Office in the Sky


It’s seen as the most exclusive way to fly and the perception is that it’s reserved for only those high-flying executives and corporates who have the financial means to splurge on over-priced air travel. But, the air charter industry maintains that that is not the case, and that the offering should appeal to businesses that have the numbers and the requirements, and are in need of a time and cost-saving alternative, never mind a safe one.

Time is money, and while the accountant holding the purse strings may raise an eyebrow at jets being chartered to zip across the continent, the reality is that private air travel is increasingly becoming a valuable opportunity for corporate travellers to maximise time and finite resources.

Whether it’s for an urgent meeting that can’t be accommodated by scheduled carriers, or a far-flung site visit well off the beaten-track, air charters offer a sought-after mix of safety, flexibility and convenience for travellers doing business in Africa.

“It goes without saying that everyone is watching their finances, and in many cases companies don’t want to be seen as spending money, especially when it comes to the expense of private air travel,” admits Vicky Hickman, Passenger Charter Manager from Chapman Freeborn, a global air charter broker that works with multi-national corporations, governments and international humanitarian and non-governmental organisations. “However, it does need to be said that every situation is different, and while a private air charter is expensive, it can save time and in turn save money along the way. We do believe that there is a time and place for private air charter.”

Like many sectors of the corporate travel market, the charter industry was rocked by the economic downturn, when the hiring of luxurious private jets was seen as unseemly expenditure in a time of economic austerity.

“As the charter market is an exclusive market, we have as an industry felt the economic downturn,” says Innette Nieuwenhuizen, Charter Sales Executive for National Airways Corporation in South Africa. “We do think the market is busy recovering, if we look at the latest flight confirmation statistics, but there is however still a long way to go to cover the hole the economic downturn has left in the private travel industry.”

And there’s good reason for the market to make its recovery, for focusing on the rands, naira, dollar and pula being paid out for a private charter, is only seeing half the picture.

“All forms of air travel have been impacted by the general business downturn, but the discerning businessman for whom time has value still makes significant use of non-scheduled flights,” says Chris Frost, Business Development Manager – Flight Operations: South Africa for ExecuJet Aviation Group. “Some companies have right-sized their staff count, which makes key personnel critical to the business continuity drive. Key personnel are far more productive and can spread themselves further afield with judicious use of private aviation.”

And while business travellers have traditionally been the mainstay of the air charter industry, companies operating on the continent are seeing an increase in bookings from other new markets.  

“Businesses drive charter flights the same way they can drive commercial airlines. It’s our main market and traditionally always has been,” says Frost. “In Africa, however, we see governments and non-governmental organisations’ usage increasing, partly because they have the same business pressures the corporates have – too much to do, and too little time in which to achieve it. Time efficiency is the common key motivator.”

There it is again: time. With a few exceptions, travelling within Africa is a time-consuming process, and as much as charter companies are selling you air travel from A to B, they are also selling you time on the ground to get on with doing business.

Chapman Freeborn has facilitated aircraft for high-flying suits and rock star entourages, and Hickman says that in the current environment of tortuous airport formalities and airlines cutting unprofitable routes to secondary destinations, time is just one of the many advantages to chartering a private aircraft.

“Private charters do save time and can offer more direct routing,” says Hickman. “We have a number of corporates who need to reach certain locations in Africa, be it an oil field, mining site, or even a construction site where a scheduled aircraft is just not suitable.”

“The needs of our private charter clients remained unchanged – flexibility and time efficiency,” says Magda Baillie, Marketing & Guest Relations Manager for Johannesburg-based Federal Air. “The ability to tailor-make flights to our clients’ exact requirements, combined with high-end personalised service directly to specific destinations throughout Africa, ensure a private charter is money well spent.”

Convenience is certainly one of the key benefits to chartered air travel, with scheduled airlines simply not serving many of the destinations corporate travellers – particularly in the mining and petro-chemical industries – need to reach.

Aside from far-flung destinations, flexible schedules allow time-poor executives to pack as much business into a trip as possible, perhaps proving the old chestnut that you have to spend money to make money.

“Private chartering fulfils the highest standard of travel luxury, but it must be said that from a convenience and safety point of view, there is no better solution to help the corporate client meet the demands of their schedules,” says Hickman. “When time-saving is paramount, it is often the only feasible way to travel when involving a multi-city, time-sensitive itinerary, or when the travelling is to remote locations.

“With charters, you are able to create your own schedules, have private check-ins and fly into regional airports that are nearer your final destination, saving a huge amount of time and hassle compared to scheduled services,” adds Glenn Phillips from Air Charter Service, a multi-national company that charters everything from private jets to helicopters and cargo aircraft . “You are able to do a multi-leg trip in a day that might take three or four days if you didn’t charter.”

That convenience extends to choosing an airport most convenient for travellers, a flight schedule created specifically to suit your diary and – importantly, in days of heightened security – a smooth passage through the cool, calm confines of private airport terminals.

“Air charter flights appear more expensive than the commercial airline offering from a cash-flow perspective – this is because you would be hiring a whole aircraft rather than just a number of seats,” explains Frost. “When you’re flying to destinations infrequently serviced by airlines, then the decision to charter a flight is more readily cost-justified. The majority of the advantages of private flying are intangible: safety and security, flexibility of scheduling, arriving and departing closer to the site of business, protection of business information and more.”

The innate exclusivity of private air charter may seem obvious, but it is an important – although distinctly intangible – selling point of chartering an aircraft. If a dozen of a multi-national corporation’s top executives are spending six to eight hours cooped up in an aircraft, surely it’s more cost-effective to travel in a comfortable – and, importantly – confidential cabin where meetings can be held in perfect privacy?

“Modern business aircraft will accommodate all the popular personal entertainment systems, but the emphasis is typically business orientated,” explains Frost. “One of the key advantages of private air travel is the ability to prepare confidential presentations and speak openly about business strategy among colleagues you know onboard the aircraft.”

While privacy, flexibility and convenience may be seen as ‘nice-to-haves’, there’s a further aspect that is more of a non-negotiable for corporate travellers on the continent: safety.

Africa has a parlous safety record in the skies, and although the continent counts for only a fraction of the planet’s air traffic, it infamously has an accident rate allegendly nine times higher than the global average. Of the airlines blacklisted by the European Union – and therefore banned from its airspace – the lion’s share have their headquarters on the continent.

“The slipping of aviation safety standards on the African continent is becoming worrisome,” states Frost, who says privately chartered aircraft abide by rigorous safety standards. “Most modern corporate aircraft are well-equipped with cockpit avionic equipment and have enhancements to provide ground proximity warnings and aircraft collision avoidance solutions. The best charter operators spend significant money on stringent training regimens, including technologically-advanced simulator training, and this enhances safety and professionalism.”

The focus on safety extends out of the cockpit and through all levels of the charter companies themselves. Chapman Freeborn brings many years of experience to the air charter business, celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2013. The company was one of the first players in the private charter industry for corporate travel in the 1980s, and is seeing increased activity in the emerging markets of Africa, China and South America. 

South Africa-based National Airways Corporation is an ISO-accredited company, and is also “the first company in Africa and one of the first in the world to have been awarded Gold BARS – Basic Aviation Risk Standard – status by the Flight Safety Foundation,” notes Nieuwenhuizen. “We rank safety and efficiency as a priority.”

Safety and efficiency are good words to use when motivating the expense of private air travel to the financial director, but the luxury and comfort that comes with chartered aircraft are an added bonus for executives flitting across the continent day after day. From entertaining clients at 15,000 feet to not worrying about the luggage check-in, charter companies go out of their way to smooth out the bumps in corporate travel.

“We can and do arrange catering tailored to the corporate’s requirements, so having a business lunch in the sky is not a problem,” says Hickman. “There is also more flexibility in baggage allowance, so no extra charge for the extra luggage you need to take along.”

“It is extremely rare for a private aviation traveller to suffer the embarrassment and inconvenience of lost luggage, and depending on the aircraft type and passenger numbers, excess luggage is easily accommodated, and you don’t pay excess baggage surcharges either,” adds Frost from ExecuJet. “Catering standards are usually higher than on airlines and certainly more specific to passengers’ dietary requirements.”

“The seating is highly luxurious on most of our VIP charter aircraft and there are bathroom facilities on a variety of our aircraft. We also have a few aircraft with iPad docking stations, USB ports and in-flight entertainment systems,” adds Nieuwenhuizen. “Depending on the number of passengers on the aircraft and the luggage weight, a passenger may take 15 kilograms of luggage per person.  Should there be fewer passengers, the baggage allowance would increase accordingly.”

With an array of benefits for the corporate traveller, it’s perhaps no surprise that as the continent bucks the economic doldrums of the northern hemisphere, the air charter industry is seeing steady growth.

Perhaps the best barometer for this growth is the impressive expansion plans for Lanseria International Airport outside of Johannesburg. The largest privately-owned airport in South Africa – recently sold to a consortium of investors that includes pan-African investment fund Harith – the airport is home to over a dozen air charter companies, and is an important base for commercial, VIP and humanitarian flights.

In addition to ambitious plans to develop the airport into an ‘aerotropolis’ of commerce, industry and retail, the airport is also spending $17 million constructing a new 45-metre-wide, three-kilometre runway to accommodate the increased air traffic. 

Yet, while South Africa certainly dominates the market for chartered air travel, the growth is certainly not restricted to sub-Saharan Africa, says Nieuwenhuizen.

“In the last few months, we have noticed growth in charter flights to West Africa specifically,” she says.

Federal Air has seen particular growth “between the major African hubs, as opposed to increased volume out of South Africa, over the last three years,” adds Baillie.

Although based in Johannesburg, Air Charter Service “can arrange charters across the whole continent. As we don’t operate our own fleet of aircraft, there are no limits to our reach,” says Phillips. “We have seen growth in Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Nigeria due to various industry-specific projects.”

Online aviation charter hub Avinode also identifies strong growth in the emerging markets of West Africa, with Liberia-based aviation consultant Jean Brissi-Lacoste noting that Nigeria’s strong emerging class of wealthy individuals, coupled with poor road conditions and a poor domestic airline network, offers enormous potential for air charter companies.

Similarly, ExecuJet – which manages over 150 business jets in six regions across the globe, and has operations in Cape Town, Johannesburg and, most recently, Lagos – has an eye firmly on Africa. While refusing to divulge any details, Business Development Manager – Flight Operations: South Africa Chris Frost says the company is “actively seeking opportunities in the expanding African markets.”

As depressed economies emerge from the economic doldrums and time-pressed executives need to get from Abidjan to Accra with as little hassle as possible, the demand for efficient private air services looks set to take off.

Despite the extra cost and elitist perception of private jets, perhaps the only question country-hopping corporate travellers in Africa should be asking themselves is this: as that private plane takes off and jets towards the signing of a deal, will you still be stuck in the check-in queue?


For companies that frequently require a private charter, but can’t justify leasing an aircraft, global air charter company ExecuJet offers a flexible product that allows travel planners to pre-purchase blocks of flying time.

“This is particularly useful for companies that know they have to charter regularly, but don’t know where or what type of aircraft would suit the mission,” explains Chris Frost, Business Development Manager – Flight Operations: South Africa for ExecuJet Aviation Group.

For while a comfortable corporate jet will whisk oil executives from Johannesburg to Luanda, it won’t be much help when ferrying the board to a strategy getaway in the Kruger National Park, where you’ll want a rugged turbo-prop aircraft that can handle short gravel runways.

“The SimplyFly Card can be used for both types of flights,” says Frost. “The price is usually more competitive than ad-hoc charter, and is fixed for the duration of the SimplyFly contract.”

SimplyFly packages vary according to the number of passengers likely to be flown, the frequency of flights required, as well as the typical destinations being visited. Clients then select a 25, 50, 100 or 200-hour utilisation package, as well as their preferred aircraft type from ExecuJet’s fleet of over 60 charter aircraft worldwide. If your charter requirements change, the aircraft can be upgraded or downgraded to suit specific requirements, and hours can be traded across the ExecuJet fleet.

Ready for take-off

The days of the company jet waiting in the hangar are mostly long gone, and the charter industry has adapted its pricing structures to offer options for everyone, from companies needing an ad-hoc flight from A-to-B, to a rapidly expanding company in need of a weekly shuttle service. Today, corporate travellers can buy discounted blocks of flying time, have a regular schedule of flights, or simply ring up and ask for a jet to be waiting out front.

“On-demand or ad-hoc air charter service is significant business, mainly because of the very nature of the requests – usually late-notice requests – for urgent transport of personnel to a destination not sufficiently serviced by airlines,” says Chris Frost, Business Development Manager – Flight Operations: South Africa for ExecuJet Aviation Group. “More businesses, however, are starting to take advantage of regular private air travel to remote destinations – even within South Africa – as they expand their operations.

For companies requiring regular private travel, ACMI – Aircraft, Crew, Maintenance and Insurance – leasing is one of the most popular and cost-effective options.

“ACMI leases are popular with larger companies that may have owned business aircraft in the past, but for whom it is no longer allowed in terms of their corporate governance limitations,” explains Frost. “They pay a fixed hourly rate for the aircraft and crew, and a variable rate for the operating costs of the aircraft, fuel, passenger taxes, landing fees etc. This works well if a company needs a more dedicated air service.”

“Chapman Freeborn has a leasing division, which offers a wide scope of options for customers looking for ACMI – aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance – services,” adds Vicky Hickman, Passenger Charter Manager. “We also place aircraft on fixed-term lease operations for direct clients, including corporate flight departments, non-governmental organisations and relief agencies. It depends on the corporate’s requirements as to which route they wish to take. We can facilitate a once-off flight anywhere in the world, should that be the requirement, or we can assist them with lease agreements.”     

Word on the ground

Clinton Els, Manager of New Business Development for destination management company Dragonfly Africa, shares his views on the pros and cons of air charter…

Why do you use air charters for your clients?

In one word: convenience. It’s a lot quicker and easier, and allows us to largely avoid delays. With a charter, we have more leeway in terms of specific departure slots – it breaks down the timing and gives us control over the movement of a group. We work with high-end inbound clients, often top executives who are on tight schedules and need to maximise their time on the ground, and chartering gives us the flexibility to make the most of their time in a country.

Is it really that expensive?

It depends on the routing and the size of the group, so you often need to get creative to match the group with the right aircraft on the right flight legs. If you have empty seats on the plane, it’s going to get extraordinarily expensive. But as long as you maximise the seats, the price per person gets comparable to scheduled flights. Of course it is going to be more expensive, but you’re paying for the convenience and exclusivity. Overall, the benefits of chartering do outweigh the costs.

Do you prefer to use a broker, or charter directly?

Both have their advantages. By working directly with air charter companies, you can often get a better rate, but if you have a large group then working through a broker is better, as you get a centralised point of contact for multiple aircraft.

Richard Holmes


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