UK’s Bookajet seeks to demystify bizav travel

 - March 30, 2007, 9:58 AM

Bookajet International, the UK executive charter operator that rose from the ashes of bankrupt Chauffair, is now hiring pilots, mechanics, sales and support staff as it seeks to expand its business from a new base at Southampton Airport. Last month the company relocated from Farnborough Airport into the former Signature Aircraft Engineering facility at the south coast of England airport.

The year-old operator’s business plan is based largely on attracting a new breed of European private aircraft user, many of them second-tier executives for whom the decision to charter a jet has to be strictly justified in terms of pure cost effectiveness. According to marketing and sales director Christian Rooney, even the firm’s utilitarian name is part of Bookajet’s strategy to demystify business aviation, stripping out all the snobbish and ego-driven connotations that it still has–at least in Europe.

“Our goal is to change the perception of private jet travel–that it is not just for captains of industry or multimillionaires. Rather that it is a valuable, time-saving business tool,” said Rooney. “With our innovative pricing and flexible, tailor-made packages we intend to play a leading role in changing this mindset.”

When Bookajet’s backer, the Bank of Scotland, acquired Chauffair’s assets it retained five of the company’s aircraft–three Hawker 125-800s and a 700 and a Cessna Citation V. The company briefly traded under the name Call Jet before being rebranded.

Bookajet is now contemplating fleet-growth plans. Rooney told AIN that the firm would like to introduce some larger equipment. “We might well take on an aircraft
with transatlantic range and perhaps some sort of regional jet,” he explained. That said, Bookajet has no intention of resurrecting Chauffair’s multi-ship order for Cessna Citation Excels, a deal that fell by the wayside when the operator went into receivership in 2002.

All three of its Hawker 800s (two of which were built in 1993, and the other in 1986) are now certified for operations in Europe’s reduced vertical separation minimum (RVSM) airspace. The 1979 Hawker 700 and the 1990 Citation V are not, and Bookajet’s management is now trying to decide whether to invest in newly available RVSM upgrades or whether to replace the aircraft, which currently have to fly below FL290.

The new company is also looking to expand into aircraft management, and has recently fielded offers to take over the operation of two corporate-owned jets–a Falcon and a Challenger. However, Rooney stressed that any managed aircraft will likely play only a fringe role in Bookajet’s charter operations. In his view, it is difficult to ensure that aircraft owned by other people will have the flexibility that charter clients need.

Ultimately, Bookajet’s management would like to see its fleet positioned across Europe. The existing aircraft are already commonly seen operating out of the south of France and Switzerland on behalf of regular clients.

Club Airways Affiliate

Despite the emphasis on ad hoc charter work, Bookajet is also engaged in Europe’s new all-business-jet scheduled service. In November it signed a deal with Swiss-based Club Airways to operate one of its Hawkers on its newly launched routes between Geneva and Milan, Milan and Paris Le Bourget and Paris and Geneva.

Club Airways is a members-only airline, offering a variety of executive aircraft flown by several European operators. Passengers benefit from dedicated check-ins at FBOs and can bypass the crowds and burdensome security arrangements at the regular airlines.

On April 13 Bookajet will start operating its Citation V for Club Airways on the new London City-Zurich service. It is also set to support the Club Airways sales campaign in the UK.

Bookajet is already providing discounted block-charter packages to some clients. However, unlike fixed-fee programs such as Bombardier Flexjet Europe’s, these rates are negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

Many of Europe’s leading executive charter operators now provide additional capacity for fractional aircraft provider NetJets Europe, operating backup aircraft on occasions when the core fleet aircraft are not available. Bookajet does not play this role, and according to Rooney this is because it sees itself as more of a direct competitor to NetJets since it offers block charter as an alternative to fractional ownership.

“As with fractional programs, we offer similar guarantees of availability and flexibility to our block-hour customers, without the burden of ownership or excessive upfront payments,” he said. “Furthermore, unlike fractional operators we also offer total customer flexibility through our ad hoc charter program.”

The more effective use of empty-leg flights will be critical to making executive charter more affordable, according to Rooney. “It makes a lot of commercial sense for the operator, and the consumer wins because it drives down prices,” he noted, while conceding that to date the industry has not found a way to harness the capacity of the ad hoc charter sector’s inevitable ferry flights.

“It [the effective use of empty legs] really depends on achieving sufficient critical mass in terms of both clients and available aircraft,” Rooney explained. “It has proved to be a real headache operationally, but it is short-sighted of a company not to try to find a system that works, and this will depend on having absolutely current and accurate information about aircraft availability.” In his view, the Internet will ultimately prove central to any effective empty-leg utilization system.

Generally speaking, business conditions have not been kind to the European executive charter industry over the last two or three years. However, according to Rooney, demand has been picking up over the past 12 months or so, and with it prices have firmed. The tentative stock-market recovery has clearly helped this trend along since financial service companies’ intensive, equity-boosting road shows are big consumers of executive lift.

Bringing in New Users

But Bookajet isn’t counting on these groups of core clients for its long-term survival. It is determined to bring new business jet users into the market and is employing a young, aggressive sales and marketing team to evangelize the effectiveness of using private aircraft. They are visiting executives and corporate travel planners to personally convince them of the case for business aircraft. The Southampton area itself is potentially fertile territory in that the south-coast port city has attracted a growing number of companies and is about a 90-minute drive from London’s main airports, making scheduled airline service an even less attractive option.

“Operators have been very complacent about attracting a wider customer base, and the business just won’t survive that way,” said Rooney. “We need executive charter to lose its exclusivity without losing all the essential benefits of the product.”

Bookajet’s sales force has found that even seasoned business travelers in Europe generally have no idea what chartered aircraft cost and commonly assume that it is a service that is priced way beyond their reach. The company is going out of its way to offer highly favorable rates to customers as an incentive to increase their use of business aircraft. Rooney believes that ultimately the Internet could play a greater part as an instrument for sourcing executive charters, but added that consumers and operators alike do not feel comfortable making bookings purely online, without the opportunity to discuss and refine the terms of each charter.

Generally, the base prices do not include landing fees and handling charges as these can fluctuate considerably–indeed shockingly so– throughout Europe. Catering charges are also calculated separately according to what the customer actually wants, so that clients needing no more than a box lunch are not subsidizing the champagne-swilling abandon of the leisured classes. Rooney complained of wild and exploitative variations in the prices charged by in-flight catering firms around Europe, pointing to the south of France as prime “rip-off territory.”

Historically, European business people have made much less use of business aircraft than their North American counterparts, at least partly due to the fact that most of the Old World’s major business cities have been relatively so close together. Now the business boundaries of Europe are expanding– largely eastward with the accession this year of 10 more states into the European Union. This trend is driving an increasing need to access locations that are not well connected by the airlines.

Furthermore, worsening congestion at and around Europe’s major airports is inspiring savvy travelers to find ways to bypass these in favor of secondary gateways–a role for which the business aircraft is well suited. In this regard, chartered business aircraft are really coming into their own when customers want to fly multiple sectors in a single day–a requirement that very often cannot be achieved using the airlines.

Increasingly open competition has resulted in operators from different countries straying into rival home territories to pick up bookings. However, in Rooney’s view the degree to which this makes competitive sense is often driven by currency fluctuations, which will be largely eliminated with the widespread adoption of the new Euro currency, and by cyclical downturns in certain domestic marketplaces that force operators from these countries to look beyond their own borders for alternative sources of business.

According to Rooney, corporate concern over commercial aviation safety and security is also driving them to business aviation. He maintained that a lot of large corporations have continued to use private aircraft, whether or not they have continued to own and operate these themselves.

Rooney said that the European executive charter market continues to be price-sensitive, but that lasting relationships with clients–based largely on operators ensuring that expectations are carefully managed and fulfilled–also count for a lot. In Bookajet’s experience, customers are becoming a lot more discerning about the capabilities and features of available aircraft, as well as having high expectations of what operators can achieve for them. “You just can’t afford to make mistakes as an operator, and it is very important not to promise things that you might not be able to deliver,” he said.

In its first full year in business, the Bookajet fleet aircraft each averaged between 300 and 400 for-hire flight hours. The jets are still maintained by the Faset service center at Farnborough, now part of the TAG Aviation Group, which operates that London-area airport under a 99-year lease. Bookajet now wants to establish its own engineering base at Southampton using the former Signature hangar.

The company currently has 16 pilots on its books, including some working freelance. It is looking to recruit more pilots and is eager to find those who have the right service mentality for business aviation, as well as the necessary type ratings.