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August 2015
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Andy Christie, group executive jets director at Air Charter Service, talks about the company’s ethos and its continuing expansion.

Air Charter Service moves in many directions

In June, for the first time in its 25-year history, Air Charter Service (ACS) booked more than 1,000 charter contracts in a month. Group coo Ruan Courtney comments: “It is a great achievement to have organised 1,056 charters in a month, many of these consisting of more than one sector. That is an average of one contract signed every 41 minutes. Considering ten years ago we had only just passed the 1,000-charters-per-year mark, it is a testament to our significant growth in recent years.

“Despite the deterioration of the Russian market, which has hurt numbers in both our Moscow and St Petersburg offices, all our other European offices were up considerably year on year, as well as our North American operations, more than making up for the shortfall,” Courtney says.

“Particular highlights include the performance of our private jet departments in the UK and the US. These have fuelled a large part of the growth in terms of numbers. Also our operations in Hong Kong and Beijing which, while less significant in terms of overall numbers, saw a 60 per cent increase.”

Air evacuation division

In response to a significant increase in demand for the evacuation of personnel from high risk environments, ACS has created a full time dedicated department offering customised air evacuation plans for clients.

Heading up the Air Evacuation Plan (AEP) division, Stephen Huddlestone, says: “Many of our clients have personnel in high risk environments who may need to get out urgently, a prime example being during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, when we evacuated more than 15,000 people from Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. We have a proven history of providing evacuation flights and have had to put these plans together in the past, but we felt that now was the right time to create a dedicated department and offer a product that gives our customers the chance to be ahead of the game.

“When an evacuation becomes inevitable, it is vital that aircraft are available to transport personnel. In these situations, many companies plan to put all their staff on the next scheduled service out of the region from the closest airport.

Unfortunately, the reality is that with many international companies having thousands of employees in these countries, there are simply not enough seats for everyone. On top of this, these situations often put airports out of action. Once these companies realise that chartering is the only option, the best suited aircraft are often booked or not available due to the high demand in such times.”

Huddlestone continues: “The key purpose of an AEP is to have solutions in place in advance, to ensure the clients retain maximum control and to provide personnel with a duty of care. I was once told that the worst time to plan for a crisis is during one and this couldn't be more true. We provide a detailed report covering all potential eventualities. We look at all possible alternative airports and routes, even if that is in a neighbouring country. We provide market analysis on a continuous basis and monitor the availability of the most suited operators in the region. Then we put in place a credit agreement, so as not to hold up any evacuation based on money transfers. There is a huge list of potential complications, but with our AEP we cover all of these eventualities, giving peace of mind that we will get employees out of harm's way by continuously monitoring and adapting the plan in line with an event's progression and development.”

ACS team members talk to Charter Broker at EBACE about recent expansion in Europe

Air Charter Service has opened an office in Geneva because, says group executive jets director Andy Christie: “We recognised the necessity for an office in Switzerland a few years ago and felt that now was the right time to make the move, having established an already strong Swiss client base through our French and German operations.

“We chose Geneva as it is an important hub for private aviation and a popular destination for many of our clients - we will benefit from having people on the ground here. A lot of our current clients are based here too and we are now not only closer to them, but we are also able to reach more potential customers that we couldn't before. Having a locally registered company and bank accounts will hopefully help us to win more clients who prefer a local service, as we have seen with many of our other offices.”

Christie adds: “We have brought in experienced staff who have been working out of our London, Paris and Frankfurt offices over the past six months, in the run up to opening the doors in May.”

The Swiss office is ACS's 19th, and two more are planned in the next nine months.

“We have two staff in Switzerland now and more are training in London in time to move over during the summer,” Christie continues. “Geneva is a popular site for jets – in Europe it is probably only behind Paris and Luton in importance. Our presence here gives our clients extra support and they feel at home with us as we have a local phone number. Clients who hold their finances here, or base their company here, like the fact that we can visit them at short notice if necessary. The face-to-face side of business is so important. They can speak to the same person, their account manager, whether they are flying to the Far East or the States. The person dealing with you wherever you are is your Swiss contact, and we feel that this distinguishes us from the rest of the market.”

Christie explains that the company realised the success of its strategy almost by accident. “The Moscow office is now run by the guy that was originally brought in to translate on a deal for us, back in 1996. His language skills enabled us to do local business, and it grew from there. Customers are more confident dealing with local companies, in any field. The business will fall under their local jurisdiction, and there will be no currency exchange. The foreign exchange risk is all ours. We take the hassle out of things, and speed them up.”

Recruiting for expansion

Group marketing director James Leach explains ACS' recruitment policy: “We look for three core functions. First, aviation knowledge. New staff have to learn about a large number of aircraft right away and we have an exam system to check their accuracy before they speak to customers.

“Second is sales experience. You need to be able to sell your products; it is no good knowing everything about aviation yet not being able to communicate that to the client.

“Third, and most important, is customer service. We look for people that pay a lot of attention to detail, who 'go the extra mile' and can be flexible. This doesn't suit everybody. Some people are happy to do a nine to five job, but for us, at 11pm on a Friday night, if something comes in you have to deal with it, you have to know every single detail about the flight, and you must have all the details with you.”

Leach adds: “We also like our staff to be up to speed in terms of social media. It is important to us how we communicate with our clients and how quickly we can access information. Our app is a very efficient way of being on the move yet keeping in touch. And we rely heavily on emails and various social media platforms to work on what we are doing. But ultimately, if you need to communicate about changes to aircraft tail numbers or weather issues, sometimes on the day, then the best and most accurate way is still either face to face or over the phone.

“We also like to recruit people with a range of languages. The market is getting more competitive and we have found our clients prefer to deal with people in their own language, who are based nearby.”

Customer interaction is a one-stop shop

Christie believes that the key to good customer relations is consistency. “We have IT, accounts and marketing departments around the globe,” he says. “We can have payments made at weekends in the Middle East when in Europe the banks are closed, and we have the facility to use all our infrastructure globally. Even if it is just for the one customer, we pool all our resources together across different time zones to ensure that the business comes together.

“The first two people in the Geneva office will have previously been in London for between six months to a year. We pay them, put them up in London and train them so that they get to know our systems and our way of working. They are not coming to Geneva to learn the ropes, they have been recruited and essentially have had a year-long job interview to make sure they can offer our service independently and absolutely in line with our values. But we will be working very closely with them there.

“We keep control as it's not a franchise where they do their own thing or do their own invoicing. We've got our own safeguards in place so that payments are made through the proper channels. It means it is safe and standards are adhered to. Whichever ACS office you are in around the world, the client receives the same level of service and enjoys the same interaction.”

A pragmatic approach to charter spending

Global director jet card sales, Neil Backhouse, says: “There's a certain percentage of high net worth individuals who still see private jets as a luxury. They like to turn up to a conference in a slightly larger aircraft than their competitors, but generally common sense is being used a bit more. Companies are now coming out of the back of the recession and they are starting to spend a bit more money, but the last few years of control, consolidation in spending and downsizing where necessary has had an impact.”

Leach adds: “Once upon a time we had to put five people on a BBJ, which is completely over the top. Yet I remember one of the top 20 wealthiest people in the world flew into London on a Mustang because it was the most efficient plane to use.

“But volumes are up and we are seeing substantial growth of close to 30 per cent this year, mostly within the heavy jets and vljs.

“We are a broker, a consultant. It is in our best interests to offer a range of options, but we would identify the most functional aircraft for what the client is looking to do. We will look after our customers' best interests because we want a long-term relationship with them. We will give them our best advice so that although a larger aircraft might be more suitable for the range or baggage that the client is bringing, we may point out that sometimes a smaller aircraft on a certain trip could be a far better solution.”

The customer is key

“Some customers,” says Christie, “will always take a substantially larger aircraft than is strictly necessary. They have their own reasons for that. Our target is customer retention as we are looking for consistency in long-term growth, not just a quick win. We have designed our approach not around profit, but the customer.

“We did a huge amount of client research and mystery shopping on our competitors to find out what it was they were offering, and most of their business models are designed around making a profit for that company. We don't want to lock our customers in. It is our commitment and service which keep them coming back.”


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Air Charter Service
Air Charter Service Switzerland