Laid-off airline pilots start successful Euro charter firm

 - February 1, 2007, 10:48 AM

Scores of professional pilots found themselves unemployed after the fallout from 9/11. Some of these pilots have responded by creating their own aviation business–not an easy task amid the current economic climate, especially in Europe.

Yet the group of displaced pilots who founded French charter operator Blue Line have managed to post positive results during the company’s first year. The charter firm now employs 55 people and plans to hire more when it adds two MD-83s to its current fleet of two Fokker 100s.

Based at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, Blue Line offers VIP/corporate flights, charter flights for tour operators and wet-lease arrangements for airlines. The company was formed in early 2002 by eight people, most of whom come from Occitania, a Paris Le Bourget-based airline that severely downsized its fleet and workforce after 9/11. Others come from defunct French airlines AOM and Air Lib.

Blue Line’s first Fokker 100 was one that Occitania cut from its fleet because the aircraft wasn’t profitable for the airline. The second Fokker 100 was acquired in February 2002. Both Fokkers were built in 1991.

Blue Line’s fleet logged 2,400 flight hours from May 2002–when the French DGAC issued the company’s operating certificate–to March 31 last year. The charter company’s management team anticipates logging 4,200 flight hours from April last year to the end of next month.

“We have exceeded our expectations right from the beginning,” a company spokeswoman told AIN. During the first year, 30 to 35 percent of Blue Line’s business came from foreign customers.

During the first fiscal year, which lasted from Jan. 31, 2002, to the end of last March, Blue Line managed to post a e220,000 ($264,000) profit on revenues of €7.6 million ($9.12 million). For the fiscal year that ends next month, founder and CEO Xavier Remondeau expects these figures will rise to €500,000 ($600,000) and €18 million ($21.6 million), respectively.

Now Hiring
The charter firm is now hiring a dozen people, including 10 crewmembers. Blue Line said its policy is not to hire any freelance crewmember regularly. “Only under exceptional circumstances do we use freelancers,” the spokeswoman said. All cockpit crewmembers are rated for category III approaches and landings.

This growth in workforce accompanies the imminent addition of the company’s third aircraft, a 165-seat MD-83. It was to enter service in December but was delayed until last month. A second MD-83 is expected to join the fleet within the next two months. All Blue Line aircraft are leased. Remondeau told AIN that Ireland-based JTLC is the lessor of the Fokkers but he did not disclose the lessor or lessors of the MD-83s.

“Our priority this year is to be well prepared for the smooth introduction of two additional aircraft,” Remondeau said. This includes, for example, having crews trained in time.

Since the management team wants to avoid any disruption during the busy April to September period, Blue Line is also ensuring that no heavy maintenance will have to be performed during this time. Hence, a C-check on one of the MD-83s has been scheduled for this month.

Blue Line’s shareholders are mainly the founders, though an unnamed investor–an aerospace outsider–holds a minority share. Because Blue Line was created during an economic downturn, its founders have made careful decisions since the beginning, the spokeswoman noted. For example, they agree to add an aircraft only if they are sure they will have work for it even during the winter months, which are traditionally off-peak travel times.

Asked for Blue Line’s successful business recipe, Remondeau said thorough management and total versatility on the charter market are the main ingredients. “We constantly think of taking advantage of all three of our segments. We have proved that a Fokker 100 can be profitable with tour operators. In addition, one could believe wet leasing the aircraft is a small business but it fits nicely into our winter schedule.”

The wet-lease activity is mainly for Air France and its affiliates under a yearly contract. Other wet-lease customers include Austrian Airlines and Alpi Eagle. Among the tour operators that are regular customers, the spokeswoman mentioned Go and Club Med.

Both Fokker 100s can be quickly reconfigured, switching from the 100- to the 80-seat configuration and vice-versa in about 20 minutes. Reconfiguring to or from the 50-seat VIP/corporate version requires eight hours, however.

Blue Line’s headquarters are located in Gonesse, near Charles de Gaulle Airport. The company also has a commercial office in Munich, Germany.

Should the company continue to grow, Blue Line wouldn’t add any aircraft smaller than its current types, so as to stay on the same market segment, the spokeswoman said.