The mood was positive at the third annual European VLJ conference, arranged by MIU events, held during 24-25th September. The demise of the original VLJ OEM, Eclipse and maiden VLJ operator Dayjet were deemed lessons to learn from whilst consolidation, global economic downturn and a touch of realism now dominate the sector. Controversially, delegates were told to forget the term VLJ by Aoife O´ Sullivan of legal firm Gates and Partners who suggested the description is not well received by banks and insurance companies. Along with a presentation about taxation implications from Clive and Sarah Chapman of Forest Associates, the audience was left in no doubt about the importance
of taking professional advice when purchasing aircraft.
With economic growth widely predicted again in 2010, "now is the time to start preparing infrastructure, and planning diversification" stated Edwin Brenninkmeyer from Oriens Advisors, specialist VLJ consultants. Highlighting that the sector was in a state of "evolution not revolution," he suggested that offering extra services such as flight training, maintenance, or expanded supplier relationships can support a cash generative business plan. Joe Leader from the Air Taxi Association commented that the VLJ is attractive to operators and customers, but that education and information was still lacking at many levels. Attracting and acquiring customers is still expensive, he added and suggested that operators maximise technology, online booking services and use social
networking VLJ sites to support the education of the market.
Question marks still hover over the success of the air taxi business. However, Blink´s CEO Peter Leiman presented an example of how applying the low cost airline business model can support sustainability. Homogenous fleets, in this case Cessna Citation Mustangs, high utilisation, Blink´s aircraft aim for 600 hours per annum per aircraft on confined networks. Blink operates out of Farnborough, the Channel Islands and now, Geneva, and
transparent pricing is key. Leiman also stressed strong direct relations with the client – 80% of Blink´s business comes direct from the client – was important.
Stefan Vilner, CEO of Cologne-based start up operator, JetBird, stated its main business driver was saving time for the client. Due to launch before year end, with an order for 59 Phenom 100s, JetBird´s strategy is to provide an efficient, flexible, and well priced offering. With arduous commercial airline experiences, JetBird anticipates an increasing number of passengers will be swayed towards the air taxi model through the simple need to work more efficiently. The Phenom 100, which flew in to London Oxford Airport for delegates´ viewing, is its aircraft of choice with a productive business working space, generous hold and high utilisation options.
Patrick Margetson Rushmore, CEO of London Executive Aviation (LEA) added a touch of realism to the meeting. Having been a charter operator for 15 years, and a Mustang operator for two, Margetson Rushmore questioned Blink´s high utilisation hours and argued a hybrid approach enabling a combination of owner/manager and charter usage was the way forward. His concern about the over optimism of the air taxi operators was reflected by
other carriers including Wondair, from Valencia, Spain which is building an 11-strong fleet of Phenom 100s, and Phenom operator Jetquik from the USA. "The industry expectation several years ago that VLJs would bring low cost business aviation has not happened," Patrick said. "The reality is that while operating VLJs costs less than operating larger business jets, it is by no means cheap."
The idea of operator – collaboration received a mixed response from delegates, although newly formed Cambridge-based company Ambeo announced the formation of Jetworld Alliance, together with Swiss-based Privatair and Dutch company Sky Taxi. They are joining forces to ensure the customer has access to all types of aviation through one source, reflecting the general consensus that each customer´s requirements will be different. Joe Leader
reported that while in London he met with the CEO and COO of British Airways and they were supportive of this new sector and could see a time when their transatlantic premium customers would require European air taxi operators. Some carriers such as Delta in the US, Swiss and Lufthansa have already adopted similar relationships.
Steve Jones, Managing Director of London Oxford Airport demonstrated how the airport is doing much to encourage smaller jets with ease of access, lower landing fees and improved opening hours. He said airports must work with operators to understand requirements. Arguing the sector is part of a larger context he said Eurocontrol needs to integrate light jets into existing air traffic. Flying academies need to understand crew requirements and operators, owners and purchasers must take the time to understand the
complexity, the infrastructure around purchasing, operating and maintaining them.
If Cessna and Embraer are leading the way, next up is Hondajet and Sales Director Nicholas Newby confirmed that this distinctive-looking aircraft is set to start its certification flying in January. Letters of Intent have already been logged from European customers, the OEM says, but won´t divulge any more detail. Honda´s vision for creating an advanced light jet fits with its long term strategy of mobility. Set to come onto the market in early 2010, it is aimed at owner pilots rather than a mainstay fleet model.
Summing up the conference Matthijs de Haan of Aviation Result commented on the advancement of the VLJ sector in just one long and challenging year. The two-day conference concluded with a debate about the name of next year´s conference. Following on the Gates and Partners warning, delegates agreed there was merit in renaming the event to actually widen it to incorporate the existing light jets. It would also include the larger Embraer Phenom 300 and the Grob Spn, should that programme be revised. Next year´s event is thus likely to be called Light Jets Europe and will take a slightly different format and focus.