US fractional ownership operator Flexjet has opened a European corporate headquarters and "customer experience centre" in London – a move it describes as “integral” to its expansion on the continent.
The company is now planning to introduce its high-end fractional ownership programme to businesses, aircraft owners and high-end travellers in Europe, with launch expected in the first half of 2020.
Flexjet began what European managing director Marine Eugene describes as a “beta test” of the region in 2017, using a pair of bespoke Nextant 400XT light business jets operated by UK sister company Flairjet.
The service aims to provide onward travel in Europe for the programme’s US fractional owners, and to evaluate demand in the local market.
"We have been in no hurry to launch a fractional programme here," says Eugene. “By taking its slowly, we have been able to grow our customer base considerably and get a good understanding of what type of service European customers are looking for."
Mike Silvestro, chief executive of the Cleveland, Ohio-headquartered firm, says Flexjet has taken time to “understand the nuances of the market”, gain operational experience, recruit the “finest talent” and make the “strategic acquisitions we need to become the finest provider of private jet travel in Europe”.
These purchases – made by Flexjet’s parent Directional Aviation – include Flairjet in 2016 and Milan-based charter and management company Sirio in 2018, with the two operators giving Flexjet access to a UK and a worldwide air operator certificate respectively. The company in 2018 also acquired leading UK business aircraft broker PrivateFly, which has helped it build a pipeline of new and prospective customers.
“We now have a fleet of 20 aircraft in Europe – 15 400XT/XTis and five Embraer Legacy 600s,” says Eugene.
She admits the fragile economies of the eurozone, coupled with the UK’s planned exit from the EU, have created a “little uncertainty” for the business. However, she is confident that the market is robust enough to support a new offering. “Europe is a mature market, and while the economic conditions are not ideal, there is still plenty of demand for a fresh, bespoke business aircraft service here,” she says.
Flexjet is also undeterred by fractional ownership rival NetJets’ dominance of the European market. The industry pioneer began fractional services in Lisbon, Portugal in 1996, and now has a fleet of around 100 CS-registered business jets.
“We have taken on NetJets successfully in the USA, so there is no reason why we can’t do it in Europe,” says Eugene, who worked for the Berkshire Hathaway-owned operator between 2002 and 2017.
While exact details of the new European programme are currently under wraps, Eugene does disclose that the service will be modelled on the premium Red Label offering operated by Flexjet US, and new aircraft acquisitions are planned "over the coming year".
Red Label offers a “whole-aircraft ownership experience”, she says, by providing dedicated flightcrews on a range of luxury, customised jets. In the US fleet, these include the Gulfstream G650, G500, G450 and Bombardier Challenger 350.