Thomas Withington reports on how a former French Air Force base is being transformed into a business aviation centre.
The former Francazal Air Base, an Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) airfield in the southwest outskirts of Toulouse, France, will reopen in January 2011 as a new business airport and aviation industrial centre. However, the conversion of the air base has not been without controversy, and the new airport will face the challenge of turning a profit in a cold global economic climate.
Francazal air base, which ceased military flying activities this August, had been earmarked for closure as a result of the French Government’s Livre Blanc (White Paper) on the country’s future defence posture published in July 2008. At the time of the White Paper’s announcement, the future of the airfield had seemed uncertain, but it will now have a new lease of life as an airfield dedicated to business and general aviation. It is intended by the DSACS (Direction de la Sécurité de l’Aviation Civile Sud /Southern Civil Aviation Security Directorate); part of the French Directorate Générale pour l’Aviation Civile (DGAC – equivalent to the British Civil Aviation Authority), which is overseeing the conversion, that the site at Francazal will also host local aerospace Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs). Toulouse possesses a large aviation industrial base that feeds the Airbus assembly lines located at the city’s international airport at Blagnac, northwest of the city.
Although the former air base occupies 263 hectares (649 acres) of land and has a single 5,906ft (1,800m) asphalt runway providing ample room for the new airport and business park, some small scale conversion work is already underway with more necessary in the future. For instance, the French Government has already authorised €1.9 million (US$2.5m) to be spent by the DSACS on the extension of water and electricity utilities in anticipation of the arrival of local aerospace SMEs, according to Georges Desclaux, DSACS Director. Other minor modifications to the site will include a new business aviation terminal which will be paid for by: “the future company that will eventually manage the airport,” according to Mr. Desclaux. When flight operations commence in early 2011, the facility will be run by the DCAG, although a commercial operator will assume management and Mr. Desclaux says that the organisation is: “currently searching for a commercial partner who will be able to invest in the airport.” In terms of these commercial partners, Mr. Desclaux declined to mention any specific firms, although he stressed that: “several companies involved in aviation and airports have already announced their interest in Francazal, and their involvement in developing future projects” such as the new business aviation terminal.
The opening of the new airfield will also add some important extra capacity for Toulouse. The city’s main airport at Blagnac, which it shares with the sprawling Airbus factory, hosts around 100,000 aircraft movements per year, which translates into around six million passengers using this facility annually. This airport has recently performed a major expansion with the opening of a new departure and arrivals terminal. Blagnac currently accommodates business and general aviation traffic, which use facilities located on the eastern side of the airport. However, this part of the apron represents space that the airport could use for future expansion. Relocating Toulouse’s business aviation to Francazal would, at a stroke, help to clear this extra space, and provide an additional annual capacity for airliner operations.
The conversion of the air base at Francazal has not proceeded without controversy, with local residents and environmental groups expressing their opposition to the initiative. For example, Les Verts Toulouse, the local ecological party, which has a significant presence on the city’s council, has opposed the initiative. Juliette Le Seac’h, the party’s spokesperson, argues that as the airfield at Francazal is in an: “urban environmental,” there will be: “harmful effects in terms of noise pollution for the 30,000 local residents near the airport.” Instead, the party has proposed that the site should be used for agricultural purposes, and for the construction of new homes and small businesses, noting that: “other solutions such as these are possible and much more respectful of the environment.” Moreover, Ms Le Seac’h believes that utilising the site at Francazal for purposes other than aviation could have a beneficial effect on the local economy as this would offer the possibility to diversify it away from a dependence on aviation. Ms Le Seac’h adds that her colleagues feel that they have been excluded from the decision-making process regarding Francazal’s future citing: “the opacity of the negotiations,” which, she claims, were held without: “particular consultation with the local residents.”
However, Mr Desclaux insists that environmental safeguards have been built into Francazal’s operation as a business airport. He says that the conversion project includes that establishment of: “an environmental advisory commission which will be open to local government agencies and environmental associations. This will be the central authority for dialogue on all questions relating to the environmental impact of aeronautical activity at Francazal.” This commission will be responsible for establishing the noise abatement measures for the airfield and also for measuring its environmental impact once operations commence in January. Furthermore, the office of the Préfet de la Haute-Garonne (Haute-Garonne Prefecture), which is in charge of the Department de la Haute Garonne (County of Haute-Garonne), has stipulated that flight movements at Francazal will not exceed 15,000 per year, while using the airfield for freight operations has been ruled out as this would require lengthening the runway.
Revenue is expected to be raised by the new facility, not only through charging landing fees, but also by business rent generated by encouraging aerospace SMEs to locate their businesses at the site. Speaking at a public meeting of the steering committee on April 20, which is coordinating Francazal’s conversion Dominique Bur, the Prefect of Haute-Garonne, said that he believed that up to 3,000 jobs could be created at the site via the development of this aerospace business cluster. This would also help to provide alternative facilities for companies in this sector unable to secure real estate at the increasingly busy site at Blagnac.
Nevertheless, money-making could prove the biggest challenge for the new airport. The DSACS has refused to be drawn on the projected profits for Francazal’s first year of operations as a business airport, saying that such information remains confidential. However, Mr. Desclaux does stress that landing fees at the airport will compare very favourably to those of Blagnac airport in an effort to attract corporate jet users.
Although the domestic economy is recovering from France’s 2008/09 recession, gross domestic product growth was still a modest 2% for 2009/10. This is not withstanding the fact that other economies around the world are still in the doldrums, and that business aviation is one expense that companies routinely try to curb when times are hard. That said, Mr Desclaux notes that there are other successful models around France where smaller airfields have acted as complementary facilities to accommodate business and general aviation alongside larger municipal airfields, citing Le Bourget in Paris, which performs a similar role for the city’s main Orly and Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airports.
Away from the capital, Mr Desclaux adds that smaller cites have pioneered similar business models with Lyon-Bron airport in the eastern French city of Lyon serving as the corporate and general aviation airfield alongside the conurbation’s main facility at Saint-Exupéry International Airport.