Business aviation is set to recover from its downturn this year, according to a company that spends much of its time monitoring traffic at the London-area airports.
First Class Cars (Booth No. 792) achieved a 30-percent increase in its business aviation-related ground transportation operations during 2008 (with more than 9,000 separate trips) and is projecting a further 20 percent growth this year.
The UK company’s CEO, Graham Coate, said it has seen a 25-percent reduction in bookings from executive charter flights in recent months. However, he said that at the same time it actually achieved an increase in business from corporate flight department customers, and especially from U.S. operators. He predicted that charter traffic will recover during the course of this year as business people accept that, despite the imperative to reduce expenditure, they can’t do business efficiently without business aviation. In his view, the normally busy months of May, June and July will provide critical indicators as to whether demand levels are coming back.
First Class Cars (FCC) marks its tenth anniversary this year. Coate launched it in 1999 with a single car. Today, he has a fleet of 35 luxury vehicles including the Mercedes S-Class, a Rolls-Royce Phantom and a Bentley Continental Flying Spur, and none of the cars is more than three years old. One of the company’s fastest growth spurts came in the months immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The company employs 35 full-time drivers who have gone through a full criminal-record check before being hired and who are selected for their detailed knowledge of the London area. The drivers receive extensive training in the need for complete discretion regarding passengers’ privacy and know that they can be instantly sacked for revealing any conversation that they may hear while driving.
Training also includes how to drive in a situation in which the security of passengers might be at risk, and the company was especially busy carrying high-level visitors to the G20 summit of world leaders held in London last month.
FCC is almost completely focused on driving for business aircraft passengers and crew in order to develop a detailed understanding of how this mode of transportation works. Its headquarters is less than a minute’s drive from the FBOs at London Luton Airport and it also has a permanent base next to the Inflite Jet Centre at London Stansted. Additionally, each day it keeps drivers positioned close to Biggin Hill, Farnborough and Northolt airports, as well as in central London, so it can respond quickly to requests for rides routinely made at very short notice. It has often had a car at the steps of an arriving aircraft within three minutes of receiving a request.
The company’s operations team uses a tracking system to monitor the progress of both customer flights and its own cars. This system, based on software developed especially for FCC, allows it to respond quickly to changing requirements and to keep flight crew informed of the actual arrival time of their passengers. The drivers often provide other support services for aircraft operators, such as collecting requested meals from restaurants.
Coate acknowledged that his service is not the least expensive ground transportation option because he builds in so much redundancy in terms of car and driver availability so as to never be in the position of letting a customer down due to over-booking. The company also carries approximately $75 million worth of insurance necessary to allow it to drive its cars directly onto the apron at airports.
“It’s a dangerous game for pilots to depend on local taxi services,” Coate told EBACE Convention News. “The difference is that we are never, ever going to let them down and that really matters for people who cannot afford not to be at the airport when their passengers want to depart. We know that their jobs depend on us and the price difference is relatively small.”
According to Coate, foreign customers can save money by booking trips directly with First Class Cars because they avoid broker fees and can have value added tax waived. He estimated that clients might well save several hundred dollars during the course of a visit to the UK by booking ground transportation directly. Coate also argued that brokers are generally not willing and able to rearrange ground transportation when flight plans change at short notice.
About 50 percent of First Class Cars’ clients are from the U.S., with 30 percent from Russia and 20 percent from Europe. Several of the company’s drivers are multi-lingual.
“They make the pilot look good,” said the chief pilot of a Fortune 500 insurance company. “FCC offers attentive customer service and that’s important when making sure your passengers are promptly cared for. They also make sure that the crew has reliable transportation. Not many ground transport companies servicing business aircraft in the UK do that or even care.”
A prominent rock star wrote to thank FCC of its “discreet and security-conscious” service which had allowed him to remain anonymous in London. In this case, the driver had even gone so far as to meet a request to purchase an Egyptian mummy coffin from Harrods and to deliver it to a theater in time for it to feature as a prop in the customer’s concert.