While economic gloom takes its toll on the business world, things are looking up for VLJs, says Bob Papworth
At the end of the day, you could have bet your bottom dollar that there is a book called the Penguin Dictionary of Clichés. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but like it or lump it, it exists. And it goes without saying, therefore, that it would have a satisfactory explanation for the assertion that, "what you lose on the swings, you gain on the roundabouts" and perhaps it is these swings and roundabouts that have given a helping hand to the executive jet market.
In these credit-crunched days, the bottom should have dropped out of the jet-setting market, and yet at the moment it's all looking hunky-dory. Business isn't exactly booming, but every cloud has a silver lining, and in this case that silver lining is called a VLJ.
The first VLJ, or "very light jet", - a Cessna Citation Mustang - achieved its full type certification from the US Federal Aviation Administration as recently as September 2006. It has since been joined by Eclipse Aviation's New Mexico-built Eclipse 500 and, between them, they're taking the corporate charter market by storm.
Keith Haynes, director of sales, corporate travel, for Chapman Freeborn, says the planes "cannot be built and delivered quickly enough" and according to Patrick Margetson-Rushmore, chief executive of London Executive Aviation - and at the time of writing, the only Mustang operator in Europe - VLJs cost about half as much to put into service, and could reduce charter costs by 25 per cent and more.
Hunt & Palmer's Eliot Keynes agrees that on flights of up to around two hours - London to Paris, Brussels or Düsseldorf, for example - price-per-hour has come down from £1,500-£1,600 to nearer £1,200.
Just when the City swings start to slow, the planemakers' roundabouts gather momentum ...
Keynes says: "It's a difficult market at the moment. Traditionally the first quarter of the year is a tough one - the turning point is usually Easter. The weather gets better, so a lot of conference types start to go out to play, and of course, the sporting season starts to kick in."
He adds: "The credit crunch has hit a lot of the financial flying that we do - IPOs are virtually zero at the moment, although private equity is still going quite well. Also, there is so much personal wealth around now that those who were using corporate money are now using us for their personal flights."
There's also still plenty of activity in the Far East - where Hunt & Palmer opened an office, in Hong Kong, just 18 months ago - and much of that "personal wealth" is washing around in Russia, where the company has been building its presence for around eight years.
London Executive Aviation's Margetson-Rushmore says: "Clearly, one assumes the credit crunch is going to affect us, like anyone else, going forward. The winter period is typically quieter for all of us, but year-on-year the level of enquiries has not dropped materially as yet." A large extent of executive aviation customers are leisure flying for leisure, but Margetson-Rushmore says: "On the corporate side, there is still a need to fly because there is still a need to do business - the newspapers are implying that there will be some 'pull-back', but I don't think it's going to be much more than that. Certainly our business is starting to ramp up."
Interior of the Sovereign
Interior of the first VLJ
It's the LEA boss who first raises the issue of productivity. "If you can take five people out for a day-trip, rather than an overnight, you have just saved [the equivalent of] a working week, and five hotel bills. There is this perception, too, that once they're on the jet, out comes the Champagne. In my experience, that's just not the case - they might celebrate on the way home after the deal is done, but generally it's very much a working environment."
It is precisely those sort of productivity issues that enthuse Chapman Freeborn's Keith Haynes. A veteran of P&O Travel and then Radius, it was Haynes who earlier this year took the air charter company into associate membership of the Guild of Travel Management Companies as an exclusive supplier.
On shorter sectors, the Chapman Freeborn maths is similar to the others', but it is on multi-sector trips and long-haul flights that the real benefits begin to emerge.
On a London-Frankfurt-Milan-London trip for seven, for example, the charter price works out at roughly £100 per person more expensive than travelling in Business Class on scheduled services - although Haynes insists that Business Class is not a like-for-like comparison.
On a London-New York round-trip, the charter cost for 10 people is roughly equivalent to the First Class fare.
According to the influential Stanford Transportation Group (STG), the number of business aviation travellers within the US is now equivalent to 41 per cent of all Premium Class and full-fare Economy travellers on scheduled airlines. The STG estimates that US domestic travellers flew 41 million First, Business and full-fare Economy sectors in 2007, compared with 16 million business aviation sectors.
As the Penguin Dictionary of Clichés would doubtless confirm, that's big business, and big is, by and large, beautiful. Forget the swings and roundabouts. It's time to jump on the bandwagon.
Interior of the Embraer Legacy 600
The country's leading helicopter charter company is moving its fixed-wing maintenance base to Oxford Airport as a prelude to setting up its own executive aircraft business.
Owned by von Essen Hotels, PremiAir has long been talking of setting up - or, more likely, acquiring - a fixed-wing operation, and although a company spokeswoman insists plans are no farther forward, the Oxford move is clearly significant.
The company - three times winner of the Buying Business Travel Diamond Award as top executive aviation provider - is currently headquartered at Blackbushe Airport, near Camberley, in Surrey. Blackbushe's comparatively short runway and lack of an instrument landing system (ILS) make it an impractical base for a fixed-wing operation of any size.
At Oxford, a 20,000ft2 hangar - one of the airport's largest - is currently being fitted out in readiness for PremiAir's arrival in September this year. As part of a major investment programme by the airport owners, a brand new executive aviation terminal is due to open this month.
"We looked long and hard at all the key business aviation airfields in the southeast of England, and Oxford ticked just about all of our boxes," says PremiAir's director of maintenance Barry Stone.
"The significant ongoing investment in the airport's facilities and infrastructure played a major part in our decision to go there."
As well as moving its Hawker Beechcraft maintenance operation to the airport, PremiAir is also hoping to establish an additional helicopter charter base there. Jet parking fees are much lower than at London general aviation fields, and London Heliport - also owned by von Essen - is a 20-minute flight away.
Originally part of the Sir Robert McAlpine Group, PremiAir - and the London Heliport - were bought by von Essen last year. It currently flies around 4,000 charter hours a year, primarily on Sikorsky 76 and Eurocopter Twin Squirrel equipment.