Business aviation in China is a challenging occupation, but Hongkong Jet has tapped into a market where customers expect a high level of service and are willing to pay the extra cost. “Here in Asia, people don’t mind paying extra for better service,” said Chris Buchholz, CEO of Hongkong Jet, which is headquartered in Hong Kong and is the business aviation arm of China’s HNA Group. Hongkong Jet and sister company Deer Jet are exhibiting aircraft here on the static display.
Hongkong Jet is a young company, founded in November 2011 with its first business jet, a Gulfstream G550. Now the company has 14 business jets in its fleet, which are primarily managed for individual owners. Most of these jets aren’t available for charter, according to Buchholz, because the owners want their airplanes available at short notice for their own travel purposes.
The company’s primary focus, Buchholz explained, “is to be the premier provider of business jet services–including management and maintenance–in the region by being as safe as we can be and providing the best service.” To that end, Hongkong Jet has established safety mechanisms such as a formal safety management system (SMS). All employees are encouraged to raise safety issues in a nonpunitive safety reporting culture. “A critical component is that you allow everyone on staff to put up a hand at any point if they have a concern about safety–without fear of reprisals,” he said. “If they want anonymity, it’s up to them. Maybe we need to clarify procedures or improve training or provide better resources. If the first person facing that risk speaks out, that’s better than if they wait. It makes us different from any other player.”
One way that Hongkong Jet controls quality is by conducting maintenance on its management fleet. It also maintains aircraft for non-management clients, and provides 24/7 aircraft-on-ground (AOG) repairs at other locations. “Maintenance is a core part of our strategy,” said Buchholz. The company employs 14 licensed engineers.
As part of the SMS, every department in the company, including maintenance, has a safety officer, and a safety board reviews all of the officer’s recommendations. All engineers receive training, and Hongkong Jet spends a lot on safety equipment such as harnesses, jacks, lifts and emergency medical supplies. “Taking good care of our people is essential,” Buchholz said.
More business jets are entering service in China, but most are not available for charter. “That will change and it will take time,” he said. “We would love to do more charter.” The reason there are so many larger jets in the region is because handling costs and airport fees are so high, averaging roughly $2,000 per hour, making the operation of smaller airplanes nearly as expensive. “The main reason is that business aviation almost didn’t exist, and airports are dedicated for airlines,” he said. “You’re paying landing fees of a [Boeing] 737, even if you’re flying a light jet. For a little more money, you get more room and comfort.” Most business jet travelers are used to stand-up cabins, having flown only in airliners, he explained. They also expect a high level of service that isn’t available in a smaller jet that does not carry a flight attendant.
The ABACE show is important for China and Shanghai, said Buchholz. “Some can remember EBACE being relatively modest in size but today it is a full-blown National Business Aviation Association (NBAA)-type event. China is still much smaller than Europe as a [business aviation] market but there is a lot of interest and it remains significantly underpenetrated. Customers want to look at the aircraft. It’s not often they can compare all these aircraft side by side and really get a feel for which has the widest cabin,” he said.
Even though Asia is lacking in airports that serve business aviation, Buchholz concluded, “The opportunity is excellent [in Hong Kong]. We feel that [the words] Hong Kong…describe the best of the east and west, of international standards and five-star Asian service. As China becomes more international I see more Chinese companies setting up international headquarters in Hong Kong, and they want aircraft to operate to Hong Kong standards. Hongkong Jet is well positioned to take advantage of that.”