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Business Air News Bulletin
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PERSPECTIVES – Business aviation through the eyes of the charter broker: Direct approach that makes the middle men see red
The charter broker has to guard against operators who would like to cut out the middle man and work ever harder to earn a living good enough to justify the hours and the stress.

The charter broker has to guard against operators who would like to cut out the middle man and work ever harder to earn a living good enough to justify the hours and the stress. Some countries, and some clients, are easier than others.

Holger Rathje of FlightTime GmbH says that in some countries like the US, chartering an aircraft is like renting a car. "They just want to fly from A to B." But: "In Germany it is still a little special to charter an aircraft for a business trip, although more and more managers are becoming aware of the advantages. The price in most cases is the most important factor, followed by comfort."

Hard work goes with the territory. "So you always have a Smartphone with you – that's because a more or less good lifestyle is the result of a lot of work."

Professional knowledge can often be used to point clients in the right direction where the choice of aircraft is concerned. Rathje says: "In some airports, like Stuttgart, you can operate in the night with a turboprop but not with a jet or airliner."

Some operators add to the broker's difficulties. These include those that contact the end client after the flights in order to try to do business directly. But: "In most cases the operators are very fair and very professional."

The air charter broker must be able to cope with increasing competition. Gokcehan Dace, md of Apron Aviation, says there are more than 1,000 companies and independent agents that offer the services of renting an air ambulance, air cargo and jet/helicopter in the EMEA region. "However, only a few of these organisations will have the chance to survive and grow in the future."

He says brokers need to provide 24-7 accessibility, flexibility in the pricing, reliability and success in managing international operations to successfully create client loyalty.

The Turkish market, he says, has its own problems. "It has an important and strategic place in international air transport but air taxi operations do not have a solid base. In the last ten years, many such companies have been established but there are still hundreds of applications that are waiting for approval at the Turkish civil aviation authority."

Dace says the charter broker can seem to be a cell phone and laptop addict. "The time difference between countries means you need to be ready for the job at any moment. It is not good business to talk in a sleepy tone with a customer even if they call you at 3 am or to ask them, as it is night time here, if they can be called back tomorrow."

He concedes: "Sometimes brokers who are very successful in their jobs inevitably fail to maintain their private lives in a healthy way because of the never-ending stress and the demanding 24-7 pace of the work."

Brokers and operators in the rotary sector also have to deal with high expectations, according to Annette Barnardo-Le Negrate and Rachel Kelly of Heli Riviera. Kelly says: "All nationalities have a high level of expectation, especially in the luxury helicopter charter business. Our aim is to provide a smooth and seamless experience for the client, so that they do not need to worry about any of the small details and therefore have a pleasant and enjoyable experience."

Barnardo-Le Negrate adds: "The client does not always have the time to 'shop around' for the best deal in terms of quality and price, so we do the hard work for them. We ensure that they benefit from the best quality aircraft at the best price and we have charter partners all over the world so we are in a good position to be able to offer this service."

Kelly confirms: "We can be required to work with very short deadlines and at odd hours. However, once everything has gone according to plan, it is very satisfying. You never know what's next; that is what makes this job so interesting. We get all sorts of requests – anything from a 10-day charter in Kilimanjaro to a surprise stag party where the groom was dropped off in a secret location."

Jens Dreyer of Aviation Broker, which was founded in 2001, says the last 10 years have brought massive changes and increased competition with its related impact on lifestyle. "When we started, there were maybe 10 to 15 broker companies active in Germany. As a consequence of the good years from 2004 to 2008 that number increased massively. The market seems to get bigger but you always meet the same people. We see many companies come and go but the people keep on working in various firms. That makes the market small and familiar. It is always good knowing the people you deal with."

Brokers and operators in Western Europe will face ever-increasing competition from Eastern Europe and to survive the broker always needs to bear in mind and cater to the different mentalities of different countries.

Dreyer says: "Eastern European citizens sometimes demonstrate their understanding of the capitalist system by enquiring through dozens of brokers and carriers for the same trip, shopping for the best price. The line between a reasonable price-comparison and fair behaviour is rather blurred.

"If money is the criteria for a good lifestyle, I would say 'Yes, in order to earn that money you have a stressful life.' You just cannot do that job with a nine-to-five approach".

Some charter operators are more difficult to work with than others. "But to be fair: if you ask the carriers, they would also report that some brokers are more difficult than others."

Julian Burrell, md of The Charter Company, reports marked differences between countries when it comes to expectations to do with chartering of aircraft. "In the Middle East, generally price is the overriding factor and there is a lot of bargaining that goes on. They like to know a little bit of background to the operator, but are not as interested about the age of the aircraft in the same way as clients in other parts of the world. Catering has to be good, but passengers generally do not ask for anything in particular." Chartering an aircraft will often be left until the last minute.

In Russia and the CIS price is important but clients are also very particular when it comes to aircraft age. They will often not only stipulate a maximum age and layout of interior but will request very specific catering on board, often asking for it to come from their favourite restaurant. "They are quite organised and will often book months in advance, especially if they are booking to fly during the main holiday periods," Burrell reports.

He adds: "Some periods can be quieter than others, but of course it can be stressful when there are several charters happening at once. However, generally the life of a charter broker is interesting and varied. A charter broker is there to provide a client with the most suitable aircraft options for a particular charter, and at the best market prices.

"However, should a client be set on an unsuitable aircraft, then it is the broker's responsibility to explain to the client why it would be unwise to use it. This has to be done showing good aircraft knowledge and reasoning on why a particular aircraft may not be suitable."

Burrell points out that the broker must take into account that some operators do more chartering than others. He says: "An operator that is mainly there to fly for its aircraft owner may not have as much experience chartering to others and are sometimes less flexible, especially when it comes to last minute schedule changes.

"Operators who are easier to work with are those that simplify the job of a broker. They do this by keeping the broker informed at all times, eg during the planning stage of a flight they will inform a broker when overflight and landing permits have been granted, on the day of a flight they will give punctual updates on actual times of departure and arrival. This is information a broker needs."

Mark Green, director of Oxygen Aviation Ltd, says: "It is often the case that the inexperienced clients are the hardest work: a broker's job is to educate the client about aircraft – about how to gain the most benefit from the private jet experience. We treat every client the same in terms of size of flight and brokerage effort, but it can be frustrating when a client wants to negotiate £1,000 on a £5,000 deal. These are challenges that a broker needs to learn to handle.

"They need to remember that while they are booking the jet and are the operator's client, they are not sitting on the aircraft and should be respectful to the operator. That said, we are very selective with our VLJ and light jet operators, some of whom comfortably out-punch their MTOW in terms of service. They should be proud of this and we are proud to put our clients on their aircraft."

Green says: "A clever man once told me that, as a broker, if you want to take the credit when things go well, you need to take the grief when thing don't go so well. Generally and thankfully things go well but the problem is that aircraft are machines and pilots are human – occasionally one or both let you down.

"As the interface between airline and client, these times are when a broker truly shows their mettle. It can be tremendously stressful and as a broker, it is a high-pressured environment. The relationship between broker and airline can be strained at times, but what a broker needs to remember is that without the airlines, we have no product ... what some airlines need to remember is that without brokers, they have fewer clients."

Green says: "I personally welcome it if the airlines spend a day in our office to see the things we deal with before we speak to them. Likewise we have sent our staff for day placements at airlines and handling agents so they see things from the airline's perspective. They then see the industry from all angles, this give the individual a 360° view and on-the-job training."

At the end of the day, what the client wants, the client gets. "As a broker, clients utilise our expertise, just because the client asks for a Citation XLS, it doesn't mean we can't suggest a Challenger for the right route and vice versa. If there is an attractive price on a light jet we will offer it.

"I recall a particular client who wanted to fly from London to the Middle East: she asked for a light jet for four passengers. We offered a Learjet 60 that would fly direct and a Citation Jet that we'd made available, with our advice that it wouldn't be particularly comfortable with a fuel-stop. They took the Citation Jet but it works the other way more often than not. As a broker, we do have a responsibility to develop new aircraft types, so when a client asks for a well established brand such as 'Citation' or 'Challenger' it is our job to offer a competitive Phenom or Legacy – the client then chooses."

Brokers say that some carriers' attitudes can change with the market. Some airlines can take a very arrogant stance and be inflexible. Others, which are preferred by brokers, apply a common sense attitude to business and service. Those operators that apply stringent cancellation terms, those that run two charters too tightly and are difficult to communicate with are those that cause brokers headaches. A good broker knows these operators and it is in the client's best interest going forward to use the most flexible.

The lifestyle of an air charter broker depends on their clients. Robert Almqvist, md Nordic Air Brokers AB, says urgent requests mean it is not nine-to-five work and it is unlikely you will be employed with this type of contract. "Quite often we work with tight deadlines and if you're able to handle this, it's a great type of job."

The job, Almqvist points out, includes everything from marketing to contracts. "You need to have some kind of aviation background with a service-minded approach. If you in addition have some legal education you're definitely in the spotlight for this kind of job. At Nordic Air Brokers we've been looking for an individual with this type of profile and it's not easy to find."

Ocean Sky, which has developed a flight brokerage office in Dubai, says choosing the right local operator for an evacuation flight will be important, especially if civil unrest spreads further across the Middle East and Arab North Africa (the Maghreb).

Neil Backhouse, Dubai office manager, says: "A critical factor in arranging such flights is securing the necessary landing permits, which can be difficult at short notice unless you know the national aviation authorities. As personal relationships continue to have great importance in the Middle East, we would advise anyone booking an evacuation flight to choose an operator who can call on existing links throughout the region."

Backhouse says careful thought is also advisable in the choice of evacuation flight crews. "Nationality is always a sensitive topic in the Middle East, and particularly at times of political stress. The passports carried by crew members may influence how a flight is treated by certain national authorities. Conceivably, in some countries, a British or US passport could create delays or issues that an Arab or Australian passport might not."

According to Backhouse, who has worked in the Middle East for a decade, this sort of local knowledge is essential for flight brokers. "Charter customers want their travel organised smoothly and, usually, at short notice. This is particularly true in an evacuation, when delays or disappointments can cause frayed tempers or worse. The broker therefore has a special responsibility to understand the Middle East's business culture and the measures necessary for the customer's objectives to be met."

There is an advantage in having a sister fleet with an international base. The Ocean Sky group has offices in Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Russia and manages a fleet that ranges from Airbus aircraft to the Cessna Citation Mustang.

Richard Seeberg of Skybrokers, giving a perspective from Oslo, points out that the straightforward days have gone for ever. "The air broker business, to my mind, has changed somewhat pricewise when you compare the scheduled airlines and chartered aircraft.

"Some 20 years ago we had the Apex tickets which were limited per flight. The alternative was full price tickets which a chartered flight could compete against and this applied to larger aircraft, the 50 to 200-plus seaters. Today's scheduled airlines offer such cheap seats in addition to being able to obtain up to over 100 seats on a single flight that the chartered aircraft don't stand much of a chance pricewise.

"Two empty legs will, in any case, ruin the calculations. There are a few exceptions where the chartered aircraft stand a chance, but generally they are losing out more than before."

The era of cheap travel means doing profitable business is tougher but the way of negotiating is more or less the same. Seeberg says: "It can be stressful in, for instance, central Europe, where chartering aircraft is much more common than up here in Scandinavia where the charter market is more limited. We inform the client of the advantages and disadvantages and let him decide. The response often depends on the country and any language barrier we experience."

Thierry S Huguenin of TSH aero says some clients have a focus that is bound to cause stress.

"What astonishes me quite often is how some charterers put price considerations well before their very own safety! And by 'own safety', I mean the safety of their family or close entourage as well. This is probably what continues to shock me the most in our business."

But Huguenin says: "Our relationship with operators is usually very good. I believe most operators understand now more than ever the true value of cooperating with a good and honest broker and affiliations to associations such as the Baltic Air Charter Association (BACA) or the Air Charter Association of North America (ACANA). TSH aero is a member of BACA.

Wael Al Marjeh of Jetex Flight Support believes there is a simple bottom line. "Just like every other business in the service industry, your reputation is all you have. A charter broker strives to keep the customer happy. Aviation in particular is very stressful. You deal with flying restrictions, war zones and the like. You cannot allow a client to be bothered with minute details and this means you always have to take great responsibility.

"We work as a consultant and a service provider. If a customer approaches us with a request we try to get him the best possible aircraft. If a customer has an aircraft that we know would not be suitable for their requirements we share our thoughts with them and explain why their aircraft would not work and suggest that they contact a third party charter broker so that they may not feel we are trying to sell them an extra service."

Charter operators, he points out, vary in the standards of their credit terms and in consistency. "When we get a quote from an operator we take it to the customer and wait for a confirmation. When a quote gets accepted by a client we return to the operator only to find out that they have raised the price," Al Marjeh says. "This may sometimes be due to aircraft availability but in most cases is purely done to increase profit. This makes it difficult for a broker because it gives the impression that the broker is trying to make more money and used the first price as bait."

In the end it is a question of always doing your best for the client and putting your needs second. But the happiest brokers are those who learn to enjoy themselves as well.

Chapman Freeborn's Alex Berry sums up the target which cannot always be achieved. He says: "We are very keen to continue the tradition started by Chris Chapman in making sure that our staff enjoy their work and maintain a great work-life balance. Of course, when there is an immediate requirement like the situation in Libya or Egypt our staff will work around the clock to help the customer as much as possible. While evacuation flights are an obvious example, the same can be true of an airline awaiting a spare part, an international rock group on tour or a business delegation on a fundraising trip. Every customer's requirements carry equal importance."

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