Private jets seek Farnborough take-off

TAG Group aims to turn MoD site into a designated airport for business travellers. Andrea Rothman reports
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OIL giant Royal Dutch Shell keeps three private jets parked at London's Heathrow Airport, ready to spirit its executives off to any corner of the globe at a moment's notice. There is just one problem - Heathrow's runways are so crowded that often the jets cannot take off, according to Brian Humphries, head of Shell International's plane fleet.

As commercial airlines add flights at Heathrow and Gatwick, business fleets are being squeez- ed out. Unlike France, where three modern airports cater specifically for corporate flying, Britain has no big business airports at all. This helps explain why twice as many corporate aircraft are owned in France.

That could change soon. TAG Group, the Swiss-based holding company best known for its TAG Heuer watches, wants to transform the Farnborough airport, home of Britain's biennial air show, into the London area's only dedicated business aviation facility. The plan is expected to face considerable opposition from local residents, but industry experts say it could be a catalyst for growth in UK business aviation.

Derek Leggett, chief executive of the Business Aircraft Users' Association, based in Scotland, said his group was desperate to see TAG succeed. "Life at the moment is becoming exceedingly difficult for users of corporate aircraft," he said.

Within the next 10 days, TAG expects to reach an agreement in principle with Farnborough airport's owner, the Ministry of Defence, which would lease the property to the Swiss company. The ministry has run the property for decades as a research facility but is now moving the research elsewhere to free the space for the airport's development.

The airstrip already accommodates a modest number of business aircraft, under a license from the ministry granted to a British Aerospace subsidiary, Farnborough Aviation. The current operation is small, with only about 8,000 aircraft movements a year.

TAG has much more ambitious plans. Waleed Youssef, TAG's project manager for the Farnborough Aerodrome, said the group was prepared to spend "tens of millions" of pounds to make Farnborough a big centre for business-aircraft operations.

Privately owned TAG is controlled by two brothers, Mansour Ojjeh, 45, and AbdulAziz Ojjeh, 43, sons of the founder, Akram, who died in 1991. Both are Saudi nationals, educated in Europe and the US.

Their company has made a name for itself by resurrecting Heuer, a moribund Swiss watch company, and using savvy, sports-related marketing to turn the TAG Heuer brand into one of the industry's trendiest. The watch subsidiary sold stock to the public last year. TAG also has an interest in the TAG McLaren group, which makes Formula One racing cars.

Aviation is the group's other business pillar. Since 1977, TAG Aeronautics has represented Bombardier in selling Canadair Challengers, Global Express jets and regional jets in the Arab world. The company recently bought Aeroleasing, a Geneva-based business jet charter operator. It is planning an acquisition in the US as well.

Originally, TAG stood for Technologies d'Avant-Garde, though that name is no longer used. AbdulAziz himself is a jet pilot.

Mr Youssef said business-jet operators also needed the seamless transport people were looking for on commercial airlines. The brothers see a big market, because crowded commercial airports negate the main purpose of corporate fleets: quick take-offs without regard to airline schedules.

While Farnborough is currently limited to a maximum of 25,000 aircraft movements a year, Mr Youssef said his group would press authorities to eliminate any ceiling. Corporate-aircraft traffic in the London area now amounts to about 50,000 movements a year.

Mr Youssef said TAG also wanted Farnborough's restrictions on plane weights raised to accommodate new-generation jets such as Gulfstream's GV and Bombardier's Global Express, and possibly also Boeing's 737 and Airbus Industrie's A319.

TAG is planning to install an instrument-landing system, a sophisticated technology that allows pilots to land planes with the aid of computers. And the group has already headed off a potential problem by promising to allow the biennial airshow to continue as usual.

TAG is also considering how to speed access from Farnborough. Travel time by limousine to central London is nearly an hour. One possibility is a new heliport, closer to central London than the Battersea heliport, across the river from Chelsea.

TAG must win a licence from the Civil Aviation Authority and must resolve planning issues with the Rushmoor Borough Council Local Plan. An inquiry begins next June.

Farnborough has "a very vociferous local community," according to Sarah Luckham Down, marketing co-ordinator for a small private airport, Beacon Hill Airport. "The higher the socio-economic group, the more noise complaints you will get - and Farnborough is a very wealthy area," she said.

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