Private flight provider VistaJet is approaching the end of an ambitious investment cycle that has seen it take its global fleet to more than 70 aircraft. With about two more new aircraft to be delivered in the next few months, the Europe-based operator now plans to take a break from rapid fleet expansion as it re-assesses longer-term needs. The fleet size has doubled since 2014.
“The number of aircraft we have now allows us to offer a truly global service,” explained chief commercial officer Ian Moore. “For the next 12 to 24 months, we won’t have much need to take more aircraft. But after that it could change, and certainly there has been a slowdown in growth.”
Since it was founded in 2004 by Swiss entrepreneur Thomas Flohr, VistaJet has shared a close bond with Bombardier to the extent that its fleet consists entirely of the Canadian airframer’s Global and Challenger aircraft. The company has always argued that the consistent quality and appearance of its aircraft is a key attraction and point of reassurance for clients.
Moore explained that the operator has always invited tenders for new aircraft from other manufacturers, but to date has found no reason to stray from the Bombardier fold. “In the future, anything goes,” he told AIN, while in the same breath adding that, for now, he views the Challenger 650 as the best super midsize jet and the Global 6000 the best in the large-cabin class. In the background, Flohr, himself, holds delivery positions for more than one of the new Global 7000 model, and they're due to be delivered two years from now.
According to VistaJet, the number of flights it made in the first quarter of 2017 was 28 percent higher than in the same period of 2016. “In Europe, we’ve seen an even higher rate of growth than this, which is a pleasant surprise, because you might imagine that Europe would be our most mature market,” Moore commented.
Despite having a somewhat flat economy, Europe’s business aviation sector is boosted by the large number of wealthy non-Europeans who either visit often or are based there part of the time. Moore referred to this part of his clientele as “global citizens,” and they are clearly significant consumers of VistaJet’s services.
Last year, VistaJet moved its global headquarters to the Mediterranean island nation of Malta, giving it a firm bedrock within the European Union. There it claims to be the biggest employer in the country’s growing business aviation community. The group-wide payroll includes colleagues of 54 different nationalities.
VistaJet offers both ad hoc charter flights but also its so-called "programs," which are essentially tailor-made packages of flight hours and special rates. According to Moore, the past 18 months have seen exceptionally strong program sales, with the gross value of these sales, to both new customers and renewing customers, roughly doubling.
Within defined service areas for different parts of the world, VistaJet offers guaranteed one-way pricing with no ferrying costs to position aircraft. The existing service areas include Europe, Russia and the CIS, the Indian subcontinent, Asia, and some parts of Africa. The company intends to expand into South America.
Just over three years ago, VistaJet launched services in the U.S. through an alliance with Jet Aviation, which operates aircraft under its AOC. The European group now has its own sales office in New York City, with 30 staff.
“We’re continually pushing the U.S. market,” said Moore. “It’s still at an early stage, but in the last 12 months we have seen [U.S. clients] validating our point that it’s best to get out of holding the [aircraft] asset. We’re speaking with more and more corporate customers and individuals and convincing them that the hassle of owning the aircraft just can’t be justified by the amount of time they spend flying.”
VistaJet is a strong believer in the so-called shared economy and feels that shared use of aircraft is a prime aspect of this concept. “It is wasteful for companies not to share key infrastructure like this and a strong advantage for them not to have assets like this on their books,” argued Moore, acknowledging that perception issues continue to make direct ownership of aircraft difficult for some companies.
Moore also reported further growth in its activities in the Asian market, despite the fact that China, for now, continues to be constrained by government austerity measures. “Asia is a strong market for us,” he said. “China is not an easy place to market money, but you have to be committed to it and do more than place a couple of old Hawkers there. There is generally a reluctance in this industry to go to new regions and commit to them.”
Quizzed as to how new business models involving applications promising direct real-time access to charter aircraft might impact VistaJet’s business, Moore appeared unperturbed. “I don’t see how an electronic version of a broker will change our world,” he concluded. “People still buy services like this from other people. If you don’t own the aircraft you are putting on your app, how can you tell your users that they are available? Owners can be volatile [in terms of their willingness to let aircraft be chartered], and the owner-release element is very important. Everyone wants to be Uber in the air, but I’m not sure it can be that homogenous.”
VistaJet founder and chairman Thomas Flohr has repeatedly told reporters that every 10 years or so the business aviation sector is bound to be challenged by an upstart wanting to disrupt the status quo. His company was that upstart more than a decade ago. It now appears to be at an inflection point in terms of how much further the bond-backed business can grow.