No Fly By Night
Hiring a private jet is, literally, pie in the sky for many people. Yet for those who have the means, private air charter offers privacy, convenience and safety – particularly useful when travelling to destinations on the African continent.
The African continent doesn’t have the most impressive aviation safety record, although that does appear to be improving, as the statistics bear out. But, in the interim, the African air charter business has taken the gap, for reasons not exclusive to just safety.
The air charter industry is now well established in Africa, with a few key players dominating the skies. “Prior to 2007, the industry was extremely healthy,” says Ettore Poggi, MD of ExecuJet Africa, who currently operate 51 aircraft, covering a broad spectrum of requests from passengers.
“Of course, like most industries, we were affected by the recession. The FIFA World cup did a lot to revive us in 2010 – but if we take the World Cup out of the equation – despite the signs of recovery that we’re starting to see, we’re not in the same shape we were before the crisis hit.”
Poggi points out that while the industry has experienced a dip, fuel prices are continually on the rise. “It’s a difficult one,” he says, “since we have not increased our fares.” He adds that the European economy is not in a good space, whilst Africa “is not immune to this situation and we tend to follow the trends that occur in Europe and the States, even though it may only hit a year later.”
Fixed Wing Charter Manager at NAC, Philip du Preez maintains that the market is a competitive one, albeit in a flat economy. “Our client pool consists predominantly of government and the resource sector,” he says. Du Preez adds that while South Africa was not initially adversely affected by the recession, all operators are now feeling the effect of the global financial slowdown. “It’s a climate that brings its own challenges,” he admits. NAC has adapted to the market by focusing on customer service and getting to understand the business of its clients, in order to provide them with top service.
Du Preez believes that the economy will remain ‘flat-lined’ for some time to come, with little to no growth for the next year at least. “It’s not all doom and gloom, however – it’s an environment that creates other opportunities to grow and expand the business,” he says.
Shareholder and operations director at Federal Air, Evan Bailee, has a more positive take on the state of the industry. He believes that the air charter industry is currently experiencing an upsurge, particularly in the contract charter area, after a period of consolidation or ‘holding pattern’.
“The past few years have forced a number of scheduled airlines to debase their profit margins through heavy and continuous discounting, a practice which has negatively affected the demand for corporate charter,” he reports.
“On the up side, with new areas of exploration opening up across southern Africa in the mining, oil and gas sectors, in addition to the revival we’re seeing in corporate incentive travel, demand is growing for air charter to destinations that are off the beaten track,” he enthuses. Bailee mentions that since Federal Air merged with Bataleur Air Charter earlier this year, the airline is poised to take advantage of the upturn.
Poggi is equally enthusiastic about the resources and infrastructure in Africa that provide a buffer against the recession for the continent. “There is a lot of interest in Africa’s gas and mineral resources from countries abroad – we’re seeing a lot of European, American and Australian travel into Africa, as these industries are developing rapidly,” he notes.
While private air charter appeals to a number of different types of passengers, with airlines seeing variations from month to month, ExecuJet services wealthy individuals travelling into South Africa and other parts of the African continent. “With the resource industry becoming a major focus around the world, we transport a number of industry players around Africa. We also see tourists who travel in on commercial airlines and then charter aircraft to safari lodges,” says Poggi.
NAC, too, transports individuals and corporate companies alike. “The main advantage of flying on a private charter is that you are not bound by a schedule – you determine your own departure times and can select these to fit in with your travel itinerary,” says Du Preez.
“For resource companies, who often need to travel to remote parts of Africa, chartering a plan has enormous advantages,” adds Poggi. “Commercial routes are often lengthy, turning a direct flight that should take two days into an arduous eight-day journey,” he states. “By flying privately, you can reach your destination directly, without having to fly into the capital first.”
Both Poggi and Du Preez agree that confidentiality and privacy is another important advantage. “Clients can hold meetings on board, pre and post-strategy sessions, and get on with work they need to complete with a greater sense of privacy than you would enjoy onboard a commercial flight – even in First Class,” Poggi comments.
Safety is an additional advantage. While the safety of commercial airlines in South Africa is not in dispute, passengers looking to hire a charter aircraft can access information such as the standards of the air charter company, who is responsible for the maintenance of the aircraft, and the compliance of the company to the standards set out by the relevant industry bodies.
“Other information that pertains to safety includes the number of hours the pilot has flown, and whether these hours are sufficient for the pilot to handle an emergency landing and how many hours he has spent in a simulator. Most air charter companies will also have been audited on safety and can provide a certificate to show their accreditation,” says Poggi.
He adds that while commercial airlines in South Africa do not have safety issues, the more remote destinations in Africa do have a high incidence of accidents. “It’s not about the airline or the route specifically. Pilots must be aware that most of these destinations do not have sophisticated systems for air traffic control,” he points out.
As one would imagine, hiring a private jet comes with its fair share of on-board luxury. For example, at NAC, the offering of each flight is customized depending on the client’s budget and the route they’ll be flying. “This includes anything from lounge and in-flight catering to Bulgari amenity packs for longer flights, valet and complementary parking and car wash, to name just a few,” says Du Preez. NAC also keeps detailed information on all its regular customers, noting details such as dietary requirements down to what material they like to read during the flight – ‘a concierge in the sky’, he adds.
Federal Air places great importance on customisation. “We ensure that we deliver unparalleled personalised service with an accent on safety and reliability. Our objective is to offer the best every time to ensure a high level of repeat business,” says Reiser. “In addition, because we have a large and versatile fleet with bases across Africa, we are able to plan a route network for almost any request.”
At Execujet, added value is an important focus. “We aim to add value from the minute the passenger books his flight with us,” says Poggi. This includes continual updates on anything from the weather to reports of political unrest, a concierge service to book hotels, meet and greet, and organise shopping excursions, as well as a lounge, onboard snacks and a dedicated cabin attendant.
Indeed, while the air charter industry in Africa may have seen its ups and downs, it’s clear that with the world’s renewed interest in the African continent, coupled with the wealth of natural resources to be found in the region, it’s a mode of transport that is alive and well – a safe and convenient way to travel for wealthy businessmen and individuals who value their privacy with a little luxury on the side.
What air charter companies offer their clients
Execujet prides itself on the provision of a turnkey solution to aviation, from the sale of aircraft, to the financing, inspections and delivery on behalf of the owner. In addition, the company manages the charter and maintenance of aircraft, offering fixed-base operations and ground handling of aircraft, crew and passengers.
Federal Airlines Charter service operates under the name of Bataleur Air Charter. The company offers tailor-made flights to exact requirements for its passengers, with control over departure and arrival times, with passengers able to select the destination and schedule. Federal Air has one of the most versatile fleets of aircraft in Africa, from Turboprops, including the Beechcraft Airking 200, to large Boeing 737-type jet aircraft. To this end, the company is able to offer aircraft to meet a variety of corporate, recreational, incentive or tourism requirements.
NAC complies with strict safety and operational regulations, as well as successfully passing various international regulatory audits on an annual basis, and holds accreditations with various industry bodies. NAC’s fixed wing charter division offers a fleet of turboprop and jet aircraft to cater for a host of client requirements.
Samantha Du Chenne