly at night and in IMC. Additionally, again driven by GA, green shoots of lighter regulation are emerging from EASA and with that the freedom to develop new aircraft less encumbered by red tape and costs. But will it be enough to catalyse the renaissance of UK GA? 

GA in context 

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Although getting accurate data on UK GA is difficult (as identified as an issue for future planning by the GA Red Tape Challenge Panel), there are some 27,000 civil aircraft registered in the UK, of which over 90 percent are involved in GA. GA covers most of aviation that is not Commercial Air Transport, or airlines to most people. It also includes aerial survey work for utility and transport companies as well as emergency medical services such as organ donation ferry flights, air ambulance and of course the police.

There are some 50,000 pilots licensed by the CAA to fly powered aircraft with about half holding Private Pilot Licences or equivalent focused on GA. The remainder hold professional pilot licenses. In addition, there are some 10,000 active glider pilots, with membership of aviation-related sport and recreational associations such as the LAA, BGA, and AOPA etc. at 36,000.

The number of aerodromes supporting GA is circa 500, albeit over 1000 “airfields” have been identified in previous studies of UK GA.

The 2015 Government GA Policy document stated that: 

“When we published our response to the Challenge Panel in October we noted GA’s role in training future pilots and engineers, and employing skilled workers. GA still accounts for nine tenths of our aircraft and over half of our pilots, it directly supports almost 10,000 jobs and indirectly nearly 30,000 more. These are skilled careers, including aerospace engineers, those involved in advanced avionics and those training the next generation of pilots. And it is worth three billion pounds annually to the UK economy. Yet for many years GA has been a Cinderella sector, suffering from a combination of under-recognition and over-regulation. The economic research into the value of GA that we publish alongside this Strategy shows the dramatic impact of this decline and the effect it has had on the sector’s economic contribution to the UK. But importantly, it also recognises the need and the scope for renaissance so that the sector can thrive once more”. 

Moving forward

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As the background confirms, the health of UK GA is crucial to the future of both the Air Transport and Aerospace sectors by encouraging early interest in aviation and as a source of potential recruitment.

But UK GA is under threat from airfields being developed for housing and encroachment by controlled airspace, changes often based on spurious traffic forecasts. From increasing cost through taxation on training, unique to the UK and on AVGAS. Alternative technology and attractions for young people - smart phones, IPad, virtual reality games, all conspire to make flying real aircraft and waiting for weather or late arrivals to train in 40 year old aircraft less attractive.    


GA is the foundation for air transport and aerospace recruitment. Without GA, industry is not going to be able to fill all the vacancies in the sector that is so crucial to the UK economy."

A number of significant airfields have closed in recent years, including Filton, Panshanger, Manston, and Plymouth; albeit FlyPlmouth have a scheme to reopen the airport initially based around GA activity, including SEIMC operations. Others remain under threat of housing development, including all GA airfields in Surrey – Fairoaks, Redhill and Dunsfold, leaving Surrey, despite many of its residents working in aviation at Heathrow and Gatwick and in Aerospace, with no operational airfields.

Many other airfields, over 20 in total, such as Old Sarum, North Weald, Blackpool and Wellsbourne are hanging on by a thread, as Government Brown Field designation and local authorities looking for easy wins to solve housing shortfalls threaten their continued existence and airfield operating costs rise and revenues decline. All compounded by CAA airfield licensing requirements and associated costs having forced some airfields to operate as unlicensed, limiting the type of traffic and activity they can accept. The total of licensed airfields having reduced from 144 to 124 (Government GA Policy paper 2015).

With airfield closure, so flying schools and associated maintenance capability and employment has been lost. Even at once thriving GA airfields such as Shoreham, the number of flying schools has reduced. It’s a vicious circle, which needs to be broken. The only airfields that seem to be countering that trend are those such as Gloucester where an energetic management has encourage business diversity and those that are now unlicensed.

But with Boeing and Airbus forecasting a requirement for 600,000 new and replacement pilots over next 30 years, if the issue of funding such training can be addressed, it could be the catalyst for the renaissance of UK GA. 

Improving connectivity 

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In addition, there is a significant opportunity to improve UK connectivity, particularly cross-country and cross the radial roads and rail links using new types of air service such as single engine turboprop (SEIMC), which with 9 or fewer passengers can operate into unlicensed airfields. This would in turn provide new and faster links which by pass increasing road congestion and overcrowded and expensive rail services. This opportunity also extends beyond the UK into Europe.

The DfT are commissioning a Study on the value of the UK airfield network as originally recommended by the GA Red Tape Challenge Panel. It’s seldom recognised that the UK has over 500 airfields (many more according some sources) but only 50 are currently served by commercial air services constituting an underused transport resource. If we don’t have airports to fly from and access to airspace, GA will continue to shrink and the seedcorn of British aviation will die.

The establishment of the All Party Parliamentary Group for General Aviation, chaired by keen private pilot Grant Shapps MP, will help UK GA, but they in turn require help in identifying key constraints to UK GA.

“The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on General Aviation believes that, over a period of decades, successive governments have failed to fully appreciate the critical role that General Aviation plays in promoting UK plc.

Commercial, industrial and military aviation has a strong interest in keeping a thriving General Aviation sector alive. Many organisations have already approached this APPG to offer their support. Put simply, the importance of General Aviation to boosting scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical (STEM) skills in the wider economy cannot be overestimated.

Yet no aviation sector can exist without a network of airfields, and virtually every airfield was a product of wartime Britain. When they are closed and built on, they are never replaced. Therefore, without a shift in Government policy the UK will, by default, exit both General Aviation and overall aviation as a critical sector of our economy within a generation. We are delighted that industry more broadly is supporting the aims of this important APPG on General Aviation and we are proud to display their support here”.

 The Government latest Consultation “Beyond the Horizon – The future of UK Aviation” says on GA:

General aviation (GA) covers a wide range of activities, from business jets and air taxis through to hobbyists flying aircraft they have built themselves. The GA sector plays an important role in the overall aviation world, delivering economic benefits but also encouraging many people to become involved in aviation. The most recent General Aviation Strategy set out the Government’s vision for the GA sector and made a number of commitments for reform. There are specific issues that the Government is keen to better understand. These include: the decline in the numbers of leisure pilots and aircraft; the tensions between the needs of scheduled and non-scheduled aviation regarding access to airspace and airport infrastructure; and the closure of some smaller airports, airfields and airstrips. The Government is interested in gaining a better understanding of the benefits and requirements of the sector, and whether it is possible to identify a strategic network or level of infrastructure to enable the sector to continue its valuable role.

Major aviation, air transport and aerospace groups back UK GA recognising its crucial role.

Against that background of significant Government, Parliamentary and industry support for GA, then all should be working to encourage the sector in its own right, also as a foundation and recruitment ground for commercial aviation and aerospace and to help UK regional connectivity and enhanced links to Europe for the majority of airfields not served by commercial air services. 

Policy Priorities for UK GA 

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If UK GA is to regenerate then a number of key policy issues need to be addressed by Government, but supported by the sector. These include:-   

1. GA and industry Recruitment.  GA is the foundation for air transport and aerospace recruitment. Without GA, industry is not going to be able to fill all the vacancies in the sector that is so crucial to the UK economy. The industry needs 600,000 pilots and 600,000 engineers worldwide over the next 30 years. Plus other specialists such as ATCOs, designers, technicians, programmers etc., etc. UK can and should contribute to providing for and training those. But it needs a positive Government focus and a coordinated industry approach if it is to be achieved. Jobs in aviation and aerospace are skilled and two and half times more productive than the average.

2. GA and UK regional connectivity. Use GA to help UK regional and European connectivity, particularly now that SEIMC is permitted in UK and Europe. Only 50 UK airports in the UK have regular scheduled services. But there are 500 or more airfields in the UK, so using GA air taxis, ad-hoc services, self-fly, 'flight sharing' services such as Wingly or via business aviation can help improve connectivity across the country and beyond. The Department for International trade confirms that local airfields attract inward investment for local businesses from outside the UK.

3. GA Statistics for planning. We need up-to-date data on GA pilot licences issued, number of certified aircraft, operational airfields, flying hours and overall activity in the GA sector, if the true role and opportunity of UK GA is to be understood and requisite policies developed to enable its future development.

4. GA and Taxation. The unique imposition of VAT on Flying Training and tax on AVGAS must be addressed. Given the opportunity for the UK in 1 above, we should seek a level playing field, particularly with overseas training organisations and competitors who don’t incur such levels of tax. Flying Training is the only academic / vocational training in the UK subject to VAT; it puts UK flight training schools at a significant disadvantage, as does the additional tax on AVGAS, still the most widely used aviation fuel for flying training. This tax increases the cost of an already more costly specialist fuel. In addition, Government policy should encourage use of new fuels and electric flight for GA training and recreation.

5. GA and Education / Training. Policies should be adopted to integrate Flying Training into STEM and other Government Education initiatives. More should be done to encourage young people into aviation via Cadet and other organisations, adapting school curricula as required. The excellent RAeS and Boeing Build a Plane initiatives and the scholarship programmes of those, the Air League and BWPA etc., should also be encouraged further. The aim must be to show aviation as offering an exciting career, opportunities and GA as both stepping stone and potential hobby for future generations. Could it be possible to inspire such interest by encouraging electric flight air racing?

6. Sustain the UK airfield network. Maintaining the network of UK airfields helps connectivity, regional access, economic development and employment. The start should be by de-designating them as brownfield sites. National planning rules need to change to stop airfield closures and encourage large towns to provide an airfield, as in France, where it is proven it can be good for commerce and sporting activity. In Plymouth the local Council has recognised the economic, connectivity and social benefits of reopening the airport. Unless the airfield network is secured, there will be fewer places to train future pilots and engineers, so deny the UK part of a training market that it is well equipped to assist due to the reputation for high standards of regulation, adherence, operation and the use of English.

7. GA fair access to airspace. The current allocation and assessment of UK designated airspace by DAP needs a complete overhaul. Proposals for new airspace restrictions seems to ignore improved commercial aircraft performance and the needs of GA. They are often based on spurious forecasts of commercial traffic growth on which no independent economic tests have been applied. Additionally, there needs to be greater consistency in the decision process. Wider acceptance of Mode S, ADSB and TMZ plus improved GPS based GA navigation and instrument procedures will help, but may need an associated change to the PPL training curriculum.

The future for UK GA is potentially bright but it will need a concerted effort by the industry and its learned bodies such as the RAeS to keep up pressure on Government to allow a positive, enabling policy framework to evolve for it to achieve its full potential and grow rather than “wither”.

Laurie Price FRAeS
26 September 2017