“Fix it.” Those two simple words launched London Air Services (LAS).
Located in the Vancouver, B.C., suburb of Richmond, the red-carpet aircraft charter company is affiliated with London Drugs Ltd., the privately owned Canadian retail chain that started out as a single drug store in 1945 and today includes 75 stores across Western Canada.
“Our chairman is on a variety of boards around the world,” explained Wynne Powell, president and chief executive officer of London Air Services, London Drugs and Sonora Resort. “When he travelled, he was constantly getting stuck in hub cities. The breaking point came when he was delayed in Chicago for eight to 10 hours waiting for crew changes. With his busy schedule, it wasn’t appropriate to travel commercially. We started chartering aircraft here in Vancouver and then one day he said to me that we should get our own plane.”
Powell began the search for the perfect aircraft. “I started researching all of the planes and went back to our chairman with a good news/bad news story. The good news, I told him, was that I had found the perfect plane — technologically a leader, with stunning design, good operating characteristics and an attractive interior — but the bad news was that there was a four-year wait list . . . . He looked at me and simply said, ‘Fix it.’
“We decided to see if we could buy someone out, someone who already had a position on the wait list. But then our buyer came to me late one Friday and said he had found an aircraft, and it was waiting at the factory right at that moment.”
That aircraft was a Bombardier Learjet 45, and the year was 1999. Powell called the broker immediately and left a message stating simply: “We’re very interested in the Lear 45 you’re selling. We’d like to purchase it. We’ll pay cash. Please give me a call.” But on Monday morning, there was no phone call.
The broker, it turned out, hadn’t taken Powell’s Friday afternoon message seriously, believing that a Canadian company simply could not afford the aircraft and therefore did not merit a return call.
However, Powell was indeed serious. By that Tuesday afternoon he and his team were on the ground in Wichita, Kan., inspecting the Learjet 45. He made an offer, wrote a cheque and purchased London Air Services’ first aircraft. Immediately following, LAS applied for its charter licence, which would allow the company “to earn money with the plane when our chairman was not using it.”
Applying a Proven Model
The charter licence was thought to be a potentially risky proposition for LAS and its parent company. Explained Powell, “There were many in the industry at the time who predicted that we would fail — the common perception was that we might have been a well-heeled company, but what did we really know about aviation, anyway?”
Enter London Drugs’ time-tested business formula: cater to the customer by offering unparalleled service at very competitive prices. “The approach we took was totally customer-driven,” said Powell, “whatever you need or want, it’s looked after, and at a good price.”
Chris Simpson, who is operations manager at LAS and joined the company two months after it was founded, concurred, stating that the focus has always been on understanding customers’ needs, from beginning to end: “We put far more emphasis on service [than our competitors do]. Our basic philosophy is that we fly people, not airplanes. Attention to detail is critical.”
To illustrate his point, Simpson recalled the time a customer had to get to Seattle, Wash., for a meeting, but was not able to fly in due to poor weather conditions. Instead, the customer drove to Seattle in the morning and LAS flew down to pick him up in the afternoon, bringing along a staff member who had volunteered to drive the client’s car back home to Vancouver.
Expanding Its Services
Much like that first aircraft, the fledgling charter company’s business took off. The first Learjet became so busy that the chair of London Drugs once again faced the prospect of flying commercially because his own jet was always booked.
Again, Powell was told to, “Fix it.” Another Learjet 45 was brought on line, followed by a Bombardier Challenger 604 — and with it, worldwide charter capability.
That fleet increase of course led to a need for more flight crews. “All our pilots have been full-time from the very beginning,” said Powell. “We pride ourselves that when we hire someone it’s for life and that’s the way we approach it.” And, LAS makes sure its crews are always at the peak of their abilities: “They receive training that goes well above and beyond what is required by the industry.”
Today, LAS has 27 full-time pilots on staff and the company’s fleet has grown to include five Learjet 45s, a Challenger 604, two Challenger 605s and three AgustaWestland AW139 helicopters. A Bombardier Global 6000 is due to arrive in 2012, and five much-anticipated Learjet 85s are due to start arriving in 2013. A Global 7000 ultra-long-range aircraft, meanwhile, is forecast to arrive in about five years.
Tapping Into Technology
Since it was founded, the development of London Air Services has been characterized by what Powell called “technology moments.” The first of these moments came with the selection of that first Learjet 45. The second time that technology impacted the LAS business model was in early 2006, when the first AW139 was added to the fleet.
“We own and operate Sonora Resort,” explained Powell, “a very high-end property that is currently rated by TripAdvisor as the number one luxury hotel resort in Canada. We were using seaplanes to get our customers in and out of the resort [located on Sonora Island, one of the Discovery Islands that lie between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland], but the problem was that you can only operate seaplanes under certain wind conditions and during daylight only. From a business perspective, we needed to enlarge the window where we could get people in and out of the resort.” Enter the need for a helicopter fleet.
Powell, a self-described technology enthusiast, happily embarked on the search for the perfect helicopter, one that would meet the needs of customers travelling to Sonora Resort. At a trade show, he came upon a pre-production mock-up of the twin-engine AgustaWestland AW139 (then known as the Agusta/Bell AB139).
“In the same way that I saw huge wisdom and engineering abilities in the Bombardier team, I saw the same kind of expertise expressed in the design of this Agusta helicopter,” he recalled. “There were some compelling alternatives out there, but I kept coming back to the Agusta because it uses standardized parts — the Canadian Pratt & Whitney PT6-67C engines were time-tested and available off the shelf, and the Honeywell Primus Epic avionics package had also proven successful in Gulfstream and Cessna business aircraft. As well, it had phenomenal horsepower and carriage capabilities. . . . After a lot of research, I had faith they would put it together the way they described in their specs.”
Powell was not disappointed. Once on the flight line at LAS, the helicopter performed beyond expectations. With capacity for up to 15 passengers and a range of 400 nautical miles while travelling at speeds of up to 167 knots, the AW139 can make the 107-nautical-mile trip from Vancouver to Sonora Resort in just 48 minutes.
Bringing in helicopters, of course, was new territory for LAS. So, the responsibility for this fell to Dylan Thomas, chief pilot of LAS’s rotary-wing division, who joined the company in 2005. Thomas, who has flown the AW139s to Sonora Resort more than 1,000 times, explained that helicopters have very different requirements from a pilot perspective: “On the fixed-wing side, dispatchers can handle 90 per cent of what we do. But, when it comes to helicopters, a pilot needs to get involved sooner to evaluate landing sites. From golf courses to northern islands to hydro projects, there is something different every day.”
Thomas is also a flight instructor and one of three line pilots in the division; he logs about 450 hours a year. Its other two full-time helicopter pilots are quite busy, as well. Said Thomas: “We have three helicopters right now and three pilots. We are certified for single-pilot VFR [visual flight rules] during daytime conditions, like the trip to Sonora. But we prefer a dual-pilot configuration, and if we’re going to a new destination it’s always with two pilots.”
As one might expect, LAS is very particular about who it hires to fly the AW139. It goes without saying that pilots need to have enough experience to handle a state-of-the-art helicopter, but ramp-side manner is equally important. “This is a very complex glass-cockpit aircraft, so we like to see pilots with FMS [flight management system] and glass cockpit time.” said Thomas. “Our other focus is how they interact with the customer. Our clientele must be treated with a lot of respect.”
Part of that respect is inherent in the ability of the aircraft LAS has available. For instance, in May 2010, LAS accepted delivery of the first FIPS-equipped AW139, which was the first rotary-wing aircraft in its weight category to receive full-ice protection system certification. At the time, Powell expected the new helicopter would allow LAS to fly its VIP passengers anywhere, in all weather conditions — and it did not disappoint. The FIPS-equipped chopper surpassed operating expectations last winter: another successful “technology moment” that charted yet another new course for LAS.
With confirmation of the FIPS-equipped AW139’s all-weather capability, the company plans to sell its oldest AW139. “Our business model always called for two helicopters,” said Thomas.
The relationship with AgustaWestland, meanwhile, has been so positive that in February 2011 LAS signed on to become the company’s independent Canadian sales representative. “We enjoy working with talented groups who are engineering-driven, product-driven and customer-focused, like Bombardier and Agusta,” said Powell.
As for future technology moments, the next one on the horizon is the Learjet 85. Said Powell: “It’s a composite aircraft that has extremely good fuel efficiencies and operating costs — it’s a continental aircraft and you won’t have to stop either way across North America. The Lear 85 will be a very sweet bird and is expected to operate at a cost comparable to the Lear 60. It will be a very attractive charter aircraft.”
“Wynne [Powell] is very big on technology,” explained LAS operations manager Simpson. “He does a lot of research on the aircraft we buy. Through the years we’ve really stuck with the Bombardier family. They’ve been very innovative.”
When the Learjet 85s arrive, Powell said the company will most likely look at selling some of the Learjet 45s, “but with a clean sheet aircraft you really need to experience the first one to make up your mind.”
Securing Home Base
LAS’s focus on technology also extends to its headquarters at Vancouver International Airport. Its London aviation centre, completed in 2008, is a state-of-the-art facility that includes an impressively sized 64,000-square-foot hangar. “We can easily store a couple of Globals and multiple Challengers and Lears,” remarked Powell. Built to withstand earthquakes, the spacious hangar is protected by a cutting-edge fire safety system and fire-resistant partition doors. It also has an advanced electrical system, an overhead crane that assists with engine replacements and wireless Internet that allows technicians to access the latest maintenance information on the spot.
“The planes are really pampered,” said Powell. “It’s just another indication of our philosophy. The aircraft are impeccable. We have great mechanics, and they all have extreme pride in what they do.”
Said Chris Lacroix, director of maintenance at LAS: “To be working out of this kind of facility puts the cherry on the sundae. It’s a very bright hangar, so you’re able to see what you’re working on. The floor is clean and polished — if there’s a drop of oil or anything on the floor you see it right away and you can trace it back to its source.”
Lacroix, who has been with LAS since 2003, said he also appreciates the opportunity LAS gives its staff to be involved in both internal and external projects. Internally, for example, he had the chance to contribute his ideas during the hangar’s design phase, with the goal of making the space as efficient as possible for all seven maintenance staff members.
Externally, he has had the privilege to work with Bombardier. “I’m on the Lear 85 steering committee — an industry group that is determining what the maintenance schedule will be for this new aircraft. I’ve also been involved with Bombardier focus groups where I’ve been one of only 12 people from around the world who give their input . . . and as time goes on you see how much they listen to you. This is exceptional. You’re able to bring in your knowledge and expertise and have the opportunity to influence new products.”
Going the Extra Mile
As good as things are, by Powell’s own admission competition in the charter market is fierce. “Let’s not kid ourselves. This is a very difficult business. I’m an accountant by profession, and this is a numbers game.”
But, at LAS the numbers add up when you bring together the right mix of people, machines and processes. “We have the engineering, the correct planes and helicopters, the right operational people and pilots, fanatical customer service and the right marketing,” explained Powell. “What makes us different? We’ve got passion. We’ve got the knowledge base. And we have the hunger . . . you’ve got to want the business.
“Our customers know we care and we’ll go the extra mile for them — they become like family to us. We get to know what they like and dislike. We feel we’re in the business of manufacturing time for busy, successful people. When they get to London Air they know they’re in good hands, and they’ll get where they need to go with no stress.”
And those customers travel in nothing but the best, said Lacroix: “If it’s broken, we’re fixing it. If it’s not looking good, it’s not going — we’re fixing it. Those aircraft must look and feel like new, down to the smallest detail.”
However, a commitment to top-notch service and a successful business formula is no reason to become complacent. Said Powell: “We still have to work hard at it, like any business today. Since the HST [harmonized sales tax] came in it’s been more difficult for us to compete for U.S. business. Our American customers often comment on the high rate of taxation on our services and they do not have the ability to get an easy HST refund, unlike the U.K., where the form can be filled out at the airport [for refunds on the United Kingdom’s value-added tax]. . . . It’s also a tougher go in the west, because there aren’t as many head offices here. The terrain does help to sell some of our services. But, we had to go out and make sure the CFOs [chief financial officers] knew and understood that chartering an aircraft is a value proposition.”
Over the last 12 years, Powell said a few important lessons have been learned. One, it’s a tough business. Two, you need to stay focused. Three, you need to fly equal or better equipment than your competitors. Four, you need to offer better service if you want to win. And, finally, your business model needs to be flexible, changing with the times and in response to opportunities: the management team at LAS never expected to operate international charters or develop a helicopter division, but they took advantage of those opportunities when the time was right.
As for the future, Powell is optimistic. “We’ve expanded our operation on a consistent basis. We don’t take financial risk and we’re not leveraged in any way. We have the ability to weather economic storms and competitor attacks because we’re not leveraged. We will take this business where we need to take it, and opportunities will help determine that path.”
Lisa Gordon,editor-in-chief of Canadian Skies Magazine
London Air Services Website
Sun, Sep 25 2011 10:48 PM
| Report Abuse