In a Holding Pattern

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It’s been a tough couple of years post-2008 global financial downturn, and many areas of the travel market have continued to feel the pinch, particularly those perceived as ‘luxury’ industries and ‘nice-to-haves’. The private aviation industry suffers from this perception, but the reality is very different, according to ExecuJet’s Vice-President for Africa Ettore Poggi. He joined editor Dylan Rogers for a coffee at ExecuJet’s base at Lanseria International Airport in Johannesburg.

According to Ettore Poggi, the South African private aviation sector can be divided into three sections: the leisure aircraft owner segment, the tourist industry, and the business travel industry, which predominantly caters to the jet market.

But the pre-2008 boom days are gone, with the business travel industry particularly hard hit by the global downturn.

“I think the whole of South Africa is in a holding pattern,” says Poggi. “It’s in a stagnant place right now with small pockets of growth. There isn’t the huge growth we used to experience, and if anything, there are certain areas like the bigger jet market where there’s maybe an outflow.”

Many individuals, local companies and international conglomerates have sold off their assets, and there’s been a more circumspect approach to private aviation in South Africa, although that hasn’t necessarily completely slowed business.

“What we find is that a lot of conglomerates that may have sold off their aircraft are still chartering into places,” says Poggi. “In fact, a lot more up-and-coming businesses and individuals are using private aircraft travel.”

No surprise that the resources sector still has ‘some skin in the game’, with Poggi pointing to turboprop aircraft such as the King Air as the type of aircraft that is proving more popular, with the capability it offers.

“These aircraft can get into the airstrips that are close to mine sites and other resource sites,” he says. “A King Air can take six or seven passengers and the 350 can take eight or nine. They can get into those places where people are starting to develop resource-type industries.”

ExecuJet Africa also has facilities in Cape Town and Lagos, and at all three facilities do charter work, aircraft management and maintenance on behalf of owners, and have fixed-based operations. Growth in South Africa may be slow, but Nigeria is a different ball game.

“Nigeria is booming,” says Poggi. “There are aircraft delivering into Nigeria probably at a greater pace than we ever saw in South Africa’s history, even though it’s coming off a small base. The private sector market there is still not as big as in South Africa, but if it continues this way it will soon be much bigger than South Africa.”

So, where next for ExecuJet Africa?

“The areas that attract us include Angola, Mozambique and some of the East African countries,” says Poggi. “We’re fairly confident that Nigeria could be a central hub for West Africa, so we’re not looking at more opportunities there, except possibly Ghana.”

One thing that private aviation operators will always battle is perception, particularly when it comes to the issue of value.

“People who think it’s a ‘nice-to-have’ either don’t have the resources to use it, or don’t have the vision and foresight to understand the benefits,” says Poggi. “Some of our clients visit three or four cities in South Africa in a day. You can’t do that if you don’t have a private aircraft at your disposal.”

Looking to the future, Poggi points to a global move towards more efficiency in terms of fuel consumption and emission control, as well as onboard facilities, and says that wide-body jets have overtaken their narrow-body counterparts, in terms of popularity. But he also has a word of caution for South Africa.

“If we don’t make sure our economy grows at a decent pace, then we’re not going to grow this business locally,” he says.

In fact, Poggi is arguably more optimistic about the actual region South Africa finds itself in.

“If the countries surrounding South Africa can harness their economic potential, we can become the hub for things like their maintenance services,” he says. “Although there may not be as much potential as in South Africa, our potential lies in becoming a hub for the SADC region, as Lagos could become for the ECOWAS region.”

Dylan Rogers