A man who has witnessed just about every step of business aviation’s development over the past four decades finally began a very well earned retirement earlier this year. When Carl Hirschmann set up Jet Aviation in Basel, Switzerland back in 1967, he not only took over the hangar from the failed holiday charter airline Globe Air, but also that company’s deputy technical director–Elie Zelouf.
“Life wasn’t easy at Jet Aviation in the early days,” Zelouf told EBACE Convention News. “I had many sleepless nights, wondering how the company could carry on when expected orders didn’t materialize.”
On the other hand, when work was at hand, there often was no time to take a break. “I sometimes spent five days at the company without going home,” recounted the veteran manager. In its beginnings, Jet Aviation was a start-up in an industry still in its infancy in Europe. Zelouf’s pugnacious spirit helped establish the Swiss company as a successful business venture and a leader in its field.
One of Zelouf’s early successes resulted from an order of the government of Oman for a 150-hour check of its Dassault Mystère (Falcon) 20. The customer’s satisfaction was such that a business relationship of many years resulted from the initial order. In 1968, Jet Aviation also gained Executive Jet Aviation, an early leader in executive charter, as a maintenance customer for its Learjets based in Europe.
A few years later, after Hirschmann established other bases in Zurich and Geneva, soon followed by ventures abroad, Zelouf was appointed manager of the entire Basel operation, the company’s largest unit, in 1976. By then, the erstwhile mechanic had gained his bosses unconditional confidence.
When more working space was badly needed in Basel, but none was forthcoming, Zelouf phoned his boss and said: “Look, we cannot go on like this. I need a new hangar.” Confronted with the need for an urgent decision, Hirschmann replied: “What will it cost?” The answer was “five million,” and after a few seconds of reflection, the company founder conceded: “If you need it, go ahead and build it.”
Zelouf was also instrumental in getting completion orders from Dassault Aviation. In the beginning, the manufacturer insisted that all of their airplanes should be completed at their own facilities in France. But in 1980, when Jet Aviation had secured an order for an early Falcon 50, Zelouf met with Marcel Dassault to explain that the customer insisted on delivery from Jet Aviation’s Basel facility. Facing the customer’s threat to cancel the order, Dassault had to give in and recognize the strong ties Jet Aviation maintained with their customers. Later this resulted in Jet Aviation becoming one of Dassault’s official completion centers.
The beginnings of VIP conversions of airliners go back to 1977 when Carl Hirschmann had the opportunity to buy an idle Convair 880 airliner in Miami. He sent the airplane to Basel and told Zelouf to fit it with a VIP interior, including a bedroom and a shower, for display at the upcoming Paris Air Show. Zelouf carried out the order with the help of Davis Design in a hectic three-month effort. The Convair was ready for Paris and sold shortly after.
“It was tough because we simultaneously had to learn and do the job, all in an unreasonably short period of time,” remembered Zelouf. The Convair was soon followed by a Boeing 707-136. Some time later, Zelouf sold an ex-Lufthansa Boeing 727 with a special interior to a Middle Eastern police force, followed by four other VIP 727s for various customers. This helped establish Jet Aviation as a leading completion center on the world market.
Under Zelouf’s management, the company has since completed many additional aircraft, including some widebodies, like the DC-10 and Boeing 747. But perhaps the most remarkable achievement is how customer confidence was brought to new heights under Zelouf’s management at Jet Aviation Basel. A famous example is a Malaysian entrepreneur who asked the company to outfit his 737 with an executive interior without negotiating a contract, simply saying, “Just do it for the best price.”
While Zelouf spent almost his entire career at Basel, he helped set up Jet Aviation’s Biggin Hill facility near London from 2001 to 2004. He returned to Basel in 2004 to take care of key customers. After his retirement on Feb. 1, 2009 at the age of 75, he remains available to his company as a consultant. His “hands-on, low profile” philosophy remains an example for his successors at Jet Aviation.