Q&A: Weathering the Storm

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Weathering the Storm

Jonathan Howells – VP: Europe, ME and Africa – Universal Weather & Aviation

Universal Weather and Aviation’s focus is to support business aviation. Regional Vice-President Jonathan Howells looks after the company’s operations in Europe, Middle East and Africa, and he joined Business Traveller Africa for a chat and to flesh out just who Universal Weather and Aviation are.

What services do you provide?

We’ve been going for 53 years and we do four main things for an operator of a private jet. Universal provides for the logistics of getting aircraft from A to B, including flight plans, weather, overfly, landing clearances, permits, setting up ground handling, transportation, hotels, catering, and security for our customers around the world. Secondly, we are a fuel company, with our own branded fuel card. The third element of the business is the 40 or so fixed-based operators (FBOs) we have around the world, in places such as London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Singapore, Delhi and Sydney. The fourth area of the business is the technology side. We provide operation and scheduling software for our customers. We operate our own Internet flight planning system and we’re also very big suppliers of data to our customers. Nobody else carries the amount of data that we do on airports, hotels, transportation companies etc.

Is Africa on your radar?

Africa is a very, very interesting market. I think historically business aviation has been very much focused around South Africa, with its strong companies and strong economy. But, we’re now seeing an increasing number of business aviation operations being established in West Africa, particularly around Nigeria, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Business aviation has a long way to go in Africa, but I think there’s a lot of interest. We have a lot of customers flying into Africa, so that’s putting pressure on Universal to become much more savvy with our dealings with the African continent. We see the southern part of Africa developing well, as well as the west. North Africa is fairly mature, due to its proximity to Europe. Probably a side of Africa that we see as less developed is East Africa.

With the fuel price so topical, what are your thoughts on the fuel service you provide your customers with?

The most important thing is reliability of service. What we tend to find is that our customers sometimes get stung, because they will go for the lowest price and sometimes the lowest  price means its accessed on the other side of the airport. So, what we really try to do when we identify suppliers is an all-round service. In terms of pricing, what we try to do is to be very, very transparent about all the taxes and fees that are obviously different from country to country. We have all our fuel pricing available on the Internet, and then depending on the value of fuel the customer is buying, we’re willing to negotiate to buy the best price to suit their operational needs.

Are you concerned, though, that with the rising fuel price, that business travel as a whole might be negatively affected?

Nobody likes to pay more for fuel. Sometimes it’s just the cost of doing business and a lot of our customers view it that way. They’re accepting the fact that fuel prices are increasing and what that drives them to do is to be much better shoppers of fuel. As our volumes increase from supplying more customers, we then in turn negotiate the best contract prices we can with the suppliers that we work with. So if a direct question was asked, ‘Do rising fuel prices significantly impact business aviation travel?’, I would say no. Yes, there are some people who would find it increasingly harder and of course it impacts charter activities. But for jet owners, I think they just see it as the cost of doing business in their aircraft.

Have you seen a turnaround in the amount of business aviation being purchased, post the global recession? 

There’s no doubt that when the global recession came along in 2008/2009, there was a significant impact on business aviation. For me, it was the ‘nice-to-do’ use of a business aircraft that  tended to died away. But, what we actually found is that a lot of our business operators continued to operate their aircraft. Some of our most successful customers are successful because they operate a business aircraft and they just don’t think they could do what they do without them. In terms of where we are now, I think that the business aviation industry is flat and to some extent that’s no bad thing. What we don’t want is the industry declining.

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