Leaving on a private-jet plane

Leaving on a private-jet plane

When the going gets tough, the use of executive aviation soars, as recent experience in the Middle East and North Africa shows. By David Kaufman.

In times of conflict and instability, there are usually winners as well as losers. During the turmoil early this year in Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East, executive aviation was among the winners. Emergency evacuations and the relocation of wealthy ‘refugees’ meant that in the first quarter of 2011 private-jet companies from the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf saw an unprecedented spike in demand.

‘Our flight-loads in “problem” areas such as Cairo, Tunis and Bahrain rose by about 500 per cent,’ says Mark Pierotti, chief operating officer of Abu Dhabi-based Al Jaber Aviation. And Air Charter Middle East in Dubai, says its director Maya Taraby, ‘evacuated more than 10,000 foreign nationals from locations including Egypt, Tunisia and Syria to their home countries, or to airports – Bahrain or Dubai, for example – where they could connect to national carriers’.

The upturn could not have come at a better time for private aviation. The business had still not recovered from the global downturn of 2009. But now Abu Dhabi-based Royal Jet expects sales to increase by about 15 per cent this year, and Al Jaber Aviation is expecting a rise of 25 per cent. Booked last-minute and requiring tight security, emergency repositioning trips come with high premiums, says Al Jaber’s Pierotti.

Executive aviation usually gets a boost in times of trouble. During the two weeks following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, private business-related air travel rose by 80 per cent according to the private aviation directory Air Charter Guide. When commercial flights are backlogged by airport closures, private jets offer an immediate escape route, avoiding airport security queues. And they provide the comfort of flying without strangers.

Can the business hold on to its recent gains? The omens are good. UK-based Gama Aviation, which entered the Gulf market in 2008, reported strong demand during the summer, thanks to the annual holidays of royal families. And according to Pierotti, rich Arabs were once again flying to the USA rather than traditional holiday spots such as Morocco and Egypt. The problem will be if Syria, Yemen and Libya continue to smoulder. ‘Lengthy instability is bad for business,’ says Richard Abulafia of the Teal Group, an aviation consultancy in Virginia, USA; and most private-jet seats are occupied by business travellers, not royals.

A bellwether of the robustness of the business will be Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen Executive Airport. The ex-military base was converted to commercial use in 2008 and is now the Middle East’s largest private-aviation airport, and a base for seven operators. Boosted by the surge in conflict-related travel, arrivals were up by 40 per cent in the first half of this year.

Published in Conde Nast Traveller October 2011

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