You Can Go Your Own Way

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With the much-documented trials and tribulations that African airlines have experienced over the years, it’s no surprise that air charter has become an essential tool for the serious business traveller, providing safety, convenience and flexibility.

In the quest for national identity on the world stage, most African airlines are still national flag carriers. A consequence of this is that they operate out of just one hub – usually the capital city. They are often over-staffed and under-skilled and, as a result, are often unreliable and even unsafe.

Dangerous & Difficult Skies

Put bluntly, the safety of an airline cannot be automatically assumed in Africa. This is borne out by the often repeated statistics that Africa has 37% of the world’s aviation accidents, but only 4% of its flights. While there has been a decline in fatal air crashes in most of the world, Africa has seen an increase, rising from an average of 5,1 fatal crashes in 1993 to 9,2 last year. Air travel in Africa is almost ten times as dangerous as the rest of the world – which includes some particularly questionable Indonesian, Middle-Eastern and Asian carriers.

Due to political and historical reasons, airline travel in Africa is usually hub and spoke, making it very difficult to go directly from point to point. All too often the hub is not where you want to be and the spokes go in the wrong directions – and again there is the problem of being on the periphery and getting from one spoke to another.

The Need for Charter

One of the great axioms of flying is that it is ‘as safe as you make it’. Therefore, there is no reason for flying in Africa to be dangerous. All it needs is a flight department that is professionally run. And that is what the better air charter operators pride themselves on offering. 

Apart from the obvious safety advantages of using a professional air charter operator, there is another unassailable advantage to using air charter, and that is flexibility. Airlines are still largely flag carriers serving just the one country, and due to the limited demand, there are often few flights. In addition to interminable delays, out-of-control bureaucracy can blight any flight.

So air charter doesn’t have to be seen as a luxury – it’s often a necessity. The most important thing, though, is to find a charter operator with an unimpeachable safety record and the experience and skill to smooth out the most intractable logistical or bureaucratic problems.

One of the key charter operators in Africa is ExecuJet. Marketing Director, Stephen Paddy points out some of the advantages of air charter:

  • Safety – most charter aircraft are equipped with the latest safety equipment and avionics, are fuel-efficient and well maintained, and comply with the latest regulatory requirements
  • Excellent on-board amenities, such as space, comfortable cabins and catering
  • Access to remote locations
  • Executive and VIP safety, as well as the security of proprietary information
  • Reduced flying times
  • Changes to meeting schedules and flight arrangements can be made en route
  • Destinations all over the world are attainable in one day
  • Satellite communication, so clients can stay ‘in touch’ 100% of the time
  • Entire flight time is available for business in comfortable and uninterrupted environment
  • Privacy for meetings
  • Avoid wait for scheduled flights, annoyance of congested airports and baggage collection

Choosing an Air Charter Company

So when selecting a charter operator, what should the client look for?

Jonathan Wolpe of Owenair says that “an experienced company should be able to design and quote a charter package for any client within a few hours”. This could involve flights as different as moving tons of gold from West Africa to the Middle East, to getting a sick child to high quality health care. An essential part of air charter is VIP flights, and in this regard, security and bodyguard arrangements can also be made.

Getting the correct charter deal involves choosing the right aircraft for the mission profile, the best route (not necessarily the shortest) and rate per kilometre cost. Key technical competencies include being able to seamlessly arrange all over-flight and landing permits and fuel arrangements. A good charter operator will have experienced ground handlers at all destinations, to smooth the way for both arriving and departing passengers’ customs and immigration formalities.

In terms of their fleet and range of aircraft, a charter operator must be able to provide the whole range of aircraft, including piston-driven, turbine and jet aircraft. And since some destinations won’t have airports, when necessary, helicopter transfers must also be available.

Wolpe points out that Owenair will arrange flights for any event and any number of people, from the single executive to an entire conference. The company will advise the client of appropriate aircraft options.

The air charter operator must also be fully capable of attending to the logistics of passengers and baggage. They must pre-clear clients’ passports for all international flights and must be able to provide five-star catering.

Superbly equipped departure lounges are essential to a good customer experience and they must, therefore, provide a comfortable and relaxed environment for passengers prior to departure and upon arrival – air-conditioned lounges, equipped with telephones, television, video and refreshment centres – and they need to allow direct access to the aircraft. Where possible, they should also have restroom facilities with showers, so that the traveller can arrive fully refreshed.

With a highly developed general aviation industry, regulated to world-class standards, South Africa is home to a number of excellent charter companies, a few of which have been handling VIP aircraft for more than 40 years across the continent. That kind of local knowledge and experience can mean the difference between success and failure on a business venture, in this part of the world.

There are a number of reputable South African charter operators, such as ExecuJet, National Airways Corporation (NAC), Solenta Aviation, Owenair and AdoAir (Nigerian-owned). All of these, except Owenair, are based at Johannesburg’s Lanseria Airport, which is the busiest non-scheduled airport in Africa. These reputable companies provide aircraft chartering, leasing and sales, contract operations, flight crew leasing and training, aircraft maintenance and modification and operations support.

For West African operations, NAC has recently opened a large new facility at Nigeria’s Murtala Muhammed Airport. Also serving West Africa, TopBrass Aviation commenced services in 2010. This Lagos-based charter operator has a fleet of four modern Hawker HS-125s (a Hawker 850XP, 900XP, 1000, and 4000), all leased from the South African National Airways Corporation.

Safety

Air charter in Africa can sometimes be particularly demanding of the operator’s skills and resources. But the first thing to ensure is that the correct aircraft is used. This aircraft must have sufficient range for the required mission and, thereafter, one can look at the pilot and flight deck crew.

American billionaire Warren Buffet is famed for having said that the best investment in aircraft safety is a well-trained pilot, and he’s not wrong. A good charter company will have a full-time staff of dedicated pilots trained regularly on the specific aircraft types that they operate.

NAC is one of the largest charter operators in Africa. NAC’s International Operations division specialises in both short and long-term charter contracts. The company’s Head of Charter, Phillip du Preez, says that professional, full-time pilots crew their extensive charter fleet, which range from executive jets and twin-engine turboprops to piston aircraft. Du Preez says that “NAC believes that the most important aspect of any jet charter flight is safety”. He says the company’s almost fanatical commitment to safety is reflected by their outstanding safety record with all charter flights. Regular audits by various national and international auditing companies ensure that the charter operation maintains the highest standard of operations. NAC has its own flight safety department, which ensures that standards, policies and procedures are in place for all of its crew and aircraft.

Maintenance

Apart from cockpit crew training, maintenance is the other key aspect of safety, particularly as some ageing aircraft, especially airliners, are often put out to pasture flying charters in Africa.

ExecuJet and NAC are distributors for many of the key bizjet manufacturers, and as such, they operate under stringent safety standards, with all their aircraft maintained and serviced according to the original manufacturer requirements in approved service centres. NAC points out that all their aircraft are serviced and maintained by qualified engineers who are factory approved.

Future

But, what about the current state of air charter in Africa, and what does the future hold? Solenta Aviation’s Commercial Director, Rudi van Schalkwyk, covers both charter operator and associated contract flying perspectives when he points out that the past eighteen months have been particularly tough, and hence, a buyer’s market. He says that corporates using charter and contract services have tended to cut down on the size of aircraft being chartered. Instead of sending say 10 passengers, they are now sending just two and are thus able to use a smaller and cheaper aircraft. When making this sort of decision, a key consideration must be whether the aircraft is pressurised and turbine-powered, as aircraft that are not are more vulnerable to delays caused by adverse weather. Van Schalkwyk recommends that charter clients wishing to secure both good rates and good aircraft should consider the contract flying option. This means that the charter company will provide them with aircraft and pilots on a full air crew, maintenance and insurance basis.

Solenta’s actual charter operation is run by subsidiary, Federal Air. The company’s Head of Charter, Rachel Muir, agrees that the industry has been hit hard by the downturn in the world economy. She is grateful for the respite offered by the Football World Cup, but recognises the limited long-term effects of hosting such an event.

“Long-term bookings fell far short of expectations, but on the positive side, two years of recession had prepared us for accepting and handling flights on short notice. The market became much more competitive, so we sought to make even the smallest savings. On some occasions”, Muir admits, “we even removed snacks and drinks from some of the shorter flights to give the customers savings”.

“Another effect of the downturn has been a reduction in flights to guest’s final over-border destinations”, she says. “We are utilising local non-scheduled operators a lot more. This means carrying our clients to the nearest large airport and placing them on a small aircraft based at the destination. We are also quoting firm prices over 30 days. The rapidly changing fuel costs, as well as exchange rates, mean that some companies are only holding their prices firm for seven days. The days of guaranteeing prices for six months from the quotation date have long gone”.

What hasn’t helped the charter industry is the scheduled operators establishing flights to their traditional destinations, such as Victoria Falls and Livingstone. There are other challenges.

“We have seen a steady erosion of passenger services because of onerous and, in many cases, unnecessary security protocols at the main airports” says Muir. “At both OR Tambo and Lanseria in Johannesburg, we are now prevented from meeting our passengers off their flights”.

So, despite its appeal to the business traveller who fancies convenience, flexibility, luxury and safety, air charter still has its challenges. That being said, one could argue, that unless the African airline industry, as a whole, produces a dramatic improvement in standards, there will always be a market for chartered air travel.  

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