February 17 will see the launch of scheduled business aircraft services linking Geneva, London and Paris. Club Airways is a private membership service that will market seats in Learjet 45s operated through Bombardier’s Flexjet Europe program at fares that will be roughly 50-percent higher than equivalent fully flexible business-class tickets.
Initially, the operation will begin with two morning and two afternoon weekday departures for each of the following city pairs: London-Geneva, London-Paris and Geneva-Paris. The next stage should see Frankfurt and Zurich brought into the network, and by year-end Club Airways intends to serve around a dozen cities, including some or all of the following: Dusseldorf and Stuttgart, Germany; Brussels; Rome; Madrid; Luxembourg; Amsterdam; Stockholm; Athens; and Moscow.
Geneva-based Club Airways is not operating as an airline in that tickets are not on sale to the general public. Companies and individuals have to apply for membership and are subject to security screening via Swiss authorities. However, all the Flexjet operators do fly under commercial air operator certificates under European JAR OPS 1.
Individuals pay E1,500 ($1,575) in annual membership dues. Companies can join for E15,000 ($15,750) per year, which includes four round- trip fares and the right to enroll as many individuals as they wish. Founding memberships are being offered at E25,000 ($26,250) per year; for this they also get exclusive use of a business jet for up to four hours.
Club Airways has committed to an unspecified number of Flexjet Europe flight hours at undisclosed rates that are lower than the block-charter program’s same-day business flight-hour cost of E4,550 ($4,777). Most of the planned routes in the first phase have flight times of around 60 to 90 minutes. The estimated breakeven for most of its planned routes will be to sell four or five seats per flight.
Business class round-trip fares between London, Paris and Geneva currently average between $700 and $800. On this basis, Club Airways’ round-trip flights on the launch routes are estimated to be between $1,000 and $1,200.
Flights will operate from FBOs rather than main airport terminals, and Flexjet Europe is in charge of selecting the facilities used. For London, services will be through Farnborough Airport, where TAG Aviation will provide handling. TAG is also the chosen FBO at Geneva International Airport. At press time the FBO at Paris Le Bourget Airport had not yet been specified.
Flights will be provided by any of the eight Flexjet Europe executive charter operators: Aero-Dienst, Nuremberg, Germany; Avcon Air Charter, Zurich; Corporate Jets, Prestwick, Scotland; DaimleChrysler Aviation, Stuttgart; ExecuJet Scandinavia, Copenhagen; Gold Air International, London; Jet Connection BusinessFlight, Frankfurt; and TAG Aviation, Geneva. Operators are responsible for securing airport slots.
In the event that a Learjet 45 is not available, there is some latitude for operators to use superior aircraft, such as the Challenger 604. However, Club Airways chief executive Hans Schwab said he is reluctant for this to happen because he wants the service to be as consistent as possible.
Operators’ cabin interiors have to meet Club Airways’ standards. They also have to provide specified in-flight service standards for catering. Satellite telephone service is available in all aircraft, with charges billable to individual passengers.
The Club Airways tickets are fully flexible and can be canceled or changed right up to departure time. Members will be able to access the secure reservations system via the company’s Web site (www.clubairways.com), and subject to availability, flights can be booked up to around 30 minutes before departure.
Check-ins are permitted up to five minutes before departure. If a passenger misses a booked flight, Club Airways’ concierge service will book the passenger onto the next available airline service. The concierge service can also make bookings for ground transportation.
Club Airways is marketing the new service directly to prospective individual and corporate members, without any public advertising.
“The main benefits we are offering,” Schwab told AIN, “are sustainable convenience, peace of mind and absolute privacy.” In his view, the rise of low-cost carriers in Europe is making main airport terminal buildings less attractive to executive travelers, since their time and comfort is impinged upon by crowded gate areas and tighter security procedures.
Schwab claimed that the service offers everything that executive charter does, except for complete control over departure times or choice of fellow passengers.
After about six months in service, Club Airways intends to introduce a loyalty program. This will probably offer customers a free flight after every 10 to 15 revenue flights.
In theory, Club Airways can complete the membership enrollment process with 24 hours’ notice although it will generally prefer to have a few days before a customer’s first flight. Schwab insisted that in no circumstances would the requirement for security clearance be waived.
The company has largely been targeting upper management of firms that still permit their executives to fly business class. Schwab said that among the members joining to date are companies that have stopped operating their own corporate aircraft or using executive charter.
Bombardier Flexjet Europe managing director Daniel Maiden commented, “Bombardier recognizes that there is an untapped demand for scheduled airline service using business aircraft, and we’re delighted… to make business aviation more accessible to a larger segment.”
Club Airways is being financed by a group of venture-capital investors chaired by Michael Schulhof, the former CEO and president of Sony Corp. of America and Sony Entertainment. Hans Schwab was formerly a board member of the Davos, Switzerland-based World Economic Forum and previously ran several technology companies in the U.S.