AIN Interview: TAG Group president addresses AMI certificate action

 - November 27, 2007, 11:57 AM

Mansour Ojjeh and his brother Aziz are principals of Luxembourg-based TAG Group Holdings, which they inherited from their father, Akram Ojjeh, upon his death in 1991. Mansour is president and Aziz is vice president. Both are Swiss citizens, were educated in the U.S. and are now in their fifties. TAG is the acronym of Techniques d’Avant Garde.

Akram Ojjeh, who founded TAG in 1975, has been described as “an industrialist and a negotiator.” Born in 1923 in Damascus, Syria (though some reports say Baghdad and others claim he was Saudi Arabian, probably because he was granted citizenship in that country by King Abdul Aziz), Akram Ojjeh went to France in 1940 on a scholarship, eventually obtaining five university degrees. He was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur. His wide-ranging business interests involved, among other things, construction, real estate, resorts and a French regional airline and included companies in the U.S., Europe, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Sudan. He also negotiated the sale of armaments between French companies and Saudi Arabia. According to a 1978 New York Times article, “Mr. Ojjeh dislikes the term ‘arms dealer.’ He comments: ‘After all, we do not buy and sell and stock arms. We are not an agent or an intermediary. We help, in our small way, to sell capital goods and equipment as well as arms.’”

Today the TAG Group oversees a worldwide network of enterprises focused on commercial real estate, motor racing (the TAG-McLaren Formula One team, co-owned with Daimler Chrysler) and business aviation. From 1985 to 1999, TAG also owned Swiss watch-maker Heuer, which it renamed TAG Heuer and sold for a reported $789 million. TAG Aviation Holding, based in Geneva, includes subsidiaries TAG Aviation USA, TAG Aviation SA, TAG Aviation (UK), TAG Aviation Espana, TAG Aviation Asia and TAG Farnborough Airport. TAG Aeronautics, separate from TAG Aviation Holding, holds the distributorship of Bombardier business jets in the Middle East and Turkey. TAG Aviation USA holds a minority share of fractional provider CitationShares.

TAG Aviation USA owns 49 percent of AMI Jet Charter and acted as a charter broker for AMI flights. The FAA suspended AMI Jet Charter’s Part 135 certificate on October 4, then revoked it on October 12 “for allowing entities that do not hold air carrier certificates [mainly TAG Aviation USA] to exercise control over flights and for failing to keep records needed to ensure continued safety.” Instead of contesting the revocation, TAG Aviation Holding and TAG Aviation USA on November 8 agreed to a settlement with the FAA that includes the FAA’s acknowledgement that neither company admits to any wrongdoing while paying a $10 million civil penalty.

Mansour Ojjeh spoke with AIN at the Dubai Airshow last month

How much of your time do you spend on TAG’s aviation businesses?
Because I’m the president of the whole group, I don’t run the business on a day-to-day basis. In both companies [TAG Aviation Holding and TAG Aeronautics] we have a very competent management. So I’m not day-to-day managing it, but I am day-to-day with the people on the phone.

What happened to TAG Aviation USA and AMI Jet Charter?
The whole thing for me is very bizarre. Two years ago the DOT and the local FAA office together worked with us. We separated the companies so that TAG USA owned 49 percent of AMI Jet Charter. The other 51 percent was owned by bona fide U.S. citizens approved by the DOT and local FAA office. It was running like this for two years. Then the directive of A008 about operational control came into effect. Working with the FAA local office, we put a system in place whereby there was an agency relationship with the pilots. Everything was done in accordance with the FAA. Everything was working fine.

One day out of the blue [in March] the FAA came from Washington, saying, “Listen, we don’t care about our local office,” and started asking questions. They disrupted our business for seven months, never told us what the investigation was about, subpoenaed documents, interviewed our clients, pilots, insurance companies and banks. It seemed like we were treated like some kind of rogue organization.

They never told us what they were investigating. If they were to come to us and say, “Listen, we have an issue with this, this and that,” we could have told them, “This is what you’re looking for, that’s what we do.” I don’t understand why they treated us this way. And what the FAA said about the revocation, that they took it because of safety reasons–what safety reason? Operationally, they haven’t found anything wrong with us.

I think it’s the legal team of the FAA that led this whole thing. They revoked our license and said it was because of foreign ownership. They screwed up our business. We are selling the business, and I feel especially bad for our people because I feel that we had probably some of the best people in the industry working for us. It is our people that make TAG Aviation and its reputation and these guys were proud to work for the company, and I think they feel cheated. I like to be very loyal to people who work hard for us and they did a great job even under stress like that. So I really don’t like the way I was treated by the FAA, don’t like the result of shutting down one of the best businesses in the U.S. and I feel bad for all our people.

Did the FAA give you any indication at all? Was there one particular thing that caused it to revoke the certificate?
They say it’s foreign ownership. Basically, they were saying that TAG Aviation was somehow controlling AMI Jet Charter. But we set it up with the approval of the DOT and the approval of the local FSO. I have a feeling that this witch hunt targeted the biggest company in the U.S. to send a message to everybody else: “Look. We can bring these guys down. Imagine what we can do to you.” But I really don’t know what the objective is.

Did you ever try to talk to someone at the FAA?

You can’t talk to anybody. They won’t talk to you.

You tried?
We tried. Yes. You can’t talk to them.

How do you feel about the foreign ownership regulations in the U.S.?
Usually there is reciprocity. How can an American company, 100-percent owned by Americans, that has European-registered aircraft based in Europe compete with us? We can’t do it the other way around. That doesn’t seem right.

This issue should be taken up in Brussels. I don’t know if I have the time or patience to do it. But that’s where it should go. It’s not fair. I have nothing against our competitors, but why? Why can they do it and we cannot do it? This is what I cannot understand. It doesn’t make sense.

Some people suggest there could be a Homeland Security issue. What do you think?
Why? We’re an American company.

What about your background? Your father’s background?
What does that have to do with it? If that’s the issue, why didn’t they come and talk to me about it? My father’s my father. He died 16, 17 years ago. This is a business we started. We bought American companies that we merged and we had American management owned by a European holding company. If you have a problem with us, with some shareholders, you should come and let us know.

Why did you decide to settle with the FAA and sell the company instead of fighting the FAA’s revocation order?
We wanted to take care of our customers, our management and our employees. It’s hard to emotionally step back from this thing. I think at the beginning everybody from the top management to the shareholders was frustrated. But we quickly realized we had to take the emotions out of this and try to maintain shareholder value as much as we could and take care of our customers. I think the management did a fantastic job. Really. I think all the people did a great job considering the time constraints. I thank them for that.

Do you feel TAG is getting a good price from Sentient?

Put it this way, I think we could have done a better deal had we not been cheated by the FAA. It’s sort of a sale under duress, and you never get the same price. We could have had two or three people bid for the company, because it is a very good company.

Will you be able to transfer all the employees to Sentient?
I don’t know exactly. It’s in the process. There’s the process of changing the certificate and reorganization of the company. I think it will happen quite quickly.

Will you go back into the U.S. charter market?
No. No. Well imagine: we’d have to start from scratch. Why?

You could buy another charter company.
But I’d have to start all over again. Well, you can never say never, but we have our hands full internationally, so I think that’s what we’re going to concentrate on.

You mentioned the emotional side. Are you over that?
I’m over it, but initially I was extremely, extremely upset. I put this company together. I have shareholders, people, great management. There’s no reason to be treated this way. If the FAA has a problem, come talk to me. What’s all this secrecy? What are all the subpoenas? Why all the depositions? Why? Are we laundering money, are we fraudulent, are we running drugs, did we kill somebody? No. Come and talk to us. What we did with the DOT two years ago is not acceptable to you now? OK. Then we can change. Give us six months. If we can’t fix it, then we can sell the business.

But why this question mark? Why? They’re trying to show their muscles. They’re a federal agency. That’s not the way. They really hurt themselves in the industry because we had a lot of support in the industry. Everybody rallied behind us saying, “What’s wrong with these guys?”

What’s the future of TAG Aviation?
I think the future looks very good for TAG Aviation. I think Europe is growing at an unbelievable pace, even more than the U.S. in the last couple of years. Four years ago we had four aircraft under management in Europe. This year we’re going to end up the year with 75-plus aircraft and we have contracted up to 90 airplanes. So Europe is really growing fast.

We are growing in terms of [aircraft] management; we’re growing in terms of charter; we are expanding our maintenance facilities. We are at full capacity in Geneva and close to having the permit to double that capacity to build a new hangar there. The board approved that and it’s going to be announced. We are also going to build another bay of hangars in Farnborough, because we’re getting to full capacity there. Hopefully, we can build it by the Farnborough Air Show next year. And we are expanding in other places in the world, in China and Australia.

If you could turn back the clock, is there anything that you would do differently?
Well, had I known that they were going to revoke our license, I would have no other choice but to sell the company. We were very happy. We had a fantastic organization in the U.S. The U.S. was growing. We had 700 pilots, 150-plus airplanes and a great reputation.