October 2010 Archives
As part of my Italy trip last week, I visited Vulcanair in Naples. The general aviation manufacturer has had plenty ups and downs, before and since its takeover by its current owners. The A-Viator is its biggest project at the moment and Vulcanair believes it can finally deliver the first of its revamped aircraft by the end of next year.
Fascinating story about Swiss International Air Lines bringing the old Swissair brand back to life through a licensing deal with a New York air taxi company, which is our Business lead in next week's issue (19 October). Here's what we will be writing:
In one of the most unusual exercises in airline branding, the long-gone Swissair name has re-emerged - not on Airbus or Boeing jets but on Cirrus SR22s operated by a tiny air taxi start-up in Long Island, New York.
Seventy-year-old Swissair collapsed in the downturn that followed 11 September 2001, but the dormant brand was acquired last year by Swiss International Air Lines, which took over as the country's flag carrier in 2002.
Privately owned Hopscotch Air, which operates one SR22 and plans to acquire three more in the next few months, has licensed the trademark from Swiss. Its aircraft will carry the Swissair name on their tails, with the larger Hopscotch livery on the fuselage.
So how did one of Europe's leading airlines end up choosing a fledgling private charter company on the other side of the Atlantic for the relaunch of an international aviation brand unused for almost a decade? The key was, in fact, Hopscotch's relative obscurity. Swiss, now Lufthansa-owned, wanted to explore ways of "reintroducing the brand on a limited level", says Hopscotch president Andrew Schmertz. "They came to us."
Although Schmertz will not reveal financial details, he says the two companies are in discussions to widen the relationship, possibly with Swiss marketing the Hopscotch service to its premium customers flying into New York. "The biggest advantage for us is the relationship with Swiss," he adds.
For its part, Swiss says the agreement is designed to "help preserve the heritage of the iconic Swissair brand" and a preventative measure to stop other airlines using the name. However, the carrier denies it is a "relaunch" of Swissair. Instead, it is a "measure to keep the brand alive as we do not plan to use the trademark Swissair for our own commercial flight services". An aviation sports club in Switzerland is also allowed to use the Swissair brand for the same reason.
Hopscotch was founded in 2006 by three private investors, part of a wave of air taxi ventures set up to exploit the operating advantages offered by very light jets and modern pistons.
The hoped-for on-demand air taxi revolution never happened and instead left a string of high-profile casualties such as Eclipse 500 pioneer DayJet and SR22 operator SATSair. However, a number of smaller outfits have survived on a modest basis, mostly in large metropolitan regions such as New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Hopscotch finally began operations early this year with a single SR22. It is leasing a second and two more will arrive next year. It operates on-demand charter from airports around New York, with its market split between leisure - mostly those en route to vacation homes in Cape Cod and other resorts - and executives travelling to meetings in towns hard to reach by airline.
Business has been brisk, with some passengers having switched in the downturn from high-end jets, says Schmertz. "We hear a people saying: 'I don't need to take the [Gulfstream] GIV to Nantucket.'" However, there is evidence of the SR22 operator "changing the paradigm" of private travel, he says. Half of Hopscotch's first-time fliers have never chartered an aircraft.
Operating the four-seat single piston SR22, he adds, is "the best model" for an air taxi operator. Despite operating restrictions and limitations of space - passengers have to clamber into their seats via the wing - its economics give it a big advantage over very light jets, says Schmertz.
Although it had an enviable reputation for service, Swissair hit cashflow problems brought on by the sudden decline in traffic at the end of 2001. It followed an expansion and borrowing spree in the 1990s that saw it acquire stakes in several airlines and launch several spin-off businesses. Swissair's demise shocked a nation used to the probity of its institutions and financial acumen of its leading businessmen.
Whether the Swissair brand still carries a cachet or if passengers climbing into the cramped cabin of Hopscotch's SR22s will be simply confused with the subtle link to a defunct airline remains to be seen.
However, Schmertz - a former broadcasting consultant - is convinced the association with the Swissair brand can only serve to promote his low-cost air taxi services to New York's private aviation virgins.
In this week's Flight International, in our cover story flagged Under the volcano, David Learmount asks how ready the aviation sector, and those who regulate it, are for the next big one. The Icelandic volcano eruption earlier this year was a phenomenon that Europe's air traffic authorities were pitifully uprepared for and their default position was a complete closure of airspace that caused chaos for European business and tens of thousands of travellers, and knocked the recovery of the region's carriers back by several months. It cannot happen again was the clarion cry. But given that no one can even predict the next volcanic eruption, let alone influence the path its ash cloud takes, what measures - if any - have been put in place to stop the region grinding to a halt again?
To the tiny Bavarian rural community of Tussenhausen-Mattsies last week for my third or fourth visit to Grob, but my first since the light aircraft manufacturer was rescued from insolvency in 2009 by H3, the vehicle for three Munich-based siblings who wanted to create an aerospace venture. Headed by co-chief executive Andre Hiebeler, the new owners are taking Grob back to its roots as an innovative developer of training and other concept composite aircraft. The Grob SPn light jet, the development costs of which forced the previous Grob Aerospace into insolvency, was not included in the deal. Instead, Hiebeler is betting on a radically improved version of the G120 light trainer, which - re-equipped with a turbine engine, Elbit glass cockpit and Martin-Baker ejection seats - he is pitching against more expensive and sophisticated trainers in a number of contests including India's.
We never show favouritism on Flight International, of course, but I have always had a soft spot for somewhat eccentric but driven independent airframers like Grob. There aren't many others left. Diamond and and Pilatus are the closest you get in Europe. Visiting businesses like Grob must be similar to the experience of calling in on the aviation innovators of the early 20th century...when they might conspiratorially have ushered you into the hanger where half a dozen men in overalls were putting the final touches on the aircraft in which the designer planned to fly the Channel. In a world dominated by a handful of mega manufacturers holding sway over a multi-tiered global infrastructure of suppliers, good luck I say to these vertically-integrated, give-it-a-go innovators looking to stamp their name on aviation.
This week I have been braving Naples driving - red lights and traffic lanes purely advisory - and thunderstorms in Brindisi - a power surge caused by lightning caused my laptop to shut down in a Poltergeist-style frenzy of flashing lights - to bring you a report on the aerospace industry in southern Italy.
Campania, the region around Naples, and Puglia, on the east coast, towards the "toe" of Italy, are perhaps not as well known for aerospace as Lombardy and Piemonte, the regions centred on Milan and Turin in the more prosperous and industrial north. But Campania has many aerospace enterprises - both factories of national players such as Alenia and Avio and a surprising number of independently-owned and highly innovative businesses, including the fast-expanding Dema. Puglia's industry, while smaller than its neighbours, is up-and-coming, with much of it concentrated around the port city of Brindisi.
Although focused further down the supply chain and lacking the final assembly lines found in the north for products such as AgustaWestland helicopters, the Alenia C-27J and the Alenia Aermacchi range, I had made the mistake of thinking the aerospace sector in southern Italy was a lot smaller than it is. I'm not the only one. According to the people at Campania regional government whose job it is to promote the aerospace cluster there, most inhabitants of Naples do not know that their stunningly picturesque (if rather chaotic) city is a hub of aircraft production and engineering. They have a mission to educate not only potential investors and customers from abroad, but their own voters.
The package - in our 16 November issue - will also include features on Italy's space sector, the impact of the fiscal crisis on defence spending, airframers Piaggio and Vulcanair and the global strategy of the country's aerospace champion Finmeccanica.