Foreign pilots bristle at U.S. ban

 - October 2, 2007, 12:18 PM

Beyond North America, the global business aviation community has continued to find itself in a state of unsettling flux in the six weeks since September 11’s terrorist attacks. On balance, though, corporate pilots and industry executives gave AIN the strong impression that they preferred their lot to that of their airline counterparts.
The single biggest obstacle to a return to normal operating conditions was the FAA’s continued ban on non-U.S. Part 91 operators flying their aircraft into U.S. airspace. Several UK corporate pilots said this had severely clipped their wings, since the U.S. remains the number-one business destination for their passengers.

By early last month many were resigning themselves to the ban and opting to fly their aircraft to Canada, from where passengers were continuing their journey on N-registered charter aircraft or via scheduled air service. Some operators even discussed the prospect of borrowing N-registered aircraft from aircraft manufacturers or even permanently re-registering their own aircraft in the U.S.

Privately, many Part 91 operators have found the ban frustrating and illogical from a security standpoint. Their main argument was that private operators know exactly who is flying in their aircraft, while executive charter firms may not be able to exercise the same degree of control.

In fact, executive charter firms in Europe have been stepping up security, primarily by conducting thorough background checks on any new customers. One UK operator told AIN that he had reluctantly had to turn down a significant charter booking because the prospective passengers were from a Middle Easterncountry and there was insufficient time to complete security screening.

On October 10, Air Partner International, the UK-based charter brokering group, reported it had seen a marked increase in bookings since September 11. Managing director David Savile said the worldwide security crisis has stimulated many companies and organizations to try executive charter for the first time.

The boost in bookings was timely for Air Partner, which, like many executive charter businesses, has seen a softening in demand. During the financial year ending July 31, the company saw an 18-percent fall in profits to £2.2 million ($3.2 million) despite a 21-percent increase in revenues to £89.2 million ($131.1 million).
Air Partner acknowledged that it too has introduced background checks for new customers. In at least one case it turned down a charter request after becoming suspicious about the people involved. Some operators admitted that they are now instinctively suspicious of those with Middle Eastern backgrounds.

Finding Solutions
Like the airlines, many corporate aircraft operators faced an immediate headache over insurance, with insurers demanding that contracts be immediately renegotiated to take account of the worldwide security threats. The European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) reported that some of its members had to accept a 25-percent hike in premiums to take account of war-risk coverage. The Brussels-based group has started to investigate the situation and indicated that some of its members might opt not to take war-risk options.

“Some say the crisis will affect our business negatively, but they are not a majority,” said EBAA chief executive Fernand François. “Others think business aviation can only benefit from the present situation. I think so, too. EBAA has received calls from companies  wanting to know if business aviation is secure.”

The EBAA leader said that he is also working to resolve the anomaly of European Part 91 operators being barred from U.S. airspace, while U.S. private operators are still able to fly in Europe. “We have to find a solution,” he declared. “We are currently working on a security checklist that we will send to our members. It may be close to the one the National Air Transportation Association has released in the U.S. It will include actions such as checking that all employees wear IDs, watching cleaning personnel when inside the aircraft, putting tape seals on aircraft doors at night and so on.”

Olivier de l’Estoile, president of EBAA France, explained that the ban on French-registered aircraft operating in the U.S. was the main factor behind an approximate 10-percent decline in flying by members operating traditional business aircraft. He added that some members who operate corporate/VIP-configured airliners have seen a 60- to 70-percent fall in their business.

These difficulties sparked a 50- percent boost in attendance at the chapter’s most recent meeting at Paris Le Bourget Airport. De l’Estoile, who is also a senior executive with Dassault Aviation, reported that all his members have significantly increased security measures for their operations.

“In future, I cannot say whether business aviation will benefit from today’s situation,” he commented. “On the one hand, I remember that the Gulf War [in 1991] hit our business and we never recovered. Before the war, Le Bourget welcomed 70,000 aircraft movements per year. Last year was a relatively good year and we had only 50,000.”

“On the other hand,” de l’Estoile continued, “business aviation brings security to passengers; they know each other and they do not have to spend hours in an airport. That’s why business aviation is a tailored answer to the current crisis.”
Richard Cocu, chief executive of French charter operator Occitania, echoed the sentiments of several European firms when he reported that its executive aircraft bookings benefited in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. However, it then saw a 10- to 15-percent drop in this part of the business due to flight restrictions in the U.S. and lower demand for trips to the Middle East.
Occitania has suffered a more serious dip–around 30 percent–in demand for incentive travel, product launch trips and airline wet-lease operations using its Beech 1900 and Fokker F-100. This has prompted it to postpone the delivery this fall of its first new Embraer ERJ-135.

In Switzerland, Geneva-based Jet Aviation has been experiencing “no major change.” Station and sales manager Jean-Philippe de Vincenti told AIN that airline flight cancellations caused traffic to increase sharply but temporarily just after September 11. Jet Aviation also benefited from Swissair flight cancellations.

Jean Spruyt, sales manager with Belgium’s Abelag, told AIN that activity has been “normal,” with no September 11-related cancellations or downturn in demand. A few new customers made bookings to avoid strikes at ailing European airlines and security-related delays at airports.

At Cannes Airport, a business aviation gateway to the south of France, traffic rose by 8 percent in September, compared with the same month last year. Last month has so far been steady. The airport receives only intra-European traffic.