Well known Brussels-based FBO and air taxi company Abelag Aviation is celebrating its 40th anniversary, making it one of the oldest business aviation companies in Europe. “We are also the oldest Belgian air transport operator still in the hands of private Belgian investors,” said Hervé Laitat, the company’s deputy general director.
Abelag is also a founding member of the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA), of which Laitat is the treasurer.
In 2000, Abelag, along with Sky Service, became part of holding group Westlink to form “the largest business aviation group operating within the Benelux [Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg] and the North of France.” Said Laitat, “This close partnership we have with Sky Service has been very profitable. We have pooled our technical expertise and human resources, and we share a more diversified fleet of aircraft.”
In June 2002, Antwerp Business Flights, a light aviation maintenance department, also became part of the Westlink Aviation Group. It also purchased the travel agency business of Prest’Affairs Voyages in Lille, to cater to the French market (mainly Paris and northern France).
The Westlink group focuses on five main fields of endeavor: executive charter; aircraft management; fractional ownership; handling services; and maintenance (both Abelag and Sky Service are JAA- and FAA-approved facilities).
In addition to its traditional business or leisure flights, the group also carries out ambulance flights from its Kortrijk and Brussels bases. “There is a huge demand for such flights. Our Citation S/II or Learjet 35 can accommodate up to two stretchers,” noted Laitat. “For more than 15 years, Sky Service has been providing air ambulance services to insurance companies and private individuals, with a fleet of airplanes and helicopters–the largest air ambulance fleet in Europe. We can provide a full bed-to-bed service, as well as doctors with different qualifications.” Westlink is also an active player in the fractional ownership market with its own program, called SkyClub, which was launched in 2000 and operates Beech King Airs. As a preferred Learjet 45 provider for Bombardier’s European fractional program, Abelag also finds itself buying a certain number of Flexjet hours. “We find it convenient to use [Flexjet lift] on some routes, such as Venice-Biarritz, where it is expensive for us to position an aircraft.”
“In addition to consolidating our activities, modernizing our fleet and ex- panding our scope of work in the maintenance area (as a Learjet authorized service center, Abelag has been performing the maintenance on a Learjet 60 for two years), we would like to develop our aircraft management business,” noted Laitat.
The group’s fleet currently comprises 12 business aircraft, including eight jets and four turboprops: three King Air B200s, one King Air C90, one Citation S/II, one Citation V, one Citation 500, one Citation Excel (in service since the end of 2002), two Learjet 35s, one Learjet 45 and one Falcon 2000. In addition, Abelag recently acquired a second Learjet 45 in co-ownership with one of its private clients. This new midsize jet will be delivered this fall. The first Learjet 45, delivered in 1999 to replace a Learjet 35A, and the Citation Excel have rapidly become popular among the company’s charter clients, according to Laitat.
“We had an extremely positive reaction from the market to this midsize segment. Customers are willing to pay more to fly on the Learjet 45 or Citation Excel because of the improved cabin comfort. With a second Learjet 45, we will be able to offer more flights on this model,” said Laitat. “Both aircraft are the right size for the European market. We fly all over Europe, including the eastern part of it, Africa and the Middle East with the Learjet 45,” he further noted.
Current plans are to optimize the fleet and replace some of the oldest jets with a newer entry-level jet, which could be a Learjet 40 or a Citation CJ2, rather than one of the new VLJs. “The Mustang does not have the right size and performance to transport several passengers and their luggage over the distances requested by most of our customers. However, we are ready to offer management solutions if anyone asks us to operate such aircraft.
“Although we have established good connections with four different manufacturers, we enjoy a special relationship with [Bombardier] Learjet, even if, in the end, it is the customer who decides,” observed the Abelag deputy manager.
Times are Changing
With these major changes in the group, it became apparent that some clarification was necessary to deal with partners and customers. The group employs about 100 people and operates under five divisions. Abelag has therefore embarked on an image transformation.
This re-branding process will involve a change of logo and the uniform use of “Abelag” as the trading name for all the activities of the group, defined as Abelag Aviation for air-taxi flights, Abelag Technics for maintenance and Abelag Handling for FBO service. Abelag is currently headed by Denis Solvay, nephew of the company’s founder, André Ganshof van der Meersch, who died last November.
Abelag’s front building is now painted dark gray, replacing the traditional sky-blue color, with a touch of orange for the handling services. The Brussels-based FBO will also refurbish the interior, including the VIP lounge, crew and waiting rooms. The facilities will also highlight Belgian artwork, underscoring the fact that Abelag’s FBO serves as a gateway for Brussels and Belgium.
In addition to the much-needed cosmetic changes, Laitat insists on constant emphasis on quality of service. “Competition is hard, and quality has improved these last few years. We wanted to give a boost to our traditional image to reflect the quality and the dynamism of our services. We used to be among the top three European FBOs in the press polls for many years and we want to regain that title,” stressed Laitat.
Last April, charter auditor Wyvern Consulting approved Abelag as its only “recommended operator” for Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Abelag is also one of only two European operators approved by a major oil company to transport company executives, according to Laitat.