For many companies, the private charter and management sector has not been an easy place to earn a living over the past six years. But this largely accurate generalization conceals the fact that some firms have remained successful even during the lean years, in some cases benefiting from the market consolidation that followed the financial crisis of 2008.
Swiss-based business aviation services group TAG is a prime example of this trend. With some judicious adjustments to its business model, it has been able to grow its portfolio during the downturn, as Graham Williamson, president of TAG Aviation Europe Aircraft Management and Charter Services told AIN in an interview ahead of this week’s EBACE show.
Today, TAG has more than 50 aircraft available for charter at some 20 locations around the world, with main operating bases in Geneva, Farnborough, Madrid, Bahrain and Hong Kong. The company operates what it describes as “probably Europe’s most extensive charter fleet” and also owns TAG Farnborough Airport.
“From a five seat, entry-level small cabin aircraft to a state-of-the-art, brand-new ultra-long-range aircraft–and no fewer than twenty-two other types of aircraft in between–TAG Aviation can accommodate almost any jet charter requirement anywhere in the world,” according to company, which offers an array of aircraft for charter or longer wet lease.
Graham Williamson, president of TAG Aviation Europe Aircraft Management and Charter Services, said the company has grown from “a number of different elements but has been in the business, in one form or another, for 40 years.” TAG Aviation Europe was established in 1998 around the “kernel” that was Geneva-based Aeroleasing, he said (adding that since then TAG has moved from owning aircraft to not owning any itself).
Williamson, who joined TAG Aviation (Booth 344) in 2006 after a varied and successful airline career, told AIN, “We have 90 aircraft under management in Europe, the majority of which are large cabin–[Dassault] Falcon 7X, Gulfstream 550 and 650 and a number of [Bombardier] Globals.” Many of these are also available for charter when their owners are not using them, an arrangement that helps owners offset costs. At its Spanish base at Madrid-Barajas Airport alone, TAG’s fleet has averaged around 15 to 20 aircraft over the past five or six years, said Williamson, while Farnborough now has 45 aircraft and there are more than 10 based in Geneva.
The managed fleet in Europe grew from 20 aircraft in 2006 to 100, plus almost 30 in Asia, in late 2011. Since then it has fallen back in Europe, albeit only slightly, while the Asian fleet has grown to more than 40 aircraft. Williamson stressed, however, that there has been a significant shift in the average size of these aircraft, “from types like Learjet 45s to Falcons and Globals.” This is certainly better for business, in part because, he said, “The workload associated with small aircraft is not that much different from that for large aircraft.”
So are these aircraft seeing greater demand? “We are seeing some recovery and have a healthy number of people looking to come to TAG with their next aircraft–what we call our ‘prospect pipeline,’” said Williamson. This is for the management side, while for charter Williamson replied, “Very much so,” when asked if it was becoming more competitive. “Over the past 10 years the number of aircraft in Europe has doubled…and some charter customers have acquired aircraft.”
Despite the more competitive market conditions, Williamson said, “It’s good for our charter customers that rates have reduced–it’s pure supply and demand. But we have been seeing a market recovery recently…[and] charter customers are realizing the benefits of working with a partner like TAG rather than going for the cheapest. We have invested an enormous amount in safety. I work very closely with the [UK] CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] and I sit on the SAAG [Security Area Advisory Group], and we helped found CASE [the Corporate Aviation Safety Executive]–to share safety information through Vistair’s SafetyNet website. In total, the members on CASE represent 400 aircraft.”
The company is also IS-BAO certified (aircraft registries such as the Isle of Man tend to require this) and also, said Williamson, “We are Wyvern MinuteMan accredited, too. There is always something you can learn from these guys [and] some customers will charter only when you’re accredited.”
In summary, he said, “It’s all about continuous improvement, and not being arrogant.” The company also supports EBAA in its various initiatives, such as “getting the word out” about gray charters where “there is a risk if aircraft are not properly supervised and operated.”
And what about further fleet growth? “The growth in our managed fleet will be organic; if you do a good job, you get referrals. So we’re not doubling the fleet over five years, but we’ll maybe add three to five aircraft a year in Europe.” The company is focused on quality of service and “doing what you say you’re going to do,” said Williamson. Part of this is to be able to advise clients impartially, so TAG does not get involved in buying or selling aircraft; it will simply advise about the types that are best suited for a customer’s requirements.
“We’re not in the aircraft sales business, although up until six years ago that was one of our services. Aircraft sales is highly specialized and it’s more appropriate for our customers to work with specialists when buying and selling aircraft; [and] our loyalty to customers requires us to maintain some independence.” He added, “The key thing is to understand what the client needs–range, performance–and from that we can process to very few choices [of aircraft]…but beyond that it would be impossible to remain impartial.” And TAG customers tend to stick around he said, “Some customers are on their fifth aircraft with us after 20 or so years.”
What of global growth for TAG? “TAG Asia has grown very quickly and successfully over the past five years,” he said. “It is very focused on large-cabin [aircraft] and has around 18 Globals, for example. It can service the entire Asia Pacific region from Hong Kong, with aircraft based in various places. They’re probably where TAG UK was five years ago.”
Back in Europe, Williamson is focused on delivering what is promised to customers, although he is excited to see manufacturers improving and developing aircraft. “All of the manufacturers are doing fantastic things with their aircraft–more efficient, better range,” he said.
“We are looking forward to EBACE, it’s really important to us as it’s the biggest show in Europe by far. To see EBACE evolve from 10 years ago to now is amazing–and it’s in our backyard. We invest a great deal in hospitality and we are seeing a lot more take-up [of guest invitations] this year.”