Switzerland: Jet Aviation's Quality hallmark

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Switzerland's strong heritage of quality, efficiency and competence has spawned and nurtured one of the leading providers of business aviation services in the world. Across its cornucopia of bases both in Switzerland and worldwide, Jet Aviation has become one of the major powerhouses in the business aviation industry with its well respected and impressive portfolio of services including maintenance repair and overhaul, aircraft handling, management, charter and high-end aircraft interior completions.

The company has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1967 when Swiss entrepreneur Carl Hirschmann - seeking to be at the forefront of the business aviation renaissance in Europe - established the continent's first business aircraft maintenance facility in Basel on the border of Switzerland, France and Germany.

 
Up to 40 aircraft are maintained at Jet Aviation's Basel facility annually. Picture: Jet Aviation

Two years later the Pilatus maintenance and airline handling operations in Zurich and Geneva, were acquired and in 1977 following a number of speculative sales of VIP configured airliners, Hirschmann established an interior completions business. This facility in Basel has become the jewel in the Jet Aviation crown as is one of the most highly regarded luxury aircraft outfitters in the industry.

"Although there have been some difficult times economically for the company, notably in the late 1980s, Jet Aviation has always remained one of the strongest brands in the industry," says Charles Celli, Jet Aviation's senior vice-president for completion services and general manager Basel.

Celli believes the acquisition of Jet Aviation two years ago by General Dynamics has not dented the brand. "Although we are now owned by a US company, our Swiss heritage is core to the business and we continue to operate independently," he says. "After all Switzerland is renowned for building things of quality, things that last and this reputation is vital within such a high end, bespoke business and can ultimately be the vital ingredient when it comes to sealing a contract."

Jet Aviation's commitment to its Swiss heritage has led to hefty investment in the Basel facility over the decades, notable the addition of a new widebody aircraft hangar in 2008 that can house an Airbus A380 and a Boeing 747-400 simultaneously.

Celli says Jet Aviation's "huge backlog" and niche customer base - in particular, heads of state, and very wealthy individuals - has helped to cushion the company from the worst of the economic downturn. "Our backlog has certainly carried us through and we are now in the process of refilling the pipeline," Celli says, which has shrunk during the recession. "We have been hit by the downturn and the market is still in recovery," Celli says, adding: "The business environment is very different today. We have lots of polite meetings with potential customers who are taking much longer to make decisions."

The drop in completions work has taken its toll at the Basel facility where around 500 contractor jobs have been slashed. "We have had to make efficiency savings to avoid losing our full-time employees." Jet Aviation Basel employs around 1,700 people today.

Jet Aviation will not disclose the annual completion tally for its narrow and widebody aircraft, but says from 2007 to the end of 2010 it will have delivered a host of new VIP configured narrow and widebody airliners including Airbus 319CJs, A320s, A330s, A340s, Boeing Business Jets, 747s and 757s. Completion contracts were recently signed for two A319CJs and two BBJ3s, says the company.

"We are continually looking at our cost base and finding ways to be more efficient," adds Celli. Three years ago - at the height of the market - Jet Aviation introduced a fixed completion process for its Dassault Falcon production line in an effort to speed up delivery for the large cabin business jets. "We cut the production process from 20 to 14 weeks and cut man hours simply by sticking to a rigid completion process where each aircraft is at the different phase of the production line for a set time." Jet Aviation will complete around 20 Falcon types this year - eight fewer than in 2008 due to a fall in demand for the high-end business jets.

The drive for efficiency and cost savings persuaded Jet Aviation to shut down its refurbishment and modification offering at Geneva and transfer the completions work to Basel. "Geneva is an expensive destination so it was a logical move to base our completions work in our centre of completions excellence," says Michael Sattler, senior vice-president MRO at Jet Aviation Basel.

Geneva now provides line maintenance and is home to one of Jet Aviation's two Swiss-based fixed-base operations - the other is in Zurich. "Maintenance is Jet Aviation's bread and butter business," Sattler continues. "It made money throughout the worst of the economic downturn and continues to do so."

Jet Aviation has the full breadth of maintenance ratings across a "range of aircraft from Bombardier Learjets to 747-400s". Up to 40 aircraft are maintained in Basel annually, up to 15 in Geneva and around 30 in Zurich. "This business has become very competitive as there are fewer aircraft flying around today compared with to years ago," Sattler says. "Although we are seeing a slight recovery in the market, it will remain competitive for some time to come as customers have become cost conscious." In response Jet Aviation has not increased its maintenance prices for two years and is aggressively pursuing efficiency savings throughout its maintenance network. "We are investing in business tools that will help to speed up the delivery process from our suppliers, cut down on paperwork and create organised hangars. We will not stop pushing for increased efficiency but we will never compromise the Jet Aviation brand."