The downturn has been tough on the Middle East's burgeoning business aviation sector, with a number of new ventures - particularly in Dubai - failing to get off the ground in the past six months. An exception is Rizon. The Bahrain-based executive charter start-up has begun work on a fixed-base operation in Doha, Qatar - the only one in the country - that will open in early 2010, and this month is adding six aircraft to its fleet.

Last year the Qatari-owned business became the first charter operator in the Gulf to establish an FBO in Europe - its 13,000m2 (140,000ft2) hangar and headquarters building at London's Biggin Hill airport, similar in size to Doha, will be finished in September and will employ around 200 people.

Established two years ago, Rizon has been slowly building its mostly third-party owned fleet, the majority of which is available for charter. This month it will take on the management of a UK-registered Bombardier Global XRS and put a Doha-based Challenger 605 into service. It is adding three Challenger 604s, also on management contracts, and a Hawker 900XP.

Rizon Jet
 © Rizon

Rizon has become one of the first operators to commit to the Bombardier Learjet 85, placing orders for four of the 555km (300nm)-range midsize jets in January. The aircraft, for which Bombardier has received more than 55 orders, is due to enter service in 2013.

Last month, Rizon received European Aviation Safety Agency approval to undertake maintenance work on the Hawker family of aircraft at Biggin Hill. It is moving its Middle East-based Beechcraft Premier I light jet to the UK and hopes to pick up its UK and Qatari air operator's certificate this month.

Although chief executive Will Curtis admits the climate is much tougher - in terms both of attracting customers and finance - he is banking on things picking up by the time Biggin Hill and Doha are completed. "When the global recovery happens - and even the Middle East market has dropped off significantly these past months - we will be well positioned to catch the upturn," he says. "We hope that the recovery will start late this year when we open the doors to our new facilities."

Until then, he says, "there is more capacity than there is work", but he expects a number of weaker players to "drop out of the market".

Curtis - who is announcing a new sales and marketing director for Europe at EBACE this week - is targeting a 50/50 split between Middle Eastern and European customers, with the larger aircraft tending to operate out of the Gulf, where end-users tend to be prepared to pay a premium for space and fly longer distances. The Learjet 85s will be very much targeted at Europe as a fast and value-for-money corporate charter within the region or for high net-worth individuals taking friends or families to European resorts, says Curtis.

Construction of the $16 million Biggin Hill facility is more than 60% complete and Curtis says the company has received "numerous enquiries" for hangarage, maintenance and aircraft management opportunities. The expansion makes Rizon one of only a handful of business aviation operators anywhere in the world currently recruiting staff.

Curtis says Rizon opted for Biggin Hill for its UK site not just because land was available, but because the long-established general aviation airfield, tucked away just beyond London's south-east suburbs, has the potential to vie with Farnborough as the capital's main business aviation hub.

Although Biggin Hill does not have the easy motorway access that Luton and Stansted have, these airports are busy commercial operations and business aircraft often have to take their place in the queue behind airlines. "There's only so many times you can tell a busy chief executive sitting in the back who has to be at a meeting that their departure is delayed again behind half a dozen Ryanair 737s," says Curtis. "The most important advantage that business aviation sells is time."

Qatar was chosen for its Middle Eastern base partly due to the fact that the company is privately owned by a Qatari businessman, but also because the country is an "untapped market" for business aviation. With the sector's centre of gravity in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, many operators are looking at the small but ambitious nation as the next potential mini hub for the region.

Despite the difficult economic conditions, Gulf businesses are likely to make their presence felt at EBACE this week. Among the Middle Eastern exhibitors are Abu Dhabi Airports, Jordanian operator Arab Wings, flight planning specialist Hadid International, JetEx Flight Support, Jordanian Private Jets, Dubai-based Palm Aviation, RayaJet, United Aviation Libya and Uniqjet of Sharjah. Others will be there as potential customers.

With corporate and state coffers still bulging with the proceeds of recent high oil and natural gas prices, the region has been relatively unscathed by the credit crunch, although tourism- and property-dependent Dubai has taken a major hit. A relative newcomer to business aviation - other than the airliner-based "flying palaces" traditionally commissioned by royal families - the Middle East remains a rare bright spot for manufacturers, even if this EBACE may not see the billion dollar-plus order bonanzas which have made the headlines at previous shows.

Source: Flight Daily News