European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) secretary-general Athar Husain Khan spoke with AIN in the trade body’s office in Brussels, Belgium, just ahead of EBACE 2022. This year's annual show in Geneva returns to an in-person format after the pandemic forced virtual gatherings in 2020 and 2021. In the interview, Husain Khan addresses the current hot topics for business aviation in Europe: the pandemic, Ukraine war, fuel prices, and sustainability.
What is the general mood of the European business aviation community right now? The industry is only just recovering from the challenges caused by the Covid pandemic and it already has to deal with a new challenge:: the Ukraine-Russia war.
EBAA always said the post-Covid recovery would be led by the business aviation industry because of its agility, flexibility, and speed to adapt to market requirements. This has proved to be right. Last year, and the figures are maintained throughout this year as well, our operators performed better [in terms of flight movements] on average than they have in the past and pre-pandemic.
Growth of aircraft traffic compared to pre-Covid varies between 6 and 8 percent, with peaks of up to 20 percent. So that is very encouraging. But if you look with a bit more depth and more layer, the figures reveal that the growth is primarily domestic and regional intra-Europe because there are still challenges with respect to the operational opportunities intercontinentally.
The U.S. opened up to European operators only four or five months ago, and many restrictions remain in place for flights to the Far East. Looking at Covid, I personally believe the worst is behind us, but we also have to be realistic that in particular, long-haul and profit margins are still under pressure. And, as you rightly point out, now we have to deal with the Ukraine-Russia war.
Russia has been an important market for business aviation here in Europe. For instance, in EBAA’s latest yearbook, Riga International Airport to Moscow Vnukovo ranked as the fifth busiest European airport pair in terms of flight movements, with traffic up a stunning 164 percent in 2021 compared with 2019. How deep is the impact of the war on EBAA and your members?
As EBAA, we are completely horrified by the unnecessary loss of human life and the amount of people displaced, families severed, persons injured in Ukraine. This is absolutely outrageous.
Of course, this is having ramifications on our industry as well. It is difficult to make a detailed assessment, but flights are down about 20 percent. This encompasses not just flights between European and Russian airports or over-Russia flights, but also flights between European airports, such as Nice-London or Vienna-London, with Russian passengers and businesspeople onboard. Moreover, the impact is wider than flights and it is being felt across the full European business aviation value chain that we represent, including FBOs, spare parts, MROs, and OEMs.
How is EBAA assisting its members?
Since the outbreak of the war, we have constantly been advising our members, with almost daily updates, so that they are completely aware what the restrictions and measures are. We set up a dedicated section on our website with policy documents of the European Commission and European Union Aviation Safety Agency and we launched a Q&A with frequently asked questions.
We actively ask our members to contact us with whatever query they might have, and we immediately liaise with our extensive contacts here in Brussels, at the Commission and EASA, to clarify and provide as clear a picture as possible. Also, don’t forget we gained practice in crisis communications during Covid and the labyrinth of permanently changing travel restrictions. We were sort of prepared that there is a lot of grey area that needs to be covered.
We have one overriding advice to our membership: be very prudent, do your due diligence, and ensure you have assessment and acknowledgment in writing from your national authorities. And, when in doubt, don’t do it.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put the spotlight on the Russian oligarchs’ business jets. Has this reawakened a negative perception of business aviation in Europe?
I don’t think it’s worse than it was. Of course, we see all the talking about the Russian yachts and private jets, but I do think the emphasis is more on the first part [Russian] than on the business jets, which makes me less concerned.
In general, I believe that in the last couple of years we have been able to balance the story a bit by showcasing what we do as an industry and the value we bring to society. Certainly during Covid but maybe also during this war, as horrific as it is, we have created some level of recognition and visibility of the business aviation industry in the positive sense because it provides life-saving air transportation in times of public need, including rescue and medical evacuation services.
Will the wider economic impact of the Russia-Ukraine war—high fuel prices and rising inflation—stall the sustainability debate and uptake of expensive sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)?
I can’t see this decreasing or coming to a halt because of the situation the market and the industry is in at the moment. It is certainly not the angle we are taking. And I see governments doubling down on the whole energy transition.
I think we've all come to realize that sustainability is key, it is key for us as an industry, and it is key for society. We want to take up our responsibility. We showcased in the past we have a track record to that effect; we have done that for a couple of decades already and we are going to continue to push.
When we talk about sustainability, it is about sustainability in the broad sense and not just SAF but also innovation with respect to lighter-weight aircraft, operations, and a more efficient air traffic management system.
Is EBAA thus supportive of the European Commission’s Fit for 55 legislative package, including the ReFuelEU Aviation initiative that foresees an EU-wide SAF blending mandate?
In general we are supportive of Fit for 55 for the reasons I just mentioned. Looking at a couple of things more in detail, we are obviously completely in support of SAF, though—and we all know this—there should be more of it available. As EBAA and the business aviation community we advocate the book-and-claim system to mitigate any of the negative effects when it comes to the geographical spread of SAF across the bloc.
As regards to the review of the EU energy taxation directive, we understand and appreciate and accept that the industry [fuel] needs to be taxed. There is a role that we have to play there. However, we feel that private noncommercial, as well as humanitarian, flights should be excluded. Some 10 percent of our operators’ flights are humanitarian and they operate on average 70 life-saving or medical flights per day. Do you really want to tax flights that save life? That would be absurd.
EBACE is an in-person even this year. Are you looking forward to it?
We are very, very much looking forward to connecting face-to-face with the European business aviation community. Initially, when we announced six months ago that we would he holding EBACE 2022 as an in-person event there was a bit of skepticism, but I am proud and happy to say that the reactions we are getting from the market are very positive and enthusiastic.
We have a great program content with interesting keynote speakers and an extensive lineup of the most advanced business aircraft, from renowned European manufacturers such as Airbus, Dassault, and Pilatus, as well as global aircraft OEMs such as Embraer, Gulfstream, Honda Aircraft, and Textron Aviation.
In addition, we will formally launch our STARS—Standards & Training for Aviation Responsibility and Sustainability. EBAA developed this new, three-tiered sustainability standard last year, in cooperation with the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) to increase awareness of social and environmental issues that can be addressed by the industry.