UK charter firm adds long-range jets to fleet

 - September 18, 2006, 11:06 AM

Gold Air International has ordered two new Bombardier Global 5000s in a deal valued at close to $80 million. The UK executive charter operator will receive the long-range jets between late 2008 and early 2009, allowing it to take on intercontinental missions.

According to managing director Will Curtis, Gold Air wanted an aircraft to exploit rising demand for flights out of Europe into the former Soviet republics, the Middle East and China, as well as for transatlantic trips. In his view, there is now more long-range executive charter potential in Europe than in the U.S. due to the rapid opening up of business opportunities on the eastern fringes of the continent.

In addition to the Global 5000, which will have a 15-seat cabin configuration, Gold Air also evaluated Dassault’s Falcon 900EX and the Gulfstream G450. Curtis said the company chose the Global 5000 largely for its runway performance (5,000-foot balanced field length), range (4,800 nm with NBAA IFR reserves and eight passengers) and generous cabin area (294 sq ft and 6.25 feet high).

Meanwhile, the company is now nearing completion of the renewal of its existing Learjet 45 fleet. Gold Air has a policy of replacing all its light jets after no more than five years and is replacing its original Learjet 45s with Bombardier’s new Learjet 45XR at a total cost of $55 million.

The operator’s good experience with the Learjet 45s and the advantageous trade-in terms also tipped the balance in Bombardier’s favor. “The service from Bombardier has been fantastic,” said Curtis. “They have bent over backwards to help us, and this was a big factor.”

Low-time Learjets

Gold Air found the first six Learjet 45s economical to run under the five-year warranty program for which it signed up. This also helped to bolster the aircraft’s residual value. Each of the Learjet 45s had logged around 3,200 hours when it was traded in.

According to Curtis, customers are becoming increasingly discerning about the age of the aircraft they fly. He believes that Gold Air’s insistence on replacing aircraft at or before five years in service has created a significant product differentiator for it in the European charter market. In his experience, clients quickly realize how much quieter the cabins of the younger aircraft are and become reluctant to settle for older types. “Many other operators are just soldiering on with older aircraft,” he told AIN.

New technical requirements such as mode-S transponders and PRnav (precision area navigation) have also bolstered Gold Air’s belief in the merits of replacing aircraft well within their service life. For example, the Learjet 45s would soon have required upgrading to the PRnav standard to operate in Europe.

The Gold Air managing director hopes that the increasing authority of the new European Aviation Safety Agency will put an end to the days when business aircraft operators could count on repeated exemptions and delays for new technical requirements. In his view, the charter industry has been impeded by national aviation authorities delaying the introduction of new equipment. He revealed that in 2002 the threat of legal action by Gold Air had prevented the UK Civil Aviation Authority from delaying the mandate for enhanced ground proximity warning systems.

Curtis also maintained that the Learjet 45XR has an important performance edge over even newer rivals in the same class. “It [the 45XR] is quick in the climb and cruise phases so that in real terms it is 100 knots faster than a [Cessna Citation] Bravo and 50 knots faster than an Excel,” he claimed. “This means that it is 50 minutes faster than the Bravo on the flight from London to Malaga (on the south coast of Spain) and 20 minutes faster than the Excel.”

Skyjet Operator

In addition to ad hoc charter, Gold Air also markets flight time in blocks of 25, 50, 100 and 400 hours, with customers receiving discounts of between 7 and 10 percent for booking this way. Block charter clients now account for about 50 percent of the company’s flying.

The operator, based at London’s Biggin Hill Airport, also flies for Bombardier’s Skyjet International block charter program. Curtis said that this now forms a substantial part of its operations, and he maintained that there is no conflict with its own services.

In fact, with Bombardier’s blessing, Gold Air has previously signed up Skyjet customers for its own block charter terms. The manufacturer established Skyjet with the expressed intention of getting more people flying in its aircraft, boosting demand for them in the charter market and helping today’s charter customers become tomorrow’s aircraft owners.

Gold Air was founded 10 years ago by London entrepreneurs David and Ralph Gold, whose empire (with annual sales of almost $240 million) also includes the Ann Summers lingerie and sex toys group, racy tabloid newspaper The Daily Sport and Birmingham City professional soccer team. During this period, the operator has achieved year-on-year annual growth of 10 percent.