Large-cabin market rides out recession in Middle East

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For operators of airliner-derived business jets in the Middle East, the good times never really went away. For while the industry's traditional markets in Europe and North America - and even some emerging ones such as Russia - collapsed in 2009, leaving a trail of dashed hopes, the elite of the Arabian peninsula continued to travel in style, fuelling demand for these top-end aircraft.

Private jetliners - including Boeing 747s - have always been popular with royalty in the Middle East and especially in Saudi Arabia. But now a wider circle of wealthy individuals in the region has developed a taste for the privacy and space that airliner-size jets afford, as they do more business in Europe and travel for leisure with their families and entourages.

NEW ENTRANTS

In the past year or so, two operators have entered this segment alongside the region's established player, Royal Jet of Abu Dhabi. They are Al Jaber Aviation - or AJA - a start-up also based in the rapidly expanding emirate and owned by one of its foremost property and construction groups, and Comlux, the Swiss-based VIP aviation group, which this month opened its first dedicated Middle East operation, in Bahrain.

Comlux, which already has air operator certificates in Malta and Kazakhstan, will base two of its 12-strong Airbus and Bombardier charter fleet in the Gulf kingdom: an Airbus A318 Elite and A319-based ACJ. Early next year, they will be joined by an A320 Prestige. Comlux will also be hoping to win business from the Middle East for its US-based completions business, the former Indianapolis Jet Center it acquired two years ago.

comlux acj interior, comlux
 © Comlux
Comlux is basing two Airbuses at its new base in Bahrain; its president says being close to the customer is vital

According to Richard Gaona, president of Comlux Group, the decision to set up a Bahrain hub was the same as the logic behind the Kazakhstan move: "To be competitive and have aircraft as close as possible to the departure point." For, while both the Russian and central Asian, and Middle Eastern markets can largely be catered for with aircraft in Europe, having jets and crew based in the region cuts down on ferry time and costs and means the business can be more responsive.

Bahrain, on the doorstop of the region's two biggest markets, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is striving to attract aviation businesses and other investment, Gaona says.

The market for large-cabin aircraft was a lot less badly hit in the downturn than those for smaller business jets and in the still maturing markets of the Middle East and Asia, ultra-wealthy entrepreneurs continued to buy VIP-configured Airbus, Boeings and Embraers with long production lead times and a shortage of completion capacity helping to solidify orderbooks.

"The Middle East is the place for widebody business jets. People tend to travel with entourages and lots of bags. Sometimes traditional business jets are too small," says Gaona.

Although he says Comlux's service standards give it the edge - "The reason people fly with us is because we offer that Swiss touch, with a fantastic service on board" - he admits it will not be an easy ride: "There is competition so we are entering a more open market." One of these competitors is AJA, a venture launched last year at Abu Dhabi's Al Bateen airport with big ambitions to rival market leader Royal Jet, only with a fleet largely of Airbus and Embraer aircraft rather than Boeings.

Established in 2009 with two Embraer Legacy 600s and a Lineage 1000, AJA has placed orders that would see it operating 21 Airbus and Embraer business jets by the second half of the decade. In August, it received its first Airbus, an A318 Elite, configured for up to 19 passengers. It hopes to have added another three Elites, plus an A319-based ACJ and four more Lineages by 2012.

The company, which markets its services under the "Your private airspace" slogan, says brand values are as important as the aircraft. With clients ranging from Middle Eastern royalty to Hollywood stars, AJA's staff handbook specifies 23 "guest touch points" - from the initial booking system to the manner in which passengers are greeted as they board - fundamental to AJA winning and retaining business from its competitors.

Royal Jet is the reigning monarch of airliner-based business jet services in the Middle East, based at Abu Dhabi International airport and a relative veteran of the scene at seven-years-old. It has impeccable connections, being owned jointly by state-run Abu Dhabi Aviation and the Presidential Flight Authority and chaired by Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mubarak Al Nayan, a member of the royal family and minister in the UAE federal cabinet.

The world's largest BBJ operator, it has just added its sixth and "most exclusive" Boeing. The jet, which has two bedrooms, is pitched at smaller family groups, says chief executive Shane O'Hare. At the other end of the BBJ scale, Royal Jet also this year received back to its fleet from Goderich Aircraft in Ontario a refurbished jet configured for up to 40 passengers.

LIE-FLAT BEDS

This aircraft, with fully lie-flat beds, video on demand and three zones of mood lighting, is "proving extremely popular" with larger family groups, corporate delegations, rock bands and sports teams, he says.

O'Hare admits the downturn has affected Royal Jet and revenues this year will be flat on 2009. A 30% decline in corporate business has been offset by strong demand from governments and the medevac sector - Royal Jet operates a Bombardier Learjet 60 air ambulance alongside an Embraer Lineage, and a Gulfstream GIV-SP and G300.

Last year the company also entered the Saudi Arabian market in a joint venture with Arabasco - one of its BBJs is based in Jeddah - and has launched a corporate loyalty programme, the 100 Club. Also on the cards is a maintenance operation in Abu Dhabi. A facility at Abu Dhabi International, near Royal Jet's dedicated terminal, will begin construction next year.

O'Hare too is unfazed by the new competition and believes its established service gives it the edge. Earlier this month Royal Jet was named the best private jet service in the World Travel Awards, for the fourth year running.