IN FOCUS: Gulf business aviation operators admit it is getting harder to find pilots

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From flying some of the world's richest families to luxury vacations on Airbus and Boeing airliner-size jets to shuttling time-pressed executives and investors on busy itineraries around the region, the Gulf's business aviation sector offers pilots the sorts of opportunities they cannot necessarily get working for an airline.

The work is less predictable - on-demand business aviation by its nature does not stick to schedules - and the role of the pilot is very different: as well as being a highly-skilled aviator, they have to be brand ambassador to their VIP guests; they also often have to be a fixer, helping to find five-star accommodation and fuel in far-flung climes. It is not a job description that suits the personality of all line pilots.

After Dubai's financial crisis put the brakes on the sector's breakneck growth three years ago, the Gulf's business aviation market has begun to flourish again, this time as a more mature industry. Many believe the downturn provided a necessary correction, shaking out a lot of the fly-by-night middlemen and allowing the more professional businesses to establish themselves.

royal jet

 ©Royal Jet

Royal Jet's O'Hare: the Arab Spring caused a surprise increase in demand

It is still a very young sector. Until the 2000s, business aviation in the Gulf was restricted mainly to a small number of airliner-derived "flying palaces", often Boeing 747s operated by government arms responsible for transporting their heads of state and other royals around the world. Then Dubai's rapid growth began to suck investment and high-end tourism into that city and the wider region, and a raft of new charter firms emerged to cater for a new market of high-net-worth travellers.

Others, like Abu Dhabi's Royal Jet, the biggest operator of Boeing Business Jets with six, discovered that they could expand their business model from the Arabian elite to the ultra-wealthy around the world, using the Gulf as an operating base. Royal Jet has been followed into this market by its Abu Dhabi rival Al Jaber Aviation (AJA), an Airbus and Embraer operator, and more recently by start-up Rotana Jet, which offers a Gulfstream G450 and Airbus A319. The UK's Gama has set up its charter operations in Dubai, with a new fixed-base operation in neighbouring Sharjah. Other significant charter operators include Empire in Dubai and Falcon Aviation Services (FAS) in Abu Dhabi.

ROTANA REINFORCEMENTS

New kid on the block Rotana Jet has been recruiting for a ramp-up in its operations. An A319 corporate shuttle - with 32 lie-flat business class seats and 18 economy - is being completed in Toulouse for August delivery and will be pitched at touring rock bands, orchestras and sports teams. A second shuttle, an Embraer ERJ-145, enters service in May to tap what chief executive Phil Markham says is an unserved domestic charter market in the UAE.

Although Saudi Arabia remains the main market for business aviation in the region, the industry's centre of gravity has moved - at least partly - from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. The former remains the region's financial, trade and tourism heart, and a host of brokers and other service providers are based at the international airport's packed free zone. However, increasing congestion at the Emirates hub has meant that Abu Dhabi's Al Bateen - the region's first dedicated executive airport - is attracting more operators and traffic.

The former military base - which transitioned fully to civil use two years ago - is home to AJA, FAS and Rotana (though not Royal Jet, which is based at the city's International airport). The latter two have opened hangars at Al Bateen, while the airport itself has rebranded its fixed-base operation as DhabiJet, with revamped crew facilities and VIP lounge. Events such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix and Abu Dhabi's emergence as an upmarket tourist destination will see business aviation movements reach almost 9,500 this year, a compound annual growth of one fifth from 2009. "Our big advantage is that we have plenty of room here and can run the airport 24/7," says the airport's general manager, Steve Jones.

Other Gulf countries and emirates are also keen to establish themselves as business aviation centres, tapping the huge demand for VIP travel in Saudi Arabia, as well as potential in emerging markets such as Russia and the central Asian republics. Gama's Middle East managing director Dave Edwards says Sharjah's modest airport provides a more convenient alternative to Dubai International - just 15min drive away - for business travellers flying into Dubai and the northern emirates.

 dassault

© Dassault

Stepping up: the Middle East is being used as a base to exploit global demand

Meanwhile, in Doha, fast-expanding Qatar Airways has moved into the executive aviation segment with its Qatar Executive offshoot, which operates Bombardier Challenger and Global business jets. Another Qatar-based charter provider, Rizon Jet, has opened twin FBOs with hangars at Doha and - in a first by a Middle Eastern operator - Biggin Hill in London. In Bahrain, still an important banking centre for the region, Mena Aerospace is building its business aviation presence.

The region still has its problems. The grey market - where owners of private jets illegally allow their aircraft to be used by third parties for payment - is a constant thorn in the side of legitimate charter operators who must follow a more strict regulatory regime. Last year's Arab Spring knocked confidence generally and the deposed elites of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt were lost as customers. However, Royal Jet's chief executive Shane O'Hare says the upheavals actually boosted his company as there was an increase in international delegations travelling to conferences and trouble zones in the region.

The slow-down in the sector's expansion over the past three years eased demand for pilots. During the peak, competition for flightcrew turned it into a sellers' market. But as the industry begins to pick up again, some operators are noticing a new problem. Robust economies elsewhere in the world - including Latin America and Asia - mean many potential recruits are returning or choosing to stay closer to home.

"It's becoming harder to bring pilots here as the market improves elsewhere," admits Gama's Edwards, although he says South Africa and Australia still remain healthy recruiting grounds. The company employs 14 flightcrew across a varied fleet of five managed aircraft. "The southern hemisphere is probably our biggest focus at the moment and there are a lot of experienced guys from India," he adds. Royal Jet's O'Hare agrees that recruitment is getting more difficult. "For the last few years it has been a buyers' market, but that is turning," he says. The operator, which has just taken delivery of its sixth, refurbished BBJ - a "flying hotel suite" with capacity for 21 passengers - employs 56 pilots, half of whom are Emiratis, and O'Hare says recruitment standards are "very high".

Traditional sources of recruitment have been airlines and the military, but the growth of the big airlines as well as low-cost carriers in the Gulf is "providing tough competition and a lot of pilots are being absorbed", he says. "It's not as critical as it was before the financial crisis, and we currently have a good list of applicants. But we are likely to see pressure over the next two years."

AOPA MOVES INTO UAE TO BEIDGE GULF BETWEEN ENTHUSIAM AND FLYING

Creating a general aviation sector in the Gulf is seen as crucial to nurturing the next generation of home-grown pilots, by encouraging young aviation enthusiasts to learn to fly or even own their own aircraft. The recent Abu Dhabi Air Expo saw the inauguration of the United Arab Emirates branch of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

AOPA UAE is being headed by Yousif Al Hammadi, the deputy general manager at Abu Dhabi's Al Bateen business airport, and is the 70th national branch of the US-based International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations (IAOPA).

The branch has 33 members, but the aim is to have 80 by the end of the year. The UAE has 566 private pilots, 60% of whom are foreigners, and the country has 16 airports, most of which are open to general aviation. AOPA president Craig Fuller says general aviation is growing in the region at a rate of about 20% a year.