Although business aviation in Russia and the CIS has not received much attention over the six years since the break-up of the Soviet Union, it is becoming an increasingly important tool in the development of industry and services.

There are now about six operators in the region with executive charters as their principal business. One of these is Clintondale Aviation, named after a small town in New York state where the company was originally established as a remote-operations audit unit working for major oil companies such as Mobil.

In the early 1990s, Mobil asked the company to check what was available in the then Soviet Union. Thus, in 1991, a new Russian company was set up to arrange oil-industry travel for the region. Colin Hamilton, one of the US directors and now chief executive, brought a background of aviation engineering, quality control and international operations to the business, while Yuri Konovalov, now chief operations officer, added his 30 years' service as a pilot and air-traffic-control instructor in the Soviet Union.

Clintondale's focus is on operational quality. At first, all of its services were flown using aircraft leased from local airlines. Before any such leases took place, however, an operational and engineering team audited the airline providing the aircraft, and the aircraft itself.

"Firstly, we satisfy ourselves about the technical and operational qualities of the provider," says Hamilton."Then we take a close look at its fleet. We pick the aircraft we want to use, we inspect it and its technical records, and our engineers will oversee any work needed to be done before we use it.

"We usually pick aircraft from an operator's fleet and specify that these will be the ones to fly for our customers. After that, we maintain supervision on all work done to those aircraft while they remain available, or potentially required by Clintondale."

In this way, Clintondale believes that it can guarantee to its customers that the aircraft carrying their personnel are technically up to the highest world standards.

Clintondale's customer base is impressive. It consists of most of the major Western oil companies which operate in the former Soviet Union, including BHP, Chevron, Elf, Exxon, Mobil Oil, Shell, Statoil and Texaco, plus many local oil firms. Other major international Clintondale customers include embassies, Chase Manhattan, General Motors, Motorola, NBC News, Pratt & Whitney, Price Waterhouse and the World Bank.

For these customers, Clintondale organises everything from visa support and travel services to security personnel, crew training and communications services.

"We now have 55 of our own staff in marketing, operations and engineering," says Hamilton. "Our flightcrews for Russian aircraft come from the airlines that provide the aircraft - we have full documentary records for all personnel who serve our flights, and we ensure they meet our standards. We provide our own cabin staff."

As a charter enquiry comes in to the commercial manager, Clintondale begins the process of planning. "We ensure that an aircraft and crew are available," says Hamilton. "We check both the destination and, if required, en route stops, to ensure availability of fuel and services. If the aircraft to be used is not on our approved list, then we'll send an audit team to check it. If we haven't time to do this, we won't take the charter."

Before the flight, Clintondale prepays the fuel and airport costs, thus avoiding problems for the crew in handling cash, or, on occasions, even having to negotiate fuel prices. "We control the operation," says Hamilton. "Our flight manager takes the responsibility of ensuring that the fuel on board is sufficient to allow a diversion if conditions should require it. Our prime emphasis is on safety. If necessary, we will limit payload should a safety reason require it."

After the flight, Clintondale takes a copy of the flight-data-recorder read-outs to ensure that all has gone well. "Any doubts, and we won't use that crew again," says Hamilton. Every six months, Clintondale carries out a safety audit of all aircraft on its approved list.

Clintondale operates one executive Tupolev Tu-134 in its own colours. The aircraft is leased from AVL-Arkhangelsk Airlines and flown by AVL's crews. At Clintondale's request, this was the first Tu-134 to be equipped with drop-down oxygen masks.

"AVL is a good company and it is prepared to work with us to meet our customers' needs," says Hamilton. "We work with them to Russian Federal Aviation Service standards, which are as good as those of the West in almost every respect, and we augment them as we require when needed."

In June 1996, Petroleum Helicopters (PHI) took a 50% stake in Clintondale. PHI has provided oil-industry support for almost 50 years, mainly for helicopter operations, but also for business jets. The industry's growing interest in the CIS made a partnership with Clintondale a logical step. Two PHI executives have joined Clintondale's board, and PHI is now marketing Clintondale through its customer network.

This has resulted in a business expansion for Clintondale. New offices have been opened in the Kazakhstan cities of Atyrau and Almaty, plus another in Russia's Far East, in Yuzhne Sakhalinsk. The company's dedicated fleet has expanded, with two Yakovlev Yak-40s, leased from Vologda Avia, joining the Sakhalin-based operation, called CGI Aero.

In May, a Let L-410 was purchased to support a Chevron contract in Kazakhstan, and a Bell 212 helicopter has been leased from PHI for offshore exploration work in the Caspian Sea. Two Mil Mi-8 helicopters have been bought and fitted with flotation gear by the Kazan factory which manufactures the aircraft.

"We had the floats made in France for these, and we had them certificated by the Aviaregister - the first time that floats have been approved for Russian helicopters," says Hamilton.

PHI has also provided a Raytheon Hawker 125-700 for operation by Clintondale in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The growing business market in Central Asia has made it possible for a corporate jet to be based there.

"We are operating both CIS and Western aircraft," says Hamilton. "The ruggedness of CIS aircraft means they are well suited to the poor runways and the extreme climates of the region. They have adequate support and back-up in the region and they can, if business justifies it, be fitted with suitable interiors. Western aircraft are available to us when they are required."

Most of Clintondale's operations are within the former Soviet Union, but occasional demand takes them to Western Europe. Hamilton is conscious that future noise regulations may impose penalties on aircraft such as the Tu-134 early in the new century, and says that this problem is now being examined.

"We are now operating about 1,800 flights a year," says Hamilton. "I'm happy to say that, in our six years in business, we have had no safety incidents and just three technical delays. Just as we monitor the companies that provide us with aircraft and crews, we are often subject to safety audits by the operational and technical staffs of our major customers who have their own aircraft fleets."

One service which Clintondale provides for major Western businesses is medical evacuation. "In the first six months of this year, we carried out 37 such flights, mostly with Mi-8 helicopters," says Hamilton. "Accidents and illnesses in remote regions while searching for oil and minerals are a feature of life for the companies involved, and evacuation is a vital support service."

Clintondale has succeeded in the former Soviet Union by blending the qualities of the region's aviation systems and aircraft with the requirements for visible quality control demanded by Western businesses. This approach has also allowed the company to secure major industrial customers in the CIS, where the requirements of business users are developing rapidly.

Hamilton is conscious of the worth of Soviet-built aircraft, and of how well-maintained aircraft with low capital costs can be worthwhile tools for business development.

He warns, however, that the growing price of fuel in the CIS, plus a possible need to meet new noise requirements "-are likely to mean that we may have to change".

With PHI behind it, the company has been appointed Raytheon's corporate-jet agent in Kazakhstan. This could indicate a future trend.

Clintondale has plans for the future, including a change of name. "We are continually working to improve our accessibility," says Hamilton. "We have a Web page on the Internet, and this has already generated business. We are also conscious that our name, Clintondale, doesn't have much relevance over here. We are planning to change it to Elita in the near future."

Source: Flight International