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October 2017
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Horizon Air Group CEO Luis Barros joins the discussion about customer service standards within the industry.

Investigating the hidden value of brokers

In this issue we look at service inconsistencies relating to business aviation operations. In life, if something can go wrong, it usually does; in business, how brokers deal with flight problems is the mark of their skill and professionalism, and the kiss of life or death to their relationship with the client. If handled badly, customer care issues will lose revenue for the charter industry. We asked members of the ad hoc air charter community for their advice and their stories.

Professional brokers pride themselves on customer service. They will foresee potential problems and resolve them prior to takeoff. But as in all industries things sometimes still go wrong, and when the client is paying a lot of money for a flight, poor service is simply not acceptable. Never mind where the fault lies, an air charter broker has to make sure everything runs smoothly, all the time.

“The secret of good broking isn't just about being a good salesman; that's only half the job. The other half is ensuring that the product you have sold your client lives up to their expectations and to be there if things go wrong,” says Matthew Savage, sales director at UK-based Smart Aviation. When the unexpected happens there is no substitute for experience. He has been in the charter industry for over 28 years and has had the 'pleasure' of being on the spot when many difficult situations have occurred.

The risk of losing business is higher when the client-broker relationship is in its infancy. “With new clients, our most important goal is to make sure that the passengers have the best experience possible,” says US broker Horizon Air Group CEO Luis Barros. “It's all about building trust quickly.” Even a small miscommunication such as a catering mix-up can ruin the whole experience, and the likelihood of that client taking their business to a competitor increases.

When an owner pulls an aircraft at the last minute

Florida-based Air Charter Advisors' (ACA) president Adam Steiger was working on a flight request with a new client, potentially a major key account for the company. “We were working with them for months before they finally gave us a flight and signed off on the paperwork,” says Steiger. “It was an exciting moment.”

The contract was for a VIP airliner for 44 executives on a retreat trip. After vetting the vendor and making sure the aircraft, crew and insurance limits were acceptable, the ACA team secured the plane. Then the owner pulled out. Many hours were spent trying to source another aircraft but to no avail, and in the end the customer took his business elsewhere.

“How we pick up the pieces is what really separates the strong from the weak,” adds Steiger. How a mechanical failure is handled may certainly be the solidifying factor in a client relationship, or despite best efforts it could bring the whole thing to an end.

ACA also had an operator confirm a Global 6000 booking valued at $125,000 only to find on a Friday afternoon prior to a Sunday departure that the owner had already booked the aircraft over the same dates. On this occasion the team found a replacement aircraft. But with a flight credit for the client's next trip to encourage continued business, along with little extras such as complementary catering and ground transportation, all margins were wiped out.

Avoid complacency

“We always assume operators will fail,” says Barros. “This makes us a better brokerage, and now that we are also a Part 135 operator it has elevated our service level on that side as well.” It is a mistake for brokers to assume that their work is done once they have managed and arranged all the things directly under their control. Their duty is to protect the client's interests by making sure that all other parties have completed their part of the arrangement successfully. Double and triple checking will eliminate the most common mistakes, and experience definitely helps. In this way brokers will prevent the majority of complications from arising and make sure that all parties are actively doing everything in their power to process a smooth operation as well.

Understanding, communication and responsiveness

In private aviation, passengers have the advantage of being able to make changes immediately before and even during the trip, and for a broker to be able to successfully accommodate these changes they need to be able to contact all suppliers at any time and get an instant response. Any mistakes made by a supplier will also have a direct effect on the customer's satisfaction if the broker does not have the ability or sufficient time to rectify the situation. “There is nothing more aggravating than a vendor or operator that doesn't answer their phone,” says Barros. Building relationships with a network of vetted suppliers is therefore vital. “We have very high standards and we love all our approved vendors and operators,” he adds.

UAE-based UAS has built up a strong network of preferred global partners that understand and deliver to its standards. “Because superior charter provision rests on an intricate web of functions, any miscommunication or unclear requests have the ability to thwart an operation. Last minute requests can do the same,” says co-owner, founder and executive president Mohammed Husary.

He finds the most common challenges arise when clients either ask UAS to work with their choice of vendor, or they involve the company on a limited or selective basis. Handling agents may receive duplicated handling requests for the same flight, or the crew are asked for a cash payment at the last moment because they are unsure who is responsible for costs.

“Where possible we use a checklist with operators,” says Giles Vickers-Jones, chairman of UK-based Shy Aviation. That and a history of past charter exper-iences enables the team to ensure they only work with the less risky ones. Maintaining the highest standard of service at all times will secure referrals and client loyalty. “Catering, flight issues, absolutely anything, should always be confirmed in writing in an email,” says Vickers-Jones.

Operators have problems too

One of the biggest challenges for USA-based Sweet Helicopters' director of operations Randy Sharkey is the cancelling or delaying of flights due to temporary flight restrictions (TFRs). The company uses VFR programmes so doesn't have the option of filing IFR flight plans. “Even though we can usually anticipate a TFR when a major event is happening, you can't plan for it to the minute,” he says. The Indiana 500 motor speedway race attracts high volumes of air traffic but this year the company was unexpectedly grounded for a VIP TFR, which affected many passengers who were trying to get into the track to watch the race.

He advises that the customer quote should address the possibility of unforeseen miscellaneous fees. “Communicating to the customer as soon as there appears to be an issue with extra charges has to be standard procedure,” he says. “Constantly reviewing or following up on details is the best method of managing the issues.”

Zimbabwe-based Executive Air's Lara Langlois is completely honest from the start about possible risks, delays or concerns that she may have regarding routing, airstrips or passenger weight.

The company operates smaller piston aircraft that are extremely susceptible to under-performance so its priority is to strictly control the uplift weight both of passengers and their luggage. The company has been around for over 30 years and as well as offering private charter, it is approved for maintenance on Zimbabwean, Zambian, Malawian and South African aircraft. This gives it a large base of aviation support and knowledge and ensures that no flight is booked without sufficient back-up should circumstances arise.

Whatever the weather

The very nature of private charter enables a client to travel where they want, when they want, but adverse weather can cause delays. If Northern Ireland operator Woodgate Aviation can advise of a possible delay in advance then its clients may be able to schedule their plans around the delay. “It also shows empathy and that you respect your client's predicament,” says business development manager Keith McKay. “If you can be proactive in trying to resolve a problem and minimise any inconvenience, that business may still return.”

He suggests brokers ensure any operator they use is affiliated or has a good working relationship with ground handling and FBOs in order to mitigate issues of non-payment of prior ground handling fees or excessive post flight charges. And if these types of issues are covered in the contract T&Cs then resolution can be legally binding for the client. He also points out that those charter operators with larger fleets and crews are better able to offer solutions than smaller operators when an aircraft is AOG.

Fuel for thought

One big issue for French operator Voldirect is the time it takes for the fuel to arrive at many airports. At certain larger airports one to two hours is not uncommon and this really affects short turnarounds. In the event of split duty time for a crew, any delay in refuelling will put back the moment when they can go to the hotel, and if duty time is at its limit any additional delay may cause the aircraft to be grounded for the day.

Handling tariffs can also be obscure and unpredictable. Voldirect president Frederic Caussarieu says that while the company asks for a handling quote before most of its flights, it can still have to pay additional fees for things such as security, push backs, parking and out of hours and weekend service, which can double or triple the anticipated cost of handling and reduce any profit margins. There is no foolproof solution for this, but from experience he knows which airports, and which handlers, to avoid.

Sharkey wants to know more than just the passengers' names and destinations. “We like to understand the passengers' needs and preferences. Do they have a favourite snack or beverage, and if they do, we make sure it's available on the flight.” He also finds it helpful, and reassuring, if the broker speaks 'the language'. In other words they should understand how TFRs work; how to translate nm to mph and so on. “When the broker has credibility then we have the confidence that we'll achieve our goal of complete client satisfaction,” he says.

At EcoJets in New York they know that private fliers tend to shop around and look for the cheapest flights. So for its app-based services it audits and monitors its operators and automatically tracks its clients. If there is a problem with a flight, the company can liaise with operators at any time of the day or night to get it resolved.

Its members receive monthly reports for all their trips and are invited to provide an evaluation. “Feedback from clients will improve the quality of the general service from the provider as their response could affect the operator's placing on the system,” says president Edgar Costa. “Each operator knows that for every flight it too will receive a questionnaire. If the response contradicts that of the client then the sales team will follow up.”

The importance of checking facts

CEO Eduard Simonov of Moscow's Flight Way recalls an instance where a charter manager was taken by surprise by one young customer – indeed the company still talks about it with new employees. One day the manager received an email request for a flight from Moscow to London. The request showed the client's phone number, email address and a brief description of the requirements, logged under the name Alexander.

The manager tried to contact the client by phone but there was no answer. So in order to move the booking forward as efficiently as possible he started to work on the request.

Having made some progress he called the number again. This time he found himself talking to an elderly lady who was shocked to discover that her 12-year-old grandson had been trying to place a private jet booking.

When the cost hits the broker's own pocket

Recently a charter flight from Zadar airport in Croatia to Munich was delayed by more than three hours. As a consequence the passengers missed their connecting flight in the evening yet the airline responsible for the delay refused to issue them with vouchers, meals and drinks or hotel accommodation. It would not even assist with the rebooking of new connecting flights and certainly did not accept any of the associated costs. German broker FlightTime was left to sort out all the problems for which all 120 of its clients were very grateful. However, CEO Holger Rathje reports that the company was left with a rather large debit on its account.

Smart Aviation's Savage recalls arranging to fly a rugby team out to an international fixture only to get a call to say that the aircraft had been grounded. The chairman of the rugby club phoned him and was extremely irate; no information had been provided at the gate and he was under pressure from his management to find out what was going on. Savage went to the airport and explained to the chairman that he had arranged to bring another aircraft in, albeit with a two hour delay, but this reassurance calmed the situation.

He then took the rugby team to the airport restaurant and treated them all to lunch on his company credit card, a generous gesture given that rugby players tend to have healthy appetites. Before long the replacement aircraft was pulling up on-stand and the chairman thanked him as they boarded their flight.

“In my experience, what you need more than anything in these situations is a coherent plan and a calm but confident approach,” he adds. “They don't want to hear vague assurances, and it always pays to be honest.”

Managing slot restrictions and expectations

UK-headquartered booking platform PrivateFly recently received a client request to fly from San Sebastian in Spain to the Greek island of Mykonos. Mykonos airport has restricted slot times that are subject to change, especially during peak summer season, and none were available for landing until the day after. This wasn't acceptable to the client.

“We ended up selling the client a flight to a nearby island, from which they could then arrange their yacht to transfer them directly to Mykonos,” says PrivateFly's head of European sales Steve Francis. The flight team called nearby FBOs to see which were best able to handle the aircraft at a more convenient time for the client, and in the end the family flew to nearby Samos. To make the trip even smoother, PrivateFly liaised with the yacht captain and co-managed logistics so that the yacht was waiting at the island to pick them up as soon as they landed. This meant the customer only experienced a slight delay and no extra costs were added to the trip.

When it comes to slot restrictions and peak summer travel the PrivateFly marketing team sends out emails to all customers notifying them which airports and destinations will most likely have problems, and advises them either to book early or to be flexible. Similarly with flights to busy locations, customer expectations must be managed. “Thanks to the fact that we can charter helicopters we are able to offer clients a unique way to avoid slot issues and heavy traffic at the most popular places,” says Francis.

Summer is a very busy period for top European destinations. In July, CEO of Private Jet Finder Emanuele Pavoncello says the company had to cancel five flights to Mykonos as the airport was unable to accept any more air traffic. “Anticipation is the key,” he adds, “and we always have a plan B.” In this case, a helicopter transfer from a nearby airport on Santorini.

The company once experienced technical issues that caused the cancellation of a flight just 24 hours prior to departure and, despite its contractual obligations, the operator was not able to provide an alternative aircraft. Due to the short notice there were no other operators quoting a similar price, and since it was out of question to pass the additional costs on to the client, Private Jet Finder lost a lot of money booking a more expensive flight.

When assisting a touring opera company with a charter flight from London to St Petersburg, the Russian authorities refused landing permission at the last minute and Smart Aviation had less than 24 hours to find a solution. Savage consulted a map of the area and found the little-known Finnish airport of Lappeenranta was just a few hours by road from St Petersburg. After a few phone calls he established that the B757 was able to land there and, as both the UK and Finland are in the EU, landing permission was granted quickly. The clients landed safely and were able to complete their journey by road. The aircraft was the largest ever to land in Lappeenranta and was met by the mayor who had turned out especially for the occasion.

Reacting to unforeseen events

Air operations can be affected by unexpected events such as ash clouds, extreme weather, strikes and wars. There isn't always a plan for such issues, but how a broker reacts is a measure of their effectiveness as the clients' eyes and ears. “What your client needs to know is what you're able to do and in these situations it's imperative to be calm, knowledgeable and creative,” says Savage. He has seen inexperienced brokers paralysed by the fear of losing commission and future business and feeling humiliated in the office. In such circumstances it's also very easy to lose control of the situation as emotions run high. His advice to the new brokers he has coached over the years has been to forget the future and solve today. The client will always remember how a broker deals with a difficult and sometimes seemingly impossible situation. If despite all efforts there is no satisfactory resolution, then he suggests a good broker should take it on the chin, learn and move on, better equipped to deal with the next event that crops up.

It is not unknown for brokers to take out their frustrations on suppliers and third parties. In difficult situations it's very easy to forget that people are just doing their job but if a broker puts undue pressure on the supplier, it's unlikely to resolve the situation.

Savage suggests a broker should act as a filter; taking the flak from their client, working hard to keep emotions in check and calmly coordinating with suppliers to reach a mutually acceptable goal. “It's not an easy job, but a good broker will always have a network of contacts they can call upon in an emergency to provide a bit of extra help or a quiet word with the right person to influence a positive outcome for their client,” he says.

The length and breadth of a professional broker's knowledge

Over the past 41 years clients have shared with California-based brokerage Le Bas International's COO Tracey Deakin a myriad of service inconsistencies relating to the air charter industry. In extreme cases the experience has deterred clients from ever wishing to charter a jet again. “Most problems can be avoided by simply not over-promising, checking information prior to sharing it with the client, or simply offering an alternative solution to the situation,” he says. Customer care issues can cost the charter industry millions of dollars in lost revenues.

For many aircraft owners charter is not their core business. Revenue of a few hundred thousand dollars may not compensate for the overall depreciation of a multi-million dollar asset. Short hops may be unattractive because more landings mean more cycles, and the interior will need to be upgraded more often at some considerable expense.

It's a confluence of needs: the broker wants everything to be perfect but at the lowest possible price while the operator has a responsibility to the owner. Broking platforms are a great tool, but an experienced broker knows how to get landing permits in a country; whether the pilot has to fly at 42,000 or 43,000 feet; whether regulations for duty times vary in different countries; that you can't do cabotage flights with a non-domestic aircraft. But most importantly they can build up a relationship with their service providers that can pay dividends in terms of their broader industry knowledge and ability to find solutions. This is where they bring value and. as in most things, communication is key.

 

Contact details
BACA - The Air Charter Association
Air Charter Expo (ACE17)
Air Charter Association of North America (ACANA)
Chapman Freeborn Airchartering
National Business Aviation Association
Horizon Air Group
Air Charter Advisors
Smart Aviation
UAS International Trip Support
SHY Aviation
Sweet Helicopters
Executive Air
Woodgate Aviation
Voldirect
EcoJets
Flight Way
PrivateFly
Private Jet Finder
Le Bas International