Middle East Careers: Business aviation back in business

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The "gold rush" atmosphere that preceded Dubai's financial crash in 2009 saw a frenzy of activity in the business aviation sector. Investing in a fast-appreciating business jet became de rigueur for the region's wealthy, while almost overnight a host of management companies, brokers and other middle men emerged to offer these aircraft to the charter community.

The collapse in real estate values in the Middle East's glitziest city and a dramatic drop in high-end corporate traffic from abroad was a sobering moment for many of these new entrants to a market which even Ali Al Naqbi, founder and chairman of the Middle East Business Aviation Association, has described as "crazy".

But the region's business aviation segment has recovered quickly and this time it appears to be built on surer foundations, with a handful of highly credible local and foreign-owned start-ups joining survivors of the purge, such as Abu Dhabi's Royal Jet and Falcon Aviation Services, and Rizon Jet of Qatar.

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ExecJet: Positive signs in the charter market after a lean 2009 and beter 2010

New arrivals in the charter market include one of the UK's oldest operators, Gama Aviation, and Al Jaber Aviation (AJA) in Abu Dhabi, which will this year see its fleet of Airbus and large Embraer business jets reach nine.

For the first time in years, the Middle East is also adding some badly needed infrastructure. Swiss-owned ExecuJet and Jet Aviation were the first fixed-base operators with maintenance hangars to establish themselves in the region, at Dubai's International Airport in the mid-2000s.

Now Abu Dhabi Airports (ADAC) is establishing a rival business aviation cluster at what it describes as the region's first dedicated executive airport, at the former Al Bateen air base near Abu Dhabi city centre. Already home to AJA and Falcon, ADAC hopes to attract many of the region's maintenance, management and training service providers - and some new arrivals - to set up operations.

Not to be outdone, ExecuJet is expanding its activities at Dubai, despite the success of Emirates and the airport increasing pressure on slots and apron space. Last year, it leased a neighbouring 5,000m2 (54,000ft2) hangar, doubling its available space with a view to expand from its core maintenance market of Bombardier and more into Hawker and Embraer types.

Out of a Dubai workforce of 240, 135 are in its maintenance business and 85 of these are licensed engineers. ExecuJet recruits from as far afield as North America and South-East Asia. "The ExecuJet brand helps us attract people," says managing director Mike Berry.

ExecuJet Middle East manages 14 aircraft for clients, offering a "full turnkey" service with crew, operational support and responsibility for chartering the jets under its air operator's certificate. It employs 33 pilots and 12 cabin attendants in Dubai. Berry sees some "positive signs" in the charter market after a "lean patch" in 2009 which picked up slightly last year - but recent Middle East unrest has caused wobbles. "I suspect it will be a long time before we recover to 2007 levels," he says.

Outside ExecuJet's FBO, several jets tightly parked on the apron are a sign not just of the company's sound prospects, but of the shortage of space at Dubai's airport. "Parking is at a premium and we foresee that for GA it will become more constricted," says Berry. The company had talked about moving to Dubai's new Al Maktoum airport, being built in the desert at Jebel Ali. "We are still looking at Jebel Ali and when it gets too restricted here, that could be the time to move," he adds.

ExecuJet also plans to open a facility and charter operation in Qatar, at the new, under-construction Doha International airport. "We are expecting our AoC in the next three months, although we are making sure our business plan is 100% first," says Berry.

Jet Aviation celebrated the fifth anniversary of its Dubai FBO late last year. The General Dynamics subsidiary is certificated to service Boeing Business Jets, Dassault Falcon, Embraer and Hawker, as well as its sister company Gulfstream. Although it has no local AoC, Jet Aviation's 15-jet capacity maintenance hangar has been very busy since business picked up again after the Dubai air show at the end of 2009.

Like Berry, Jet Aviation general manager Michael Rücker sources his 40 or so engineers and technicians globally, some arriving via Jet Aviation's Jet Professionals employment agency. "It is not always easy to get the right people," says Rücker. "People know what they are worth and demand a high salary."

Pay rates, given that there is no tax, are similar to Europe, he adds, but employers are expected to pay for accommodation, healthcare and other extras. The UAE itself has been a source of skilled labour, with Jet Aviation taking more than 20 recruits from the local Emirates College for on-the-job training.

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ExecJet: Berry's brand attracts people