French 1900 flier finds profits where others dug own graves

 - February 6, 2007, 5:18 AM

For those in the U.S. who fail to appreciate fully how the rest of the world has suffered from the effects of 9/11, consider this: since that infamous day no fewer than 18 air transport operators have disappeared in France alone. So how can a small airline born during this volatile period survive? Twin Jet, based in Aix-en-Provence, France, thinks it has found the answer. Led by a management team committed to a steady, conservative approach to business, the airline now flies a fleet of nine Beech 1900Ds and exhibits a maturity beyond its years.

“We have been profitable since the beginning,” Olivier Manaut, Twin Jet’s CEO, said during a September press conference in Lyons. The airline expects to turn a profit of between €500,000 ($615,000) and €1 million ($1.2 million) this year on revenues of €15 million ($18.4 million), a remarkable performance considering the wretched state of France’s entire domestic airline industry following 9/11.

Opening a new route always involves careful risk assessment. In a country where public service obligation (PSO) routes have long served as the bread-and-butter for small turboprop operations, Manaut isn’t content with eking out a marginal living on government stipends and will consider only destinations that can make a solid economic case for service.

That’s not to say Twin Jet rejects subsidized routes when they make sense. For example, a recently established route between Lyons and Angoulême yields Twin Jet €800,000 ($980,000) a year. Of course, a PSO route must pass a needs test every three years. If it draws enough traffic to support open competition, the European Commission could sever the proverbial cord. Although Manaut sounded optimistic that passenger volumes on Lyons-Angoulême might eventually exceed the original target of 8,000 to 10,000 passengers per year, he seemed less than confident that it could turn a profit without public subsidies.

Above all, Manaut avoids competing directly with other air operators, high-speed trains or too-convenient road infrastructures–a lesson learned from watching the likes of Air Lib succumb to fierce competition from other, subsidized modes of transport.

Manaut is also well aware of what happened to small operators who faced competition from France’s flag carrier, whose Fréquence Plus frequent flier program convinced many passengers to drive considerable distances for Air France flights at larger but less convenient airports. Again under the category of “lessons learned,” Twin Jet has joined the Fréquence Plus program, and aggressively markets that fact on its brochures and advertisements. “Fréquence Plus is what makes our load factor,” said Manaut. “Seventy percent of our customers are program members.”

Established in May 2001, Twin Jet flew its maiden scheduled flight in March 2002. This year it added its seventh, eighth and ninth Beech 1900s. Now leasing eight of its nine Beech 1900s from Air France, Manaut wants eventually to buy all of them, the first by next March. After adding several new routes this year, Twin Jet expects to add another by Christmas, probably between Marseilles and a still-to-be-determined Swiss city. Next year it plans to add two more routes from Lyons to a new destination in France and another abroad.

Constantly on the lookout for fresh ideas, Manaut told AIN he plans to create a kind of small regional carrier alliance. “We could unite and jointly invite tenders from suppliers, insurance companies and so on,” he said. Manaut would like to begin by offering Twin Jet’s marketing services to other operators. In return, they would operate routes under Twin Jet’s brand.

After roughly a year of outsourcing, the young airline now operates its own maintenance workshop in Aix-en-Provence, “with a large inventory of spare parts,” Manaut said. The operation started last May and soon benefited from Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 engine repair authorization. Manaut emphasized the need to avoid aircraft-on-the-ground problems, particularly for a small operator with little brand recognition: “In case of a major delay, our image is badly damaged, even more than it would be for a major airline.”

Of course, nothing could ruin an airline’s image more than a poor safety record. So how does a chief pilot at a small airline develop the most effective safety policy? First, by ensuring homogeneous pilot training–Twin Jet manages its own type rating and training organization. Still, according to chief pilot Christophe Vieux, the best training in the world won’t amount to much if the airline doesn’t enforce procedures, both internal and regulatory.

“Every month I go in depth into randomly selected flight folders, one per place of call,” said Vieux. The random samplings detect possible errors in critical computations such as takeoff weight. “We endeavor to avoid routine- caused drift; it can happen to any pilot who always flies the same route, like most of us at Twin Jet do,” he conceded. Simultaneously, Vieux works diligently to make flight crews aware of applicable safety topics. Twice a year, an internal publication tries to help readers learn the lessons of incidents and accidents that took place both outside and inside the company. Pilots and safety personnel debate the causes during a yearly meeting.
One of the recently discussed incidents involved two Mirage fighters that nearly struck a Twin Jet aircraft during approach at Metz, in eastern France.

“Luckily, the weather was fine, otherwise a midair collision may not have been avoided,” Vieux said. The debate turned intense over the aviation basic “see and avoid,” he noted.