Jet Aviation Celebrates Golden Anniversary

Jet Aviation is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. During five decades in business, it has evolved from a two-hangar maintenance facility in Basel, Switzerland, to an international enterprise offering FBO, MRO, completions, and management services throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia, North America, and the Caribbean.

The company was founded in November 1967 by Carl Hirschmann Sr., a Swiss-German who escaped to New York in World War II. He learned to fly in 1944 at the age of 24 and after the war started a business selling precision Swiss machinery. The U.S. Air Force was among his clients, and to visit his customers Hirschmann began flying his own airplane, a war-surplus P-51 Mustang that he purchased.

In the 1950s, he moved back to his native Switzerland and expanded his reach into more businesses. When the founders of Executive Jet Management—retired U.S. Air Force generals Olbert Lassiter, Curtis LeMay, and Paul Tibbets (pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima)—decided to expand to Europe in the late 1960s, they remembered dealing with Hirschmann and contacted him for help. He quickly made a deal to rent a pair of hangars in Basel, formerly occupied by bankrupt charter airline Globair, and provide maintenance for the company's four Learjet 23s. To manage and conduct the maintenance, he also hired the former airline’s deputy technical director Elie Zelouf, who became the backbone of the fledgling company’s operations, often driving hundreds of miles to pick up a part or, after the company began working on Dassault aircraft, flying to Paris for supplies.

In 1969, Jet Aviation had expanded to Zurich and Geneva as it purchased the ground-handling and maintenance operations at those locations from Swiss airframer Pilatus, and it offered services to private and corporate jets, charter airlines, and government and military aircraft. As the company grew, it went from occupying just a few offices at Hirschmann’s Zurich corporate headquarters, to his main focus. When he created a separate Business Jet Aviation, Hirschmann selected Zelouf to lead it.

The company expanded out of Switzerland in 1975, setting up a maintenance facility in Dusseldorf, Germany, and shortly thereafter added aircraft charter operations to its portfolio, starting with a pair of Lear 24s. Aircraft management, which Hirschmann saw as a way to deal directly with aircraft owners, followed soon after.

VIP Market

Noting that Middle Eastern clients tended to travel with large numbers of family, friends, and staff, Hirschmann believed that larger aircraft would soon be required, and he began considering converting airliners into VIP aircraft. Hirschmann purchased an old former Cathay Pacific Convair 880, dispatched his son Carl Jr. to Miami to pick it up, and instructed Zelouf to have his staff work on it when short on maintenance work. When Hirschmann decided he would exhibit the aircraft at the 1977 Paris Air Show, it became a company priority to finish the conversion, with teams working around the clock.

The aircraft proved a smash at the show, attracting thousands. “We were immediately on the map,” said Thomas Hirschmann, who took over from his father as president and CEO in 1990. “We did demo flights around the world.” The aircraft then entered the company’s charter fleet, exposing new customers to the prospect of a converted airliner. The company’s Basel facility handled several more completions, including its first widebody 707s, gaining proficiency. Then the elder Hirschmann again gambled, purchasing five former Lufthansa Boeing 727-100s and converting them to VIP bizliners. The aircraft sold as fast as they were completed, and in some cases Jet Aviation was retained as the operator.

In 1982, the company expanded across the Atlantic, establishing its first presence in the largest business aviation market with an office in Washington, D.C. It then acquired a hangar at Boston-area Bedford Airport, to establish its first FBO in the U.S. as well as a base for several Massachusetts aircraft management clients. Since those customers tended to fly to Florida in the winter, it made sense for the company to service them at both ends, so in 1985 it acquired Rockwell Aviation, an FBO and maintenance provider in West Palm Beach.

The company cemented its presence in the U.S. in 1988, when it purchased Executive Air Fleet, which at the time was the country’s largest aircraft charter and management provider, and obtained an FBO at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, the busiest business aviation airport in the world.

By the early 1990s, Carl Hirschmann had retired, and the company employed more than 1,600 people at 17 locations worldwide. As the decade rolled on, Jet Aviation expanded its aircraft management and charter operations with the acquisitions of several operators.

Eye on Asia

In 1995, the company made its first inroads in Asia, with the opening of its facility in Singapore. With that expansion, it began to market its worldwide presence with the tagline “the only Global Business Aviation Service Company.” The company’s timing was unfortunate, however, as just two months after the facility’s debut, the Asian financial crisis hit, causing business aviation in the region to plummet. Yet Thomas Hirschmann vowed to take a pragmatic approach. “We are in Singapore for the long haul, period,” he noted at the time. “We will be here through the lean times, and when the economy improves, we will be well positioned to take a leading role in corporate aviation in Asia.” In 2001, the company opened a location in Hong Kong, just days after the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S.

While Jet Aviation saw an immediate decline in its charter operations in the aftermath, business soon rebounded, as customers weighed the security measures that were instituted at commercial airports in response to the attacks. “Companies didn’t want to put executives through taking off their shoes and all of that,” noted Paul Engl, Jet Aviation’s director of FBO services and client relationships at Teterboro during that period. “Companies that had never had an aircraft now wanted one.”

In 2003, Hirschmann stepped down after 13 years as CEO, with Heinz Köhli, the former COO for the company’s EMEA and Asia operations taking over as the first non-family member to run the company. Two years later it opened its first Dubai FBO and maintenance operation, filling the gap in its repair service network between Basel and Singapore.

That year also saw the end of the company as a private entity, as it was acquired by London-based private-equity firm Permira Funds, which was eager to expand Jet Aviation’s reach in the U.S. The first move was the purchase of maintenance provider Midcoast Aviation from Sabreliner.

In 2007, Köhli, a 26-year company veteran, left under what was described as “differences over the company’s future strategy.” Carl Hirschmann Jr., Thomas’s elder brother, who had left the company in 1984, following a disagreement with his father but had remained a minority stakeholder, then served briefly as interim CEO, until the arrival of Peter Edwards, who headed the company until 2011.

By 2008, the company had 26 locations, with more than 5,000 employees, when it was announced that it would be sold to General Dynamics, which also owns airframer Gulfstream. The sale closed just weeks into the worldwide economic downturn. Being owned by a U.S. company meant that Jet Aviation could at last qualify for its own U.S. charter certificate, and it quickly snapped up K Services, its charter company neighbor at Teterboro. It also made the decision to manage its commercial charter and corporate flight department to more stringent commercial standards, further increasing its safety culture.

In 2011 the company made its first expansion to the U.S. West Coast with a charter/management office at Los Angeles-area Van Nuys Airport. A year later, Jet Aviation moved its global headquarters from Zurich to Basel, the site of its largest facility, and also its first to be occupied by Carl Hirschmann back in 1967. The company had come full circle.

This year, as part of its 50th anniversary rebranding, the company retired the stag-head icon that had been part of its logo and corporate identity since its beginning. It was meant as a symbol that Jet Aviation is looking to the future, according to the company.

Rob Smith

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Rob Smith

The president of Jet Aviation discusses how he runs its worldwide business.

“Throughout Jet Aviation’s 50-year history, we have always prioritized safety and service excellence with a steadfast commitment to meeting our customers’ needs,” said current Jet Aviation group president Rob Smith. “This focus has guided our investments in new technologies, equipment, facilities and our people, and ultimately directed the ongoing expansion of our network and service capabilities. We are also empowering our people, our teams of professionals, to foster their passions and better enable accountability and career growth. Our customers definitely drive our business, but it’s our employees that make us what we are. I have every confidence that by remaining true to our past, our commitments, and our partners, we’ll remain relevant for the next 50 years and beyond.”