Spanish FBO group plans expansion into France

 - August 26, 2009, 8:10 AM

European business aviation has endured a steep downturn in activity for the best part of a year, and many in the industry are resigned to a slow recovery. But for some the proverbial glass remains half full and some of these people are now eyeing growth opportunities.

Catherine Gaisenband, founder and CEO of Spain-based FBO group Assistair, is one such optimist. She is now looking to extend operations into the south of France and is launching a new company called Developair to provide handling supervision and management of particular á la carte travel needs in other parts of Europe that are not well served by full-service FBOs.

In an interview with AIN, Gaisenband made it clear that she would welcome new investors and partners to help fuel this expansion. “It is a difficult time [for business aviation] but we have had a boom over the last few years and in no more than four or five years we will have the business back again,” she predicts.

Gaisenband, a native of France who has lived in Spain for 30 years, founded Assistair 16 years ago and has run it as a staunchly independent family business. The Mallorca-based group, which is also active in charter brokering and flight support for airlines, recently opened new FBOs at Gerona and Ibiza and already has bases at the airports of Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona El Prat and Valencia.

The existing three FBOs have collectively handled approximately 10,000 passengers each year and cater to business aircraft of all sizes. Assistair expects to receive at least 2,000 passengers at Gerona and Ibiza over the next six months.

Spain’s economy–like those of other European nations–has taken a battering this year. But Assistair’s client base is cosmopolitan, with 90 percent of traffic coming from other parts of Europe (including Russia), as well as from the U.S. and the Middle East.

Generally speaking, the bases at Barcelona, Valencia and Gerona see more business-related flights, while the balance on the resort islands of Mallorca and Ibiza tips more toward private trips. Assistair has upgraded its facilities at Palma de Mallorca in a move that has attracted new business.

Gaisenband acknowledged that charter flights have been markedly down since October last year. Demand remains stagnant as disposable income has dwindled for both corporate and private travelers. However, she added that Assistair’s handling business has nonetheless seen an uptick in activity since May.

In Gaisenband’s view, the character and personality of an FBO’s staff is more important than ever as companies scramble for business and customer loyalty in a down market. She said that to provide the right level of service employees need to have an innate sense of how to make clients feel comfortable and safe, and pay close attention to every aspect of the travel arrangements.

“We have a good, strong brand in this respect and now is the right time to expand it,” she concluded. The most obvious growth opportunities, from her perspective, extend eastwards around the Mediterranean coast along the French Riviera and into Italy.