Dutch offshore aviation dates back to the early 1970s when the first helicopter flights for the American oil company Placid shuttled between Den Helder and the oil rigs in the Southern North Sea from a specially constructed helicopter port of the municipality of Den Helder under a Nuisance Act permit. In 1981, the sharp increase in exploration and production of oil and gas in the North Sea meant that more and more passengers flew offshore via Den Helder. A permit for civilian joint use by the operator of military airport De Kooy (Airport Decree De Kooy) was then agreed for Den Helder Airport CV. At this military airport, civilian co-user Den Helder Airport grew into the third largest helicopter operation in Europe, with at its peak in 2008, more than 24,000 flight movements and almost 150,000 passengers and a license for a maximum of 29,000 flight movements per year.
During this period, the oil and gas companies registered in the Netherlands organized themselves in the NOGEPA industry association, which among other things worked for the safety and security of supply of offshore energy. The association also imposed a large number of measures on Den Helder Airport, with which the transport of people and cargo was heavily secured with both procedures and additional facilities. Marchaussee and Customs were also already active at the airport at that time. Today, due to all these measures, Den Helder Airport often has the same security systems as many international airports, supplemented with regular drug and alcohol checks. This made Den Helder Airport unique in its kind.
Within Dutch aviation legislation, airports are distinguished into:
- Airport Schiphol;
- Other civil airports, and;
- Military airports.
Other civil airports may be of regional significance or of national significance.
Airports are of national significance if:
- They are located outside provincial boundaries as determined under the Provinces Act, or;
- This is determined by law.
Airports of national significance are:
- Lelystad airport,
- Airport Eelde,
- Maastricht Airport, en
- Rotterdam airport.
The aviation sector is divided into a civil sector, civil aviation, and a non-civil sector. The latter sector includes air traffic that is active for military, police and customs tasks.
The civil aviation sector consists of:
- Commercial aviation for the transportation of passengers and/or cargo for the purpose of providing these services to others for profit. Aircraft used in commercial aviation are airliners
- Private aviation – the use of private aircraft for the transport of persons and/or cargo.
However, the 24,000 annual offshore flight movements have no status within Dutch aviation legislation. Even the Aviation Memorandum 2020-2050 adopted in 2022, which contains important rules and conditions for the future development of civil aviation, has failed to accommodate the offshore aviation sector. In short, no policy has been formulated that monitors access to primary energy areas by air.
From the perspective of aviation legislation, Den Helder Airport is a small regional airport with a permit for civilian joint use from the Ministry of Defense. Control mechanisms for Den Helder Airport are the airport decision and the safety manual.
From 2016, the energy system will change due to the COP-21 climate agreements of Paris. The energy transition means that the Netherlands no longer invests in fossil energy. There is a strong political urge to become more sustainable, without an action plan being available at that time. In any case, this means that flight movements from Den Helder Airport fall by almost half and that red numbers will appear in the accounts for the first time in 2020. At the same time, the government is withdrawing more and subsidy schemes are being phased out, resulting in extreme cost control (-40%) in the entire supply chain.
In 2016, Den Helder Airport established the North Sea Heliport Alliance (NSHA), an alliance consisting of the 6 largest European offshore airports in 5 countries around the North Sea, which together accounted for the transport of 2 million offshore passengers per year in 2014. United, airports will face the challenges of the energy transition. For example, the alliance warns that the effect of the energy transition will herald a consolidation with a structural decrease in the number of offshore flight movements with 30%. Together with the costs of maintaining security infrastructure, sustainability challenges and innovative aviation, there will therefore be a maximum of economic space around 2040 for 5 or at most 6 European offshore airports.
2019 is the year that Minister Wiebes, despite objections from North Holland and critical questions in the 2e room, Heliport Eemshaven opens. The offshore wind sector wants to supply the wind farms from small cheap helicopter fields and considers Den Helder Airport too far away, too expensive and part of a fossil industry that has become redundant. In the years that followed, 5 more helicopter fields followed this example (IJmuiden, Amsterdam-West, Oostwold, Pistoolhaven Rotterdam and Central Zeeland), with which the Netherlands suddenly has 6 extra offshore airports, where in the future there will only be a need for a maximum of 6 for the entire North Sea. The difference with Den Helder Airport is the enormous level of facilities there, which is entirely at the service of the security of supply of offshore energy, but which is nowhere laid down by law and therefore does not apply to these new Dutch airports. In short, flying these cheaper alternatives to our primary energy areas is perfectly legal.
Only a few of these new alternative offshore airports have maintenance space for helicopters, so that in daily practice empty helicopters fly from Rotterdam to Eemshaven, for example, to fly passengers offshore from there and vice-versa. These passengers are then usually first transported by bus to Eemshaven via Schiphol. If all these “empty legs” are added up, the fact that Den Helder Airport is said to be too far needs some qualification. Apart from the fact that this daily practice is far from sustainable, it has created an open unsecured corridor to our primary energy installations at sea. It should not be forgotten that these competing airfields have marginal facilities, similar to other small green fields, without any sort of control or security of cargo and passengers.
In 2001, security and security of energy supply became an important theme due to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. On the intercession of the UN, this means, among other things, that they want to secure ports comparable to international airports. The International Ships and Port Facility Security (ISPS) code is a fact, anchored in the Netherlands in 2004 in the Port Security Act. Paradoxically, seaports today offer better security against unauthorized access to primary energy systems than Dutch regional civil airports.
Security of supply of energy will again become a concern from 2016 with the enormous increase in offshore wind farms in the North Sea. In 2021, the Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS) in High Value of the North Sea will report, among other things, that large parts of the offshore energy systems are poorly secured, responsibilities are fragmented between ministries and there is a lack of targeted policy, supervision and Direction. Everything from TenneT's use of Chinese export cables to unauthorized access to the energy areas is included in the scenarios. But with the blowing up of Nord Stream 1 & 2, these warnings have no longer become a possible scenario but hard current/reality.
The war in Ukraine is also the provisional final piece of the perfect storm for Den Helder Airport. With the desire to become independent from Russian gas, the ambitions to transform the North Sea into a power station are reaching boiling point. The Netherlands wants to install more than 70 GW of offshore wind energy by 2050 (in 2021 there was 2.4 GW in the Dutch part of the North Sea!). To achieve this, the targets for 2030 have been doubled, from 11 GW to more than 21 GW. No lack of ambitions. However, this gigantic task also accelerates the reproduction of the aforementioned weaving errors.
In 2021 Den Helder Airport discussed this case extensively with the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, with the request to include targeted offshore aviation policy in the implementation agenda of the aviation memorandum. Although the ministry is sympathetic to Den Helder Airport's plea and also admits that offshore aviation is a blind spot at I&W, it also points to the fact that market forces operate. If Den Helder Airport is too expensive compared to the other small regional airports, they simply have to develop a better offer, according to I&W. But Den Helder Airport can only do that by downscaling all security systems and reducing the level of facilities to the level of the other small regional airports. And thus to abandon the unilateral responsibility for this part of the security of supply of offshore energy. In this scenario, in the event of a substantial threat, the Netherlands could lose the ability to fly offshore to Germany or the UK, who have the security in place and offer an excellent alternative. After all, infrastructure that has been scaled down does not come back. Ultimately, I&W only wants to consider including something in the agenda if the Ministry of Economic Affairs first endorses the case. Attempts in 2021 and 2022 to persuade the EZK to do so have been unsuccessful for the time being.
A last lifeline to maintain the infrastructure at Den Helder Airport could possibly be an EU directive from 2020. EU Directive COM-829 describes policies on the resilience of critical entities. Member States of 10 sectors are asked to compile an overview of critical infrastructure and providers before the end of 2023. Den Helder Airport can be linked to 2 sectors from this guideline, namely; Energy and Aviation. At the outbreak of the corona pandemic, this will become clear for the first time when Den Helder Airport is included in the critical infrastructure for the supply of oil and gas and procedures and measures are taken to ensure that offshore flights are resumed within 5 working days. Den Helder is then the only location in the Netherlands from which there is flown offshore.
With Den Helder Airport, the Netherlands has a unique offer for the Dutch offshore energy task. Den Helder Airport is the only airport in the Netherlands that is fully equipped to guarantee the security of energy supply by facilitating secure offshore flights. However, the systems that ensure this have not been laid down by law, which has created an uneven playing field with the other small regional “offshore” airports. In addition to the considerable tasks of sustainability, infrastructure development and innovations with drones, the security infrastructure is the backbone of Den Helder Airport and therefore also important for part of the maintenance of the Dutch part of the climate tasks. As an example, the functioning of the airport during the height of the pandemic can once again be mentioned. However, this can only be maintained if the playing field is restored by designing a targeted policy with regard to offshore aviation and, if necessary, invoking the COM-829 guideline therein.