The European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) convened in Brussels in recent weeks for its AGM. Members gathered in the morning session to vote on policy, while the afternoon session was dedicated to a series of discussions between panel speakers and the floor.
The main debate featured high profile EMEA operators Grafair, Gama Aviation and NetJets, along with member of European Parliament Marian-Jean Marinescu and statistician Chris Seymour from Ascend, with the subject being the state of business aviation's recovery in Europe.
“I have been in business for 40 years and I have seen the market coming and going during this time,” said Grafair president Bengt Grafstrom. “It is taking a long time to recover on this occasion, but I think it surely will.
“If we are to make things work for business aviation in Europe, there are some things we need to address, and the first of these is ground operations. We need to have our own aviation terminal at each airport, and it shouldn't take more than 30 seconds to go from the taxi to the aircraft, because if people are using expensive aircraft, and paying a lot per hour, ground ops need to work.”
Gama's Marwan Khalek remarked that the ship has steadied, but added that there is a need to manage expectations: “The periods of growth that we experience in this sector go in a cycle which reflects the GDP cycle in the general economy, and the unfortunate thing is that we tend to lead it in the downturn and lag behind it in the up cycle. But apart from that, it mirrors it. Appropriate regulation, airport access and a skill shortage remain at the heart of the constraints to growth. How the industry is perceived is something that we have to address if we are to win any of those battles.”
If the product is compelling, then NetJets Europe ceo Mark Wilson believes that the economic conditions in Europe are ripe for expansion. “What we are doing will not change; we are providing transportation services,” he said. “But how we do it will evolve. We need to work with the authorities in Europe to ensure that, where there are hurdles, we can overcome them.”
MEP Marinescu forwarded the view that aviation is very important for productivity and mobility across Europe, and added that creating jobs is a priority. In his opinion business aviation should be catering for a more widespread market at a lower cost, but his is not a view shared by Khalek: “For me, business aviation comes at a price. What we are fundamentally offering is a time saving, and that is why people use our services. If we are denied the ability to get people from door to door and to closer airports with low vis procedures, we can't survive.
“The one thing you learn from the downturn is that there will always be a cycle, and we mustn't live in those bubbles that we all lived in in 2006 and 2007. Things will turn sour. It is a steeper downturn than we have ever experienced before, but the only thing that is certain is that we will have an upside.”
Grafstrom does not want to see any further operating rule changes in Europe, as there have been three rule changes since 2008, and would like to see a Part 135 type ruling similar to the US for 'on demand' operations. He agrees with Khalek in terms of maintaining the industry's value, and said that 'this is not low cost flying, this is first class and more'.
Perception has been another challenge, and Wilson would like the industry to work harder to alter this: “EBAA is doing great work in that regard, and undoubtedly there is more to come,” he commented.
The final topic concerned a shortage of skilled workers in the industry. Khalek made his position clear: “We have a skill shortage, not a staff shortage. A lot of engineering and ground ops skills are not provided for by state-sponsored education. We are so laden with costs that ultimately our margins are very thin, and as a result the packages and incentives that we can offer our staff are limited and restricted.
“The pay scale in our industry is probably one of the lowest among comparative industries. Any mechanic would earn more working for BMW than they would for any of us. Working Monday to Friday with a good lifestyle rather than working shifts will, of course, appeal.”