Europe heats up

Jun 4, 2017 - 2:30 PM

U.S. charter activity grew strongly in 2016, and while much of Europe’s market continued to flatline, operators there are behaving as if a boom is imminent.

In the U.S., on-demand charter flights surged 5.6 percent for the year, with the biggest increases in the bookend categories of turboprop and large-cabin aircraft (up 8.8 and 9.4 percent, respectively), according to Argus International. Indeed, charter led all U.S. business aviation activity that the data and auditing service tracks, with year-over-year growth in 11 of 12 months.

Meanwhile, across the pond, charter demand for midsize and large-cabin jets was even with last year’s numbers and down from two years ago, according to the Avinode Demand Index. Light jets were the exception, registering about a 14 percent increase last year following a 22 percent jump in 2015. (The index data also reflects expanded penetration of Avinode’s charter market platform, which casts a deeper shadow over moribund categories.)

Yet data be damned, many European charter operators are in full growth mode, announcing a host of recent fleet additions and new programs. The most high-profile offering is a transatlantic alliance, with the March launch of U.K.-based Flexjet Ltd., sister company of U.S. fractional operator Flexjet. It’s operating three Nextant 400XTi light jets (the remanufactured Beechjet Hawker 400A/XP) and plans to have 10 aircraft—including at least one larger model—in the fleet by year’s end.

Though it’s aimed primarily at meeting U.S. customers’ need for lift in Europe, Flexjet CEO Michael Silvestro says he intends to create “more of an access membership program” for the European market. “Today,” he says, “customers want all different ways to get onboard, whether it’s fractional ownership, whole aircraft ownership, memberships, leases, or just access to the aircraft.” The company is considering offering the 400XTi for charter through “select” brokers.

Many European charter operators are in full growth mode, announcing a host of fleet additions and new programs.

Austrian light jet charter pioneer GlobeAir, which helped drive light jet acceptance, has just finished refurbishing its 15 Cessna Citation Mustangs with leather seats handcrafted in Florence, Italy, and other “bespoke” furnishings, creating a more “elevating” travel experience, says CEO Bernhard Fragner. GlobeAir plans to add at least three more Mustangs this year, even as it mulls replacing the platform entirely, with the Phenom 100EV a strong contender, Fragner notes. 

Reflecting increased demand from North American customers traveling in Europe, GlobeAir partnered in 2016 with U.S.-based Phenom 100 operator JetSuite to offer “last mile” service to each other’s customers on their respective continents. Light jets make great sense in the market, with low operating costs and a typical 1,200-nautical-mile range that puts at least 80 percent of Western Europe within their reach from any point inside its borders.

Meanwhile, consumers are benefitting from strong competition. Last fall’s merger of Mustang operators Blink in the U.K. and Wijet in France “will lead to sustainable and disruptive pricing in private aviation,” claims the Wijet Group, the new parent company. Its 15 jets retain their livery while a new brand is developed, and will make an estimated 11,000 charter flights carrying 16,000 passengers this year.

The group also operates OpenJet, an open online platform providing real-time charter pricing and booking. Now primarily covering Europe with a limited operator base that includes Wijet, the platform promises customers ease and freedom in making their own charter arrangements.

The jumbo side of the charter market is also active. Geneva’s Global Jet added a fourth ACJ—an ACJ318 Elite based at Paris Le Bourget—to its charter fleet amidst strong demand for VIP bizliner transport. The ACJ can take 19 passengers and 80 suitcases from London to Dubai or Paris to New York nonstop.

Supporting the midsize to large-cabin charter market, Germany’s Air Hamburg Private Jets this year acquired a new Embraer Phenom 300, a 2015 Embraer Legacy 650, and a preowned Legacy 500, and it may add an ultra-long-range jet to its owned and operated fleet. A Falcon or Global 6000 are “possible candidates,” for the long ranger, says partner Simon Ebert. The company already has more than half a dozen Legacy 600/650s, but it has seen strong demand for the one Phenom 300 in its fleet of more than 20 aircraft.

Across the Channel, the UK’s SaxonAir is bullish on the Legacy 500, and it just added its first to its fleet of six jets (Mustang to Gulfstream G550) and two helicopters. CEO Alex Durand touts a short-field capability that enables the 500 to fly, for example, from London City Airport to Dubai nonstop.

More rotor lift has also come online. Castle Air added a refurbished Leonardo A109S to its fleet to meet the London charter market’s demand for “newer aircraft with higher quality interior and trim,” says sales director Barry Chalmers. Castle Hill now operates more than a dozen A109Ss, which also provide London Heli Shuttle service between its Biggin Hill base and Battersea, completing more than 1,000 shuttle flights in the past two years. Service via Stansted, Luton, and Farnborough is also available.

Adding to what it calls the UK’s “very hot” charter market, Sweden’s European Flight Services (EFS) plans to land a pair of managed Bombardiers (models undisclosed) for its base at Farnborough this year, CEO Stephen Diapere says. Its current Farnborough fleet includes an Embraer Legacy 135BJ, Citation XLS, XLS+, and Sovereign, and a G550. Back in Sweden, EFS has moved its headquarters to Gothenburg’s Landvetter International Airport, where it’s building an FBO.

Membership-based shuttle ventures are also in the European activity mix. JetEight, a Berlin-based entrant, plans to launch this summer an all-you-can-fly subscription membership program linking Berlin, Frankfurt, and Zurich, with additional routes to follow. The price will be €2,500 ($2,700) per month. JetEight is eyeing Phenom 300s and King Air twin turboprops for the service, but with recent European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) approval for single-engine turboprop commercial operations, “we might be able to think about using a [Pilatus] PC-12,” CEO Ruben Portz says. No operator for the flights has been named.