Testing times

As with many South African business travel-related industries right now, the private aviation space is not enjoying an easy ride, due to a combination of factors. But Comair Flight Services CEO Justin Reeves is confident CFS, and the industry as a whole, will bounce back and flourish long-term, as long as it remains relevant and ahead of the technological curve, as detailed over lunch a stone’s throw from Lanseria International Airport in Johannesburg.

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Based at Lanseria International and offering aircraft charter, aircraft management and flight support services, CFS has been in the market for nearly 12 years and has established itself as one of the major players in the South African private aviation space.

It also operates a broad range of aircraft and can meet just about every private aviation need.

Yet, all of the above counts for nothing if the squeeze is put on the economy and the corporate sector has to re-look its business travel spend.

“People aren’t spending as much as they used to,” says Reeves. “We’ve seen itineraries cut and execs making better use of their time, visiting fewer sites etc. The days of sending out a quotation and having it accepted, are gone, as each one becomes a negotiation now.”

Reeves believes a by-product of this environment will be inevitable consolidation of the industry, with various players joining forces to future-proof themselves.

“Specifically, the charter operators, where it’s a volume game, because the margins are so low,” he says. “There, we may well see competitors merging and it wouldn’t surprise me.”

In the spirit of cost-cutting, Reeves describes how the private aviation industry has changed since the 2008 global financial downturn. That’s arguably when the first bits of significant cost-cutting took hold and became the norm, rather than the exception. That applied across the board, including the types of aircraft that became attractive to those booking private aviation and looking more closely at the bottom line.

According to Reeves – and this is no surprise, considering that Comair Flight Services was launched in 2007 – the company built itself off the back of the Pilatus PC-12, a smaller, more efficient aircraft than the bigger jets that had dominated the market previously.

Now, 12 years later, the PC-12 is still a popular aircraft.

“It’s extremely reliable and has a dispatch rate that’s unheard of in any other aircraft type,” says Reeves, who concedes that the PC-12 is very much close to his heart! “It never lets you down and can land anywhere. In certain conditions at sea level, you could be landing on an 800-metre gravel or grass strip, whereas a jet, to land at the same place, would need over a kilometre of tar, for example.”

Taking into account what’s already been said about a tough market to operate in, it’s also not a surprise to hear Reeves say that Comair Flight Services is currently looking beyond South Africa for future opportunity. Here, Reeves keeps his cards close to his chest, but one gets the sense that CFS may be down the line with discussions regarding a presence in a new African territory. Considering the economic climate in South Africa, this would make perfect sense.

“The key is finding the right partner,” says Reeves.

Beyond operating in a tough economy, I’m interested to hear what Reeves believes the biggest challenges in the South African private aviation space are.

“We’re unfortunately always on the receiving end of exchange rate fluctuations and we have one of the most volatile currencies of the developing markets,” he says. “So, you can put a quote out today, and tomorrow what was going to be a 10% margin is now running at a loss.”

Another challenge, according to Reeves, is some outdated regulations that don’t apply to the industry anymore and here he feels the public and private sectors need closer alignment in terms of what the industry’s overall objectives are and how these can be achieved within a guiding regulatory environment.

And what about the road – or rather, flight path – ahead for private aviation in South Africa?

Reeves acknowledges that the future remains largely unpredictable, and how that plays out in the private aviation space is anyone’s guess.

“The need to travel will be there, but how that happens will certainly change, and whether you’re a market leader or a market follower is what’s important,” he says. “What that means to us, I couldn’t tell you yet.”