BusinessFly awaits SEIMC rule change

 - October 19, 2006, 11:59 AM

Cyril Baert believes he has found a new market niche for single-engine turboprop aircraft in France’s business aviation sector despite yet another postponement in a long-awaited change of rules governing the commercial operation of such aircraft in instrument meteorological conditions (SEIMC). He and his associate have taken options on three Socata TBM 700s and are confident that BusinessFly, their new on-demand aircraft charter company geared toward the small and medium-size business market, will get off the ground next year.

Baert believes the French market for this service is substantial. He estimates the country has about 3,000 small and medium-size companies posting $36 million (€30 million) in annual revenues and employing about 100 people each.

Baert characterizes his firm’s offering as an alternative to the current choices of classic business aviation and regular airline travel. He explained, “Flying with regular airline aircraft is expensive and only relatively efficient. While corporate aviation is a good but expensive alternative, it is not a solution for small and medium-size companies. BusinessFly clients will have all the advantages of aircraft ownership without the drawbacks.”

Companies will have two options: they can subscribe to a regular, tailored on-demand passenger transport program or elect not to subscribe and instead apply for occasional on-demand services. BusinessFly also plans subscription and on-demand programs for freight and medical transport.

BusinessFly proposes to offer public transportation with the five-seat, single-pilot, single-PT6-powered Socata TBM 700, an airplane that can land at 400 airports in France and more than 1,500 in Europe. The operation is set to become Socata’s launch company for single-engine commercial travel.

“Opening the business flight concept to small and medium-sized firms means a cultural and mental jump in the way they use business aviation. We have approached 40 of these companies and have more to see. Business from between 15 and 20 will be enough for us to start up, as soon as expected changes are made to European operating rules [for the commercial transport of passengers in single-engine turbine aircraft].”

Baert confirmed BusinessFly already has several financial backers and he is confident further backers will be “forthcoming as the company grows.”

But the idea cannot take off until the European Joint Aviation Authorities make major changes in the commercial SEIMC operating rules. SEIMC operations are generally prohibited for commercial service in Europe at present, but certain counties do allow exemption from the rules for some freight-only operations or passenger flights within national airspace. Cargo-only operations are allowed in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Spain and France.

Since FedEx first proposed single-engine commercial operations in 1986 for Cessna Caravan I operations in Europe, a number of national aviation authorities, including the civil aviation authorities of Italy, Germany and particularly the UK, have resisted approving such operations, citing insufficient engine reliability and the risk of serious casualties in built-up areas following engine failure. Aviation authorities that favor the amendment have been expecting clearance since late 2001. But after a series of meetings, Europe has not yet adopted a common policy.

After yet another postponement of its meeting in June, the European Joint Aviation Authorities’ SEIMC working group on July 29 lodged a Notice of Proposed Amendment (NPA 29) to JAA operational requirements (JAR-OPS) to modify the European Joint Aviation Requirements (JAR-OPS1) rules.

The NPA requires that during any flight the crew of a single-engine aircraft should be out of still-air gliding range of an airfield or other suitable landing site for a so-called “risk period” of no more than 15 minutes. The group is seeking clearance for Cessna 208 Caravan I, Socata TBM 700 and Pilatus PC-12 operations, which is not surprising since their manufacturers established the Single Engine Turbine Alliance to argue that single-engine turboprops are as safe as multi-engine aircraft.

The July 29 meeting again failed to reach closure on the matter. The next meeting is planned for March.

An Optimistic Outlook

For Baert, there is light at the end of the tunnel. “The French administration is conscious of the political situation leading JAA debates on the new SEIMC transportation rule and recognizes that failure to reach a decision is not good for the industry or for possible operators such as BusinessFly,” he said.

“We are confident that the French administration will examine the possibility of bringing the NPA 29 package into French law to enable operators such as BusinessFly to exist.” If Baert’s confidence is founded, as soon as BusinessFly has the go-ahead, it will confirm its options on three Socata TBM 700s and France’s newest business aviation company will be able to get off the ground, “hopefully toward the end of next year.”

The original plan was to begin operations in Toulouse and southwest France. But a new optimism has inspired BusinessFly to start at the national level. The company has hired three sales representatives and three managers who are also involved in sales activities.

Baert expects the operator to have a fleet of three Socata TBM 700s by the end of the first year of operations, increasing to six and a spare by the end of the second year. He expects revenues of “more than €51 million [$61.2 million] for €18.5 million [$22.2 million] invested within five years.” The 13-strong workforce will grow to 33 after five years, by which time the fleet will reach 14 TBM 700s.