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Experienced voices put business aviation into perspective
Companies and individuals have used aircraft for their own business purposes virtually ever since the aeroplane came into existence, but business aviation only truly evolved in the 1960s and 70s.

Companies and individuals have used aircraft for their own business purposes virtually ever since the aeroplane came into existence, but business aviation only truly evolved in the 1960s and 70s. This means that the oldest and wisest heads in the industry can draw on experiences which cover most of the important developments, as well as a whole rollercoaster of political and economic conditions.

In this issue, we have asked for a few words of experience from key people in the cockpit, in ground operations and in air charter management.

Rocco Cellucci

1990: Flight dispatcher at Aliadriatica Today: Accountable manager at AirOne Executive

Rocco Cellucci spent much of his career in commercial aviation, but jumped at the chance to return to business aviation.

“I started in this business in the last century,” he says. “Twenty-three years have passed since my first posting and I must say that I have had the privilege of assisting in major changes in our industry. Just to mention one; who would have thought back in the 90s of the existence of commercial carriers such as Ryanair or easyJet, or in the case of business aviation, the birth of a major factional ownership company such as NetJets? I have seen expansion, recession, consolidation, but in the end more and more people are flying for leisure or business reasons.

“The bottom line is that the world is getting to be a smaller place and our industry is a major actor in the process of opening and integrating worldwide markets.”

Cellucci started as a flight dispatcher for Aliadriatica Airlines in 1990. This airline was one of the first privately owned airlines founded after the deregulation of the Italian domestic market. In less than three years a tight-knit team was able to develop Aliadriatica, a small regional/executive carrier, to fully fledged domestic carrier AirOne.

In AirOne he occupied different positions, including OCC manager, charter sales network, business development manager, and project manager for the implementation of the company fuel policy. He was able to acquire keen knowledge of the Italian commercial and business aviation markets and made good contacts with major corporate and leisure accounts.

Finally in 2008, when the merger between AirOne and Alitalia was decided, Cellucci took the decision to return fully to the business aviation sector and to apply his commercial heritage to this sector. “Even if the last two years have been very challenging in terms of market trends, I do strongly believe that there are still strong growth potentials to come in the near future.

“Fundamental to this is a strong ethos of co-operation between operators and legislators focused on the will to enhance future growth trends. At the same time, operators must focus on cost efficiency, service enhancement and so on to meet clients' high standard requirements and price expectations.”

He believes that the key difference between commercial and business aviation is the need to anticipate every tiny requirement that the customer may have, and go to great lengths to provide for these. “On one flight we discovered that the passenger had the habit of preparing his Vodka Martini himself. We prepared all the tools necessary: shaker, preferred brands of liquor and lemon peels cut in five different ways. We were not sure which would be the preferred one. In the end the passenger was the happiest ever because, even as a frequent flyer, never had he found anybody that went to this detail. We were lucky because he liked the straight simple peel.

“It's a simple story but it points out the fact that in business aviation every flight is unique. Aircraft are all quite similar, but the difference is understanding your clients' needs and making sure that they are satisfied,” he says.

This attitude will have contributed towards his proudest achievement to date; flying over 700 block hours totally chartered on the Falcon 2000LX during 2011.

The aspect of his career which has been most enjoyable has been start-ups. “In this I have had the oppor-tunity to cooperate with people focused on the final objective and also to learn to think with an open mind to accomplish my duties. Last but not least, I have had the joy of transmitting my knowledge to younger and willing co-workers. To these people my advice has always been to be open to new ways of approaching issues. Never be compliant and speak up if not in agreement.”

Capt Warren Redfern

Today: Challenger 605 captain at Rizon Jet

Extensive experience as captain of a wide variety of aircraft over the years has led Rizon Jet's Warren Redfern to fully appreciate the 'family feel' of business aviation which, he says, is not a job – it's an adventure!

Redfern started in business aviation in Calgary, Canada, with SunWest International Aviation Services and still remembers his first turboprop rating, the Fairchild Metro, like it was yesterday. “I loved flying that airplane,” he says. “I received my first jet rating on the Learjet 35, also known as the 'Ferrari of the skies', due to its compact size and speed. Now I am enjoying the privilege of flying every model of Challenger.

“Most of my career I have been a captain on every aircraft I've flown. With my extensive experience and knowledge of the varied aircraft types, I have had the pleasure to mentor colleagues new to business aviation, helping them become proficient and knowledgeable in the industry and aircraft types, a role I very much enjoy.”

He advises newcomers to business aviation that it is completely different from scheduled commercial aviation. “You need to be very flexible in our business as our flying is rarely scheduled. While commercial aircraft converted to a business aircraft may have larger crews, the majority of business aircraft are limited to three: a captain, co-captain/first officer and a flight attendant. With a small crew teamwork and communication is critical, relying on each other for safety, efficiency and professionalism. I love the family feel this brings to my life.

“There is the benefit of often flying with many of the same clients on a regular or repeated basis. This means getting to know their personal preferences and requirements, and being able to anticipate and surpass their expectations on the next flight. Confidentiality is undeniably the most important factor for our passengers, and must be highly respected at all times. This builds trust, comfort and confidence, which is definitely an enjoyable aspect of business aviation.

“These details all make business aviation a great business to be in. I've been in it for over two decades and I still love it. Every day is a new challenge and learning experience no matter where you are flying or who you are flying with.

“Business aviation in itself is a non-standard business, catering to the varying preferences and destinations of the individual owners and clients. The varied confidential career and character building experiences will remain incredible memories for me. While my diverse worldwide experiences are not particularly unusual for this unique industry, my most unusual passengers have been Falcon hunting birds.

“In 2000 I had the honour of flying ex-US President George H Bush, his wife Barbara and ex-Prime Minister of the UK, John Major. In 2001, I also had the honour of flying ex-US President Bill Clinton. The kindness and graciousness shown by such influential figures will always remain as memorable pages in my aviation history book.

“A significant milestone for every aviator, flying my 10,000th hour, is still one of my greatest achievements. I am thankful to my family, friends and colleagues, whose patience and support have guided me along the way.

“When you first learn to fly you are taught the basic skills of hand flying (stick and rudder). You should always be working on improving those skills no matter what airplane you fly. Flying most modern airplanes today is all about systems management. Most commercial and business aircraft are computers that fly, with automation being very dominant in these aircraft. Like anything else it can fail and you have to be able to revert back to your skills of stick and rudder, which is why hand flying is still important to practice.

“We are unique professionals that get to travel and experience the world, something most people don't have the opportunity to do. Flying isn't just a job – it's an adventure, one that I enjoy very much. You can't help but smile when you hear the words 'cleared for take-off, have a nice flight'.”

Peter Hartmann

1983: Dispatcher at Jet Aviation Today: CEO of Premium Jet AG

Many executives in business aviation started out as a humble dispatcher, but for Peter Hartmann joining Jet Aviation at Zurich in 1983 was the first step to becoming the ceo of his own business. Adventures along the way have included having to stem a fuel leak onboard one flight with chewing gum.

Other incidents that stick in his mind include successfully getting permission to land on Galapagos with a business jet, and avoiding a positioning flight out of overcrowded Hong Kong Kai Tak by claiming to be continuously charging the aircraft batteries for a week.

Hartmann says his greatest achievements are the build-up of ExecuJet's European fleet between 2001 and 2009 from 20 to over 65 aircraft, opening up two additional AOCs and the Moscow office, and then successfully opening up Premium Jet.

He feels that business aviation has changed from a 'can do' environment to an (almost) over-regulated business, and advises youngsters starting out in business aviation to “learn the basics and don't trust computers in everything. A clear brain and knowledge lets one use aids such as a computer to the fullest extent and the best advantage.”

This clear head has been vital to Hartmann on a number of occasions, among them landing in a private 727 on Midway (then still military), and suffering three bird strikes on landing, and one on take-off leading to a last-minute abort and engine repairs. Another bird strike on the second take-off did no damage so the rescue aircraft from Hawaii turned back and the owner asked for champagne on passing 2,000 feet.

Temporarily closing off that fuel leak after landing in Saipan, required the whole crew to chew gum which was then held tight until reaching the next maintenance station for a permanent fix.

One landing on Fiji took place in such hard rain that the runway was only visible by the bright lights of the 'running rabbit', and without enough fuel to divert because the alternate had the same weather forecast. “We got soaking wet to the bones just by opening the door underneath the tail,” says Hartmann.

Stumbling over the foot of a bodyguard and tumbling towards a minister required a level head when he found himself looking down the barrel of the other bodyguard's gun.

The clear head was less in evidence when breaking a toe trying to save a paper strip flight plan from being ripped apart, “because I would have had to do the whole thing again, and this was time consuming in those, admittedly early, days.”

Eric Kriner

Today: Postholder ground operations at ProAir Aviation

Eric Kriner's flying career continues, as he still holds an ATP and IFR licence, but now he is bringing his communication skills to the fore in a vital ground role for ProAir Aviation.

He has been with the company for five years and now runs flight planning, overflight and landing permissions as well as crew planning with his co-workers on a 24/7 basis. In addition to ProAir's fleet of ten aircraft, ProAir ground ops handle all operational matters for other operators and aircraft as well.

Kriner is “a 100 per cent aviation guy”. He holds an American commercial seaplane licence and has worked as a flight instructor in the US and Germany. He flew floatplanes in Alaska in the mid-90s. Being an instructor in the flying club at Ramstein airbase had its special challenges: “A traffic pattern with F-16 Tomahawk fighter and Piper PA28 is special for pilots and controller alike.”

His first job in ground operations started in 1998 with a different German operator, and he enjoys the fact that no working day compares with the other.

Kriner particularly remembers one special medical flight. “A young boy had hurt his leg badly and needed to be flown from northern Germany to the south. The closest departure airport was a military airport. First the landing request was denied because on that specific day they had a change of the commander with a big celebration. But once they heard the background of the flight there was no further discussion, the aircraft was allowed to land and the injured child was flown to hospital back home.

“Business aviation from the ground operations perspective has changed. On one hand there are more airport and slot restrictions than ever, but on the other hand it has become easier and more efficient to obtain overflight and landing permits.

“The key to a smooth operation is a proper communication flow and state-of-the-art technical equipment to be able to respond to internal and external customers needs at any place and any time.”

Marwan Khalek

1983: Set up an air taxi business with a Beech Baron Today: Group ceo of resulting international operator Gama Aviation

To actually make a commercial success of a business aviation enterprise is difficult, and involves setting aside any love of flying in favour of hard-headed business, says Marwan Khalek.

“We started with a Beech Baron in the air taxi world, one of a few small operators. Most of the market in those years was moving jockeys around and sponsors for horse races. Then in 1984, at the tail end of the recession, there was a big operator and Beechcraft dealer called Eagle Aircraft Services which was based at Leavesden, that went out of business. That created an opportunity for us to get into the King Air market, which was very different.”

In those days operators were much smaller and there were not as many of them, and Khalek thinks it would now be much more difficult to start up a charter business in this way. “It might be possible to do it, but is it a viable business – no. The barriers to entry are a lot, lot harder these days and consume a lot more resources. You can do anything if you plough a lot more money into it, but for somebody to put a business plan together that is sustainable, starting the way that we did – I think that would be very, very difficult.”

Reflecting on the current economic crisis, Khalek has a long-term perspective: “Until the early/mid 2000s I would have described this sector of the industry as one that had very tough times or less tough times. I would never have described it as one that would have had 'good' times. The period 2004-2007 was the only real boom time. I think the market has entered into the downturn which has been more savage than previous times, but the industry as a whole has come into it with more fat on it.

“That is why business failures are happening three or four years down the line, because the recession is prolonged and the fat has been burnt off. In our case, I am pleased to say that we have a diversified business and we are not as heavily dependent on charter. As a result we have been able to weather it a lot better.

“Until about 1988/89 we were predominately what the industry calls an air taxi operator and our emphasis was on buying or leasing aircraft that we sold on the air charter market. That is a very tough business model and one that is very capital expensive with high risks, and the problem is you have a very high fixed cost base. So your ability to cut back in a recession is very limited and makes it much harder.

“Fifteen years in, we thought that there must be a better way, and decided consciously to take the business in a couple of directions. One is to get into maintenance, and one is to get into aircraft management and start providing a wider scope of services. “We felt that to get to the next level we needed to get some inward investment into the business, so we took on a private equity investor with a 33 per cent interest in late 2007 that we used to fund the next phase of our growth and development. And really that was to take a core business model that was reasonably diversified which was working successfully in the UK and, first of all build on it and expand it further in the UK and Europe, but also to roll it out and replicate in other parts of the world.

“The timing of launching into that – perhaps literally six months or so before Lehmans – was not great, but I don't regret it at all. If you have been in the business as long as we have, and as long as we would like to be, then there are going to be ups and downs.

“We are in the Middle East and we are opening up in Hong Kong and China. We are keeping a very close watching brief on Africa and it is certainly a market we will go into at some stage because we aspire to be a truly total global company and business aviation service provider, but at the moment I think, like everything else, we don't have unlimited resources and the resources we have are best deployed elsewhere.”

So does Khalek still fly himself? “Not that you might want to come along with me! Once I started the business I progressed to becoming a commercial pilot and I did fly for a period of time on both the Baron and the King Air. I gave up what I would call serious line flying probably in early 90s. It was getting to the stage where I needed to focus on either flying or on running a business.”

In fact, it is the business aspect of business aviation which has provided the personal highlights of his career: “Starting a business, and the roller-coaster ride that you have in the first ten years of running a business, was very exciting. I started the business at age 23 and there was a great spirit in the industry. There was a lot of fun associated with it. It is still enjoyable but it is a different type of enjoyment. There is a lot more responsibility that you feel on your shoulders.

“There are lots of people within in this industry that I have a great deal of respect for, what they have done and what they have achieved and the values they have brought into their business, and to be honest they are too numerous to mention.

“At some stage people have to make the transition, from it being a hobby that they want to do to being a serious business. I think one of the lessons I have learned is that there were too many of us pilots, aviators and people who like the business that didn't make that transition, and what I think that taught me is that I needed to make that transition. Giving up the line flying was perhaps part of that.

“I was lucky to be in a business that I liked and I wasn't doing it because of the pleasure flying was giving me day to day. It was the pleasure that any business gives you. You have to make that transition. I have seen a many people who sadly have not made that transition and are not here to tell that tale in business terms.”

But it is not all hard-headed business; the Beech Baron has returned. “We've actually bought it back recently. We sold it mid-90s and it was brought to my attention that it was for sale so we bought it back and we are about to start the restoration project on it. That is a bit of sentiment – what the hell. You've got to have a bit of that!”

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