Among business aviation’s service providers, TAG Aviation is arguably the most understated and least prone to high-profile self-promotion. But the Swiss-based aircraft management and support company has quietly expanded its customer base by emphasizing a highly personalized level of service and an insistence on taking the long-term view, rather than precipitously shifting tack to exploit what all too often can prove to be fleeting opportunities.
However, beneath the surface TAG does steadily change course in response to challenging market conditions. For example, by the third quarter of this year it expects to have disposed of the two remaining aircraft that it directly owns and operates in the charter market. What will remain is a managed European fleet of some 90 jets spread across three aircraft operator certificates (AOCs) in Switzerland, the UK and Spain. The fleet has more than quadrupled in size since 2006, when it numbered just 20. The company now operates an additional 37 managed aircraft in Asia, with AOCs in Hong Kong and Bahrain.
The decision to shed its own aircraft two or three years ago was in direct response to the general slump in the private jet charter market, triggered by the financial crisis of 2008/09. “We saw this coming,” TAG Aviation Europe president Graham Williamson told AIN. “The number of aircraft in Europe has doubled over the last five or six years, and, of the 10 largest charter customers, eight now have their own aircraft. What we saw quite early was an evolution in which charter was being hit two ways: by increased capacity and reduced demand.”
Evidently, what TAG did not want to end up doing was, essentially, competing with its own management clients for dwindling charter demand. “Over our 40 years in business, customers have tended to be loyal to TAG,” said Williamson. “We provide full service management and we aim to keep it simple and bespoke. Each aircraft has a dedicated crew, with a lead pilot assigned to each aircraft to look after all aspects of the operations.”
TAG also has FBOs and maintenance facilities at both Geneva Airport and the London-area Farnborough Airport, but these businesses depend on being able to exploit what other companies might view as the captive market of its own aircraft management clients. “The focus has been on being confidential and low key,” said Williamson. “We have not tried to deliberately leverage the maintenance businesses with the management business. We go to the right place to get each individual aircraft serviced. It’s about doing the right thing for the client, rather than doing the right thing for TAG.”
Several factors have contributed to the rapid growth of the TAG fleet in recent years. Between 2007 and 2010, it took delivery of a lot of brand-new aircraft on behalf of management clients, many of whom were first-time owners. “In the last two years there has been a bit more churn [with customers switching aircraft from other management companies], and in the last six to twelve months we’ve had new clients who we first spoke with two or three years ago. People are looking for more security and peace of mind.”
Today the fleet is a mix of mainly super-midsize and large jets, drawn from the Gulfstream, Bombardier and Dassault Falcon lines. It is set to start receiving some new G650s as well as the first Global 6000.
According to Williamson, the needs and priorities of management customers will always be put first and this drives the availability of individual aircraft for charter flights. “We now have five aircraft that are fully available for charter because the owners don’t want to use them anymore,” he explained. “In some cases we offer block-hour agreements for charter or even full wet leases, such as one covering an aircraft that was based in Brazzaville [capital of the Congo in central Africa] for a year.”
While charter rates are generally down, TAG claims that pricing for large-cabin and long-range jets has held up fairly well. “Rates haven’t dropped as much as some people have indicated,” Williamson told AIN. “We’re probably fortunate in that we are not desperate for income [from charter].”
Even in Spain, one of Europe’s most blighted economies, TAG’s 20-strong Madrid-based fleet has been stable. The company said that it has seen little turnover of management customers, although pre-owned aircraft prices have been down.
“Really, the secret to success in this business is relationship management,” concluded Williamson. “I try to meet all our owners regularly. It is important to be honest with them and make sure they understand the pricing structure. We aim to be completely transparent and never mark up the prices of our services, passing on discounts for things like fuel where we can to offset their costs.”o