A battle for Brussels market looms

 - October 17, 2006, 12:06 PM

Brussels International Airport records more than 13,000 general aviation movements most years. For the time being, Abelag Aviation remains the sole FBO at the Belgian airport, enjoying an informal monopoly despite several attempts by competitors to enter this key market.

The most important attempt was that of former Swiss Aeroleasing group (now TAG Aviation) in the early 1990s, which even had its own FBO terminal in Brussels after it acquired a Belgian air-taxi operator, Jet Business Airlines. The Sabena group eventually took over the terminal, which once housed the now bankrupt Sobelair charter airline.

Last year, Abelag celebrated its 40th anniversary, making it one of the oldest European business aviation companies. In 2000 it became–with Sky Service– part of holding group Westlink, creating a group with facilities in Antwerp, Brussels and Kortrijk in Belgium as well as at Lille, France.

A rebranding process took place last year that involved a change of logo and the uniform use of Abelag as the trading name for all the activities of the group: executive charter; aircraft management; fractional ownership; handling services; and maintenance. The group also operates ambulance flights from its Kortrijk base.

The new group completely refurbished the FBO’s interior at Brussels, giving visitors a more dynamic and modern feel. Abelag now provides handling support to around 3,000 aircraft and 15,000 passengers a year in Brussels. It has 430,000 sq ft of ramp for parking aircraft up to the size of a Boeing 747. It also has 26,910 sq ft of hangar space for aircraft up to the size of a Gulfstream G550. The Abelag group records an annual turnover of around $37 million and employs more than 80 people.

During the past season’s Belgian Formula One Grand Prix car race, Abelag and its partner Noordzee Helikopters Vlaanderen (NHV) were the official operators of the Spa-Francorchamps heliport, located in the center of the racing circuit. NHV, a Belgian helicopter operator in Kortrijk, has a fleet of two Eurocopter AS 365 Dauphins, an EC 120B Colibri and an MD Explorer.

Feras Hungry for Competition

Among the most vocal would-be competitors of Abelag is Feras, a vast ground-handling network spanning bases from Russia to Germany. The network encompasses 80 stations with Feras’s own staff plus 10 additional bases run by contracted agents. Feras employs more than 200 people, including 25 in Moscow and 14 in Prague, where its main European operations center is located.

“Because we are a small and flexible company, we can move more rapidly and win deals over the competition. We don’t look at saturated markets with a good choice of service providers, such as the UK, France or Italy. Our targets for next year are Scandinavia [both Stockholm airports and Gothenburg in Sweden, Copenhagen in Denmark and Oslo] where there is a demand for true VIP handling service,” explained Feras co-managing director Chris Cartwright.

But Brussels is also on the Feras hit list, and it’s only a matter of months before the company intends to move in to this market. “It will be a full Feras venture and it will be comparable to our operation in Munich, with an operations office and crew lounge,” said Cartwright.

“We have been extremely busy in Germany, a market that is only two years old for us, for the last seven or eight months. We want to keep our quality up,” Cartwright told AIN. Feras is now present at all three Berlin airports [Tegel, Tempelhof and Schoenefeld] where the traffic is growing. “In Frankfurt, we are the only private handling agent, and we have our own offices and lounge in the general aviation terminal.”

At press time, Feras was preparing to open a new base at Hamburg Airport in northern Germany. Hamburg’s general aviation terminal, which opened in July 1990, is viewed as one of the most modern business aviation centers in the country.

“We also have 10 airports in Croatia and about the same number in Poland,” Cartwright added. “Our station in Riga, Latvia, is busier than ever. In Ukraine, we operate at both Borispol International Airport and Zhulhany Airport in Kiev. Moscow is busier and busier; we operate from Domodedovo general aviation terminal, which is a good alternative to Vnukovo–where there is a lack of icing equipment and parking facilities– in the winter.”

Competition from the South

Although there is currently no competition for Abelag in Brussels, the nearest competitor is fewer than 30 miles south of the Belgian capital, at Charleroi Brussels South Airport. Signature Charleroi might be the smallest facility in the ever-expanding Signature Flight Support network, but it is as successful in attracting customers for the quality of its handling services. At the end of last year Signature took over the former Menzies/Execair facility, which was established there at the end of 2000.

The advantages of Charleroi Airport are numerous. As a secondary airport, it is less expensive in terms of fees and there are no slot restrictions. In addition, the shortened time spent on the ramp and taxiways makes up for the longer car ride to Brussels (about 30 minutes); taxi time is two minutes, whereas it can be up to 20 minutes of holding and taxi time during peak hours in Brussels. Signature’s two-man team is also enjoying fruitful cooperation with the local air traffic controllers.

However, Charleroi is not a 24-hour operation like Brussels or Liege airports and it lacks hangar facilities. The operating hours are less of a problem, although it creates an uneven playing field among airports. Meanwhile, Signature Charleroi operations manager David Dumont is hopeful about making hangar space available since some customers require it.

For the time being, the office and crew/passenger lounges are located within the main passenger terminal, which is far from ideal. However, in 2007 a new passenger terminal should be completed on the north side of the airport. This will leave Signature with two options: renovate part of the existing terminal on the south side to accommodate a real general aviation terminal or build a new facility on the north side, close to the plant of the aerospace manufacturer Sonaca, which might be a less expensive solution.

Signature, noted Dumont, enjoys a competitive advantage over other FBOs in Europe by its involvement with VIP and executive aviation handling, while being part of a large and powerful group (BBA Aviation), with a strong foothold in the U.S. and a growing international presence.