IN FOCUS: Bahrain proves its worth as offshore base to tap Saudi Arabia's lucrative business aviation market

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Although Dubai is the undisputed hub of the Middle East's business aviation sector - with the free zone next to its international airport housing a cluster of brokers, charter providers and fixed-base operations - Richard Gaona had no hesitation in choosing Bahrain two years ago as Comlux's Middle Eastern base.

The chief executive of the Zurich-based aviation services group says the island state makes an ideal location to tap the lucrative Saudi Arabian market next door. Its legions of ultra-wealthy families regularly travel to Europe and North America, making it the biggest in the world for airliner-size business jet charter.

Comlux runs its Bahrain subsidiary with Saudi partner MAZ Aviation and has two aircraft more or less permanently based in the country - an Airbus ACJ320 and its only Boeing, a 767-200ER, which it is displaying at the show. An ACJ319 will be added in March.

comlux 767 bbj

 © Comlux

Comlux runs its Bahrain subsidiary with Saudi partner MAZ Aviation

Gaona says the region accounts for two thirds of the revenues from its Airbus and Boeing fleet and half its overall turnover. Comlux also operates five Bombardier Global and three Challenger jets on its global fleet. "It is the land for this type of charter," he says.

Although the United Arab Emirates also neighbours Saudi Arabia, Gaona rules out siting the operation there. He says Dubai's airport is too congested, with business jet operators having to fight for take-off and landing slots with an expanding Emirates and other airline customers. Next-door Abu Dhabi was not considered because two of Comlux's biggest local rivals, AJA and Royal Jet, have their operations, and loyal local customer bases, there.

Finally, Gaona also rules out siting the operation in Saudi Arabia itself because of the regulatory environment and the difficulty locating pilots and other personnel.

"In Bahrain it is easy to find crew - getting visas is a lot easier," he says. The political situation has also "stabilised", he believes, after the violence of the Arab Spring revolts in early 2011. Bahrain is nine-year-old Comlux's third base. It also operates from Kazakhstan and Malta and has a completions operation in Indianapolis in the USA.

The one downside of operating in Saudi Arabia, says Gaona, is the grey market. For years, private owners of business jets who do not have regulatory approval to operate for hire and reward have quietly, but without sanction, undercut legitimate charter providers by carrying passengers for a fee. It is something the Middle East Business Aviation Association has long campaigned against. "It does lower safety standards because these operators do not have to abide with the same regulations that the rest of us do in the charter market," says Gaona.

Comlux is not the only overseas business aviation company which has opted for Bahrain as a base for its Middle Eastern operations. Canada's GAL Aviation is partnering local group MENA Aerospace to build a 1,860m2 (6,000ft2) business jet cabin refurbishment centre at Bahrain International Airport. The facility is due to open at the end of 2012.

comlux 767 bbj, comlux

 © Comlux

GAL, based near Quebec City, specialises in designing, manufacturing and fitting cabin components. Its president Guy Lapierre says the venture will be one of the first in the region to provide cabin-interior services to the rapidly expanding number of local business jet owners.

"There has been a lack of this sort of support in the region," he says. "Until now, they have had to send aircraft to Europe or North America. We expect this is going to take off pretty fast."

The new operation, GAL MENA, has launched a service agreement with ExecuJet Middle East, under which the Swiss company's Dubai facility will market interior refurbishment packages to its customers. GAL MENA will also be able to carry out work in ExecuJet's hangar. Lapierre says the joint venture is looking at further satellite "showrooms" in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Next door to the new facility at Bahrain International, MENA has been building the country's first maintenance hangar for business jets. The 26,300m2 development, a venture with Bahrain Airport Company signed in January 2011, includes a private taxiway and apron, as well as office and workshop areas. BAC chief executive Gordon Dewar says the facility is part of a push to expand the range of services offered at the airport.

The two ventures are the latest developments for locally-owned MENA, set up in 2004 as Bahrain's first business aviation services group. The company operates two Boeing 737-300Fs and an Embraer Legacy 600 on charter. It also runs an avionics servicing business in a joint venture with Scandinavian Avionics, as well as support services for airlines using Bahrain's airport.