European scheduled charter firm rethinks fleet composition

 - August 4, 2008, 11:20 AM

Club Airways, the European scheduled business jet service, is broadening its fleet beyond Learjet 45s and is also rethinking its planned route network. Almost six months after beginning operations on February 17, Club Airways is now offering two daily round-trip flights between Geneva and Paris Le Bourget Airport.

On summer weekends it also flies from Geneva to Cannes on the French Riviera and Olbia in Sardinia. With flag carrier Swiss planning to cancel its Geneva-to-Nice service in October, Club is now planning to fly to nearby Cannes year-round.

However, Club quickly abandoned its service between Geneva and London-area Farnborough Airport after customers complained about long drives to the UK capital (35 miles). Instead, next month it will be introducing two daily round-trip flights from the Swiss city to London City Airport, using an eight-seat Citation Bravo operated by Jet Aviation.

Initially, Club had intended to use eight-passenger Learjet 45s provided by operating partners in Bombardier’s Flexjet Europe block-charter program. However, since the aircraft has yet to be approved for London City’s 5.5-degree steep approach, it was forced to look for an alternative.

Demand for the weekend flights to Cannes and Olbia has proved so strong that the company has also experimented with a 13-passenger Embraer Legacy operated by Zurich, Switzerland-based G5 Executive. According to Club Airways sales and marketing director Rafael Garcia, the firm is now actively evaluating several business aircraft types (including 16-seat Legacys and Challenger 604s seating up to 19 passengers) as it plans further new routes.

By year-end Club hopes to have introduced a Paris Le Bourget to London City service. In the first quarter of next year, it intends to launch a link between Geneva and Milan Linate Airport, as well as services from Geneva and/or Zurich to the German cities of Munich and Dusseldorf. Longer-term plans envision the addition of the following European cities to the network: Stuttgart, Brussels, Madrid, Rome, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Athens and Moscow.

Significantly, 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 aircraft used are operated under European JAR OPS 1 commercial regulations, as opposed to private Part 91-equivalent rules.

Individuals pay €1,500 ($1,680) in annual membership dues. Companies can join for €15,000 ($16,800) per year, a rate that includes four round-trip fares and the right
to enroll as many individuals as they wish. Founding memberships are being offered at €25,000 ($28,000) per year and for this they also get exclusive use of a business jet for one round-trip journey with a total flight time of up to four hours. As of mid-July, the program was backed by more than 300 members–most of them Geneva-based business people, such as private bankers and attorneys.

On top of membership dues, flights are sold at rates that are currently around 20 percent higher than the full business-class fare on scheduled airlines. On this basis, the undisclosed Geneva-Paris round-trip fare is probably just over $900. These rates are expected to rise to as much as 50 percent above airline fares as demand builds. Garcia told AIN that most flights are now achieving break-even load factors of 50 to 55 percent.

Flights operate from FBOs rather than main airport terminals, and the check-in limit can be as short as five minutes. At Geneva, for example, Club uses the TAG Aviation facility in the new C3 executive terminal and at London City it will use the new Jet Centre.  

Club Airways tickets are fully flexible in that they can be canceled or changed right up to departure time. Members can 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. If a passenger misses a booked flight, Club Airways’ concierge service will book them onto the next available airline service.