Twenty-three is a crucial number for Mark Pierotti and his team at Abu Dhabi business jet charter start-up Al Jaber Aviation. That is the number of identifiable "guest touch points" that the company has with each of its clients.
Every one of them - from the initial booking conversation to the way the passenger is greeted on board - forms part of what Pierotti, the chief operating officer, calls "a customer journey map" that guides how every member of his staff behaves, and sets the company apart from its rivals. "I don't know anyone else who does that," says the Scot.
AJA is one of the most recent arrivals on a Middle Eastern business aviation scene that appears to be gathering strength again after being rocked by Dubai's financial crisis. It is one of a number of tenants at the new private Al Bateen city airport in Abu Dhabi, a former airbase, also home to two of the emirate's foremost operators, Falcon Aviation Services and Prestige Jet. Established last year with two Embraer Legacy 600s and a Lineage, AJA has placed orders which should see it operating 21 Airbus and Embraer business jets by 2015.
© Jan Kertzscher
Its fleet of large-cabin, long-range aircraft will put it head to head with the region's biggest and longest-established charter operator, Abu Dhabi-based Royal Jet, which has a fleet of five Boeing Business Jets as well as mid-size types. AJA's first A318-based Elite will be delivered next month, with a second due in January. Both are being outfitted at Lufthansa Technik in Hamburg. A further Elite and two more Lineages are in the pipeline for 2011.
With a requirement for five pilots and three cabin crew per aircraft to ensure 24/7 availability, the company is recruiting fast. Flight hour requirements are 5,000h and a type qualification for a captain and 1,000 for a first officer. Flight and cabin crew work 21 days on - much of which might be spend on standby - and seven days off. New pilots spend a month in Abu Dhabi before they fly, checking paperwork with the authorities and being introduced to the brand.
Those brand values are key. Pierotti knows that scale and fleet profile alone is not enough to compete in the ultra-VIP marketplace - although high entry costs and fewer rivals make it slightly less cut-throat than the midsize and light jet sectors that claimed several victims during the downturn of last year.
"They have to be prepared to make sure the crew and aircraft are okay at all times"
Chief operating officer Al Jaber Aviation
The way the customer is treated is the main differentiator in a market where Arab princesses, Hollywood divas and Russian magnates do not take kindly to being addressed improperly and where serving a rival's soft drink to the chief executive of a foodstuffs conglomerate is the ultimate affront.
Pierotti refers to his captains as mission commanders and says they have to be responsible not only for the safety of passengers but also, with their cabin crew, for every aspect of their comfort during the journey. "They have to know how to talk to them, to be aware of the cultural differences and to be trained in protocol. If you have Arab ladies in the cabin and they are relaxing, you shouldn't come out of the cockpit, for instance," he says.
They also have to be prepared to rough it and adapt at times. While AJA serves the big cities of the Middle East and Europe, it also flies to out of the way airports in central Asia and Africa. There are places where for security reasons the jet cannot be left for more than 48h on a long layover. "Some are cold. Some are lawless," says Pierotti. "They have to be prepared to make sure the crew and aircraft are okay at all times."
This means that while Pierotti has recruited captains and first officers from both a business aviation and an airline background, not all are suitable for AJA. "Our pilots should be strict on procedure, safety orientated but also an ambassador for the brand. We tell applicants it's a very different world to being an airline pilot. The airline pilot might not like the lifestyle. Some of the grumpy old guys who fly 747s for British Airways are never going to be right," he says.