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Marsh Brothers Aviation
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What role will air charter play in the Russian world cup?
Visitors to the World Cup in Russia this summer should expect the usual fun and games in accessing suitable local airports. Struggles for permits, drop and reposition, and patchy service standards could be the order of the day.
Read this story in our April 2018 printed issue.

It starts on 14 June, ends on 15 July, and as of the beginning of April just under one and a half million tickets have been allocated. Initial ticket requests have amounted to over four million and while the highest allocation is to Russians, inter-national demand accounts for 49 per cent. So what does it mean for business aviation? Are the operators of private jets and charter aircraft gearing up for a busy period too? EBAN spoke with a number of charter industry professionals who will be involved with operations around the forthcoming FIFA World Cup in Russia to find out what their expectations are for championship charter.

"The skies over Russia will be busy; the airfields even more so," predicts Universal Weather and Aviation operations communications manager Christine Vamvakas. Eleven cities will play host to the World Cup but only Moscow is served by more than one airport. As home to the opening ceremony and the final, its airports should see the heaviest concentrations of traffic.

The airports serving Russia's other host cities are also likely to experience an increase in movements. However they are smaller facilities with a reduced ability to handle aircraft and fewer parking spots. Vamvakas says parking at smaller airfields will likely not be permitted for any aircraft unless it is a specified diplomatic flight or is transporting one of the official teams. In fact this is likely to be extended to most airports. "Everybody else is only permitted to come in, drop off and pick up," she says. "Time on the ground is going to range from anywhere between 40 minutes to two hours. The difference all depends on how many people are on board." Notwithstanding, the company is expecting a lot of traffic from both private and charter flights for the duration of the event.

Who's flying what and where

Fly Comlux has received several enquiries to date says CEO Andrea Zanetto, and as is typical in business aviation, the larger the aircraft, the earlier the enquiry comes in. He has seen greater interest from delegations for the company's wide bodied aircraft, and is now the happy operator for one, or possibly two, football teams. "The wide bodies are amazing," he says. "We have the 777 which is a fantastic machine for VVIPs such as the teams while the 767 cabin interior is suitable for VIP head of state business, governments and official delegations." He expects the 767 to be booked nearer the time, as will his fleet of midsize, super midsize and heavy business jets, by representatives, corporations, families and other ticket holders.

The challenge of flying to major sports events

Zanetto anticipates operations all over Russia during the tournament. He says Vnukovo airport is the best for business aviation, although he is sure his biggest challenge will be getting the ACJ, BBJs and the wide bodies in. Other airports will accommodate these types more easily.

Fly Comlux has experience in flying to high profile events of this kind, such as the G8 and G20 summits, where there is a lot of security, and Formula One races. Traffic volume presents a huge challenge and he says it is important to know the exact security processes that you must go through. Of course these vary from country to country.

It is always very important to have support from companies situated locally but he doesn't anticipate huge challenges; no more than are usually posed by these types of events. He says that in the 15 years the Fly Comlux team has been flying into Russia it has worked hard to develop relationships with local suppliers. It pays to be very well-informed and to have good connections.

Local connections really made a difference on one occasion when the company flew the Canadian hockey team to a show in Asia. Diets for the players were very restricted so he had to organise catering specifically for them. This required a lot of team work with flight managers and doctors and, although it did not take the form of the usual VIP food service, the athletes were happy to be eating the same food that they would eat all the time, and amazed that this could be achieved on a different continent.

Zanetto expects similar requests for the football teams. "We will be working with the managers and preparing at least 20 days beforehand to get the teams exactly what they need, especially on the way in," he says. "On the way back it should be different, and hopefully we can get the champagne out to celebrate. The atmosphere should be much more relaxed."

Vamvakas does acknowledge that the World Cup presents its own unique challenges. It is nothing like the Super Bowl for example, an annual event for which US operators have a standard process that they go through to get in and out of the airports of that year's host city. With the World Cup the influx of people and aircraft is so much greater so everything needs to be planned well in advance, not forgetting that the authorities can also change the restrictions or regulations at a moment's notice.

Both Moscow's and St Petersburg's airports are accustomed to handling large numbers; Moscow handles many private and commercial flights on a daily basis and St Petersburg hosts an annual economic forum. Other locations like Rostov-On-Don or Kaliningrad are not as familiar with this type of event. Universal is looking at lessons learned from past events like the previous World Cup in Brazil, where some airfields didn't have adequate equipment or facilities. Importantly it has people on the ground with whom it can communicate in order to supervise the flights. "It all comes down to pre-planning," says Vamvakas, "it is the most integral part of operating flights like these."

Overcoming the problem of volume

The UK's Zenith Aviation may be more typical of most European operators: MD Stuart Mulholland says the company has nothing booked in for Russia although it has received a few enquiries. For its fleet of Learjets, Citation XLS and a Challenger 604 Russia is really on the edge of its range, especially when these aircraft could be carrying up to eight passengers. "We will probably end up doing the odd flight," he says, "but as it stands we don't have any confirmed bookings." For him this is no bad thing. If the World Cup follows the pattern of other major sporting events, then things will go wrong as some airports struggle to cope with the volume of traffic that comes in for a particular match. He has seen this happen during the Champions League. "When a final was last played in Moscow it was impossible to get aircraft in and out," he adds. "Flight plans were getting lost and people were departing or being held at random airports. Several operators had aircraft stuck in Moscow for days. It all sounds really good in theory, but often doesn't work out that way."

Germany's ProAir Aviation has received a lot of requests but only a few bookings. Clients are reluctant to commit when it is not possible to be sure about costs or even confirm a schedule yet. Commercial jet manager Sebastian Weinhold has been facing issues such as parking availability at airports, opening hours and those unforeseen costs for parking and handling that are referred to casually as sunshine money. But its own operations department is in close contact with the authorities and airports and Weinhold is confident it will be able to move things forward.

Back in September last year, Matthew Purton in Air Charter Service's commercial jets division predicted that the World Cup would generate a variety of problems with regards to getting people around. Russia is a huge country and the distance between some of the stadiums is more than 1,700 miles, which is a long coach ride. With only Russian registered airlines being able to perform domestic flights in the country, this drastically limits the choice of aircraft able to transport the teams and fans from hotels and training camps to matches. One thing in ACS' favour is its Russian bank account, which will mean easier transactions than for those companies using dollars, euros or pounds sterling. And thanks to its three Russian offices in Moscow and St Petersburg, it will be looking to position some of its experts on-site at the airports to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Everything is a bit more complicated in Russia

As well as often being subject to last-minute changes, it would seem that operations to Russia still take a lot of time to organise; pre-planning is key, but as things stand at the moment Russia's CAA has still to make announcements on visas, permits and cabotage etc specifically for the World Cup. This is undoubtedly causing some concern among those hoping to capitalise on charter demand for the event, and many are waiting with baited breath for policies and procedures to be confirmed. Few of its airports offer the quality of service and facilities, even opening hours, found at key destinations within the EMEA region; indeed some airports are still in the process of construction. And while most are re-allocating staff to facilitate the smooth running of the anticipated spike in demand, not so long ago it was the case that an agent at Vladivostock was not even authorised to make phone calls to foreign countries, which somewhat impeded incoming flight operations.

It can be expensive to position aircraft in Moscow so operators in northern Europe may fly in and out rather than stay over. Parking fees can be quite high and hangarage can cost more than 1,000 euros per night. Elsewhere in the country flying approaches can be quite complicated so not all pilots enjoy flying there. Along with high aviation fees there will be expensive accommodation and catering costs, as well as security, trip support, navigation and ground handling charges. And fuel costs tend to be higher as TS-1 is usually sold at fixed prices by the airport's fuel terminal, which is often the sole supplier.

Nor is it always easy to get the right catering in Russia and as a result some regular visitors establish their own network of trusted restaurants. Whereas in Europe there is good catering at any airport, in Russia that is not always the case. On top of that is the problem of security; experienced aviation catering companies have thorough checking procedures in place but this does not necessarily happen within the restaurants.

Reykjavik-based VITA Sport is a tour operator authorised by the Icelandic Tourist Board working with Icelandair to offer charters to Iceland's World Cup group stages for supporters, board members and sponsors. Director Ludvik Arnarson notes that charter flights are more difficult to organise this time around than, for example, the last big tournament in France a couple of years ago, thanks to the slightly different rules and procedures, but he has confidence that in the end all will be well.

The company has been planning for a couple of months. Ticket sales are good, there is healthy customer demand and he is trying to match this to charter availability. "We charter for large groups, anything from 120-seat up to 270-seat aircraft and mostly using a Boeing 757 or 767. No private jets; we don't have a strong VIP culture in Iceland so we usually have everyone from players' families to FA board members on the same aircraft together."

VITA Sport, which has not per-formed any charter flights in Russia before, will be using Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo airports in Moscow as well as Volgograd and Rostov. Arnarson has visited Russia over the winter and says: "The places we will be going into have very modern terminals with the latest equipment. They are certainly well-equipped, but whether they have the staff and expertise to deal with the high volumes remains to be seen." Domestic flights are easier to handle than those coming into a country from abroad so he is interested to see how well everything will be handled, and he notes that the process will be slowed down by the extra controls on visitors, all of whom will need a visa or a fan ID to gain entry.

Catering considerations for its clients will be met in the usual way; there will be two or three different options depending on whether the flight is 40 minutes, two hours or four hours long. "I don't anticipate any problems," he adds. "I have flown within Russia quite a lot myself since December and have had a lot of good experiences."

Love you (s)lots

Operators will be required to meet their slot times so the host airports are recommending that no services be taken there; rather operators should tanker fuel in and arrange catering uplifts elsewhere. Vamvakas says the authorities are going to be very strict about this: "It will be a case of going in, dropping off or picking up, and then moving off to the designated alternate airport."

She has been communicating with the Universal Aviation Russia office for the last 10 months, gathering information for clients and working with its different business units on hotels, catering, transportation, security, permit requirements and lead times.

The authorities want slot requests in as soon as possible, although they will not announce confirmations until two weeks prior to the event commencing, on around 1 June. At this time the pool will quickly diminish as there is only a finite number of slots available.

Because of space and volume constraints Comlux's Zanetto knows it is important to apply in good time to get the best slot, or even to get a slot at all. It is quite common for nothing to be available at times like this so having good connections helps. "Comlux is connected because we have been flying into Russia for some time. We have a base there, and have done so for 16 years," he says. "We know the market well, although it is developing all the time, but we can expect a higher level of service for passengers and operators."

He adds that in terms of Russia as a country or continent, and it is as big as a continent, it certainly has its own standards. Fly Comlux is used to travelling to the Far East, India, China and Africa and they all have their own specific ways of doing things. "You just need to understand this from the start,"he says. "Security in Russia is very tight, but once you have the visa in place the process should be quite smooth."

Russia has stringent non-disclosure agreements governing intra country travel but its CAA is expected either to remove the restriction, or to publish the names of all companies that will be given permission to undertake cabotage flights during the World Cup. As at time of writing this information has not been released.

Success may come down to relationships with local suppliers

In this business says Zanetto, you really need to know what you are doing. Big events, big teams and big groups need looking after. He trusts the know-how of Comlux and says the company is looking forward to an exciting event. Private aviation is the perfect way to cover the long distances between games, but he acknowledges that everywhere will be very busy and it may not be possible to be either on time or relaxed. And in the lead up it's all about negotiating the many last minute changes.

Avinode's sporting traffic surges

Sports and business aviation have a long-established comple-mentary existence says Avinode Group CEO Oliver King. Whether it's to get a team to a game on time, flying fans domestically for the next knock-out stage or a transfer window being met, the exclusivity, speed and convenience of private flying is an intrinsic part of major sporting events.

Accurately predicting surges of traffic around upcoming events can be difficult as business aviation is such a short-notice industry. Ninety per cent of business aviation flights are requested five days or less in advance. And that figure does not change as much as expected when it comes to securing flights for must-attend events.

But for this summer's World Cup, tickets were released back in September 2017 and the official host draw was performed on 1 December, so many fans have already begun securing their travel plans.

In Q1 2018 versus Q1 2017, Avinode had almost 100 times more flight requests for non-domestic flights departing to Russian World Cup host city airports for the duration of the event. It has also seen a dramatic surge in flight requests for heavy jets, ultra-long range aircraft, airliners and VIP airliners, given the need to transport large numbers of people, such as national teams, at once. VIP airliner requests to Russia have leapt from zero in Q1 2017 to 293 in Q1 2018, and heavy jet requests have gone from 12 to 1,269 in the same period.

By looking back at similar events in sporting history King can also start to forecast how much overall activity there will be, and where flight requests will come from.

On 10-11 June 2016, the opening weekend of the UEFA Euro 2016 games, business jet charter requests surged in the ten host French cities. There was a boom in Marseille with 2,600 requests for those two days, a 100-fold increase over the same period in 2015. Of those requests, approximately 40 per cent were from Russia, hinting that domestic activity around the World Cup will be high.

"We expect activity to remain heightened over the entire period, from the first match between Russia and Saudi Arabia on 14 June to the final on 15 July," he says. "This is because business jet users often schedule longer round trips, following their team between the different host cities."

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