Arab unrest, quakes spur business for relief-flight operators

For crisis-torn regions, aircraft brokers provide 'service of last resort' when scheduled operators pull out
(Getty Images - for illustrative purposes only)
By Bloomberg
Tue 12 Apr 2011 09:38 AM

Hours after last month’s Japanese earthquake, phones began
ringing at the UK base of the world’s largest aircraft broker. Less than a day
later and Chapman- Freeborn had dispatched a Boeing 767 from Frankfurt to Tokyo
carrying 48 rescue workers, their dogs and 12 tons of equipment.

It was the same after the temblor in New Zealand and
outbreaks of unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Ivory Coast, adding up to the
busiest few months that the $3 billion aircraft-charter brokerage industry has
ever experienced.

“You can’t shy away from it,” Chapman-Freeborn Managing
Director Alex Berry said in a phone interview from the company’s headquarters
in Crawley, England. “When there are a number of disasters in any one year we
do an awful lot more business.”

Natural calamities and political uprisings have stoked
demand for aircraft from 13-seat Gulfstream G-IV private jets to Antonov’s
285-ton An-225, the world’s largest transport plane. Chapman-Freeborn has
arranged 125 evacuation flights in two months, ferrying 20,000 passengers to
safety and spurring annual sales as much as 60 percent to $800 million, Berry
estimates.

Rival plane brokers Air Partner Plc Air and Charter Service
Group say they’ve also been stretched by surging demand.

For crisis-torn regions the companies provide a “service of
last resort” when scheduled operators pull out, Air Partner Chief Executive
Officer Mark Briffa said in an interview.

In warzones such as Libya that withdrawal may be especially
rapid because of perceived threats to aircraft and employees, with British
Airways, Gulf carrier Emirates and Germany’s Deutsche Lufthansa AG all
suspending Tripoli flights indefinitely within 48 hours of each other in
February.

“The speed at which the scheduled operators pulled out of
Libya really did catch people by surprise,” Briffa said. “Getting people out
afterwards was a real challenge.”

After Japan’s magnitude-9 quake and subsequent tsunami, at
least two airlines, Lufthansa and Italy’s Alitalia SpA, scrapped Tokyo flights
because of concern that radiation leaks from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear
plant threatened the safety of crews.

“I can’t recall so many different situations around the
world going off at the same time,” said Matt Purton, director of commercial jet
sales at Surbiton, England-based Air Charter. “We did about a year’s worth of
business in two weeks.”

Air Charter last month rented a fleet of four Boeing 747s to
provide shuttle flights from Tripoli to Malta to evacuate oil, gas and
construction workers as the Libyan crisis deepened.

Chartering a jumbo costs $250,000 for short-haul trips and
up to $1 million for inter-continental flights, according to the company, which
has this month been airlifting refugees from Abidjan in Ivory Coast for United
Nation refugee agency UNHCR.

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The brokers operate by sourcing aircraft and crews from
specialist carriers such as Egypt’s Air Memphis and London Gatwick
airport-based Astraeus Airlines, as well as network airlines that have spare
planes during slower periods.

Chapman-Freeborn, which also charters passenger planes for
sports teams, music tours and diplomatic missions and freighters for shifting
military equipment, oilrigs and explosives, has rented aircraft from British
Airways in the past, while Air Charter last month hired a Cathay Pacific
Airways Ltd. jet to evacuate people to Singapore from Japan.

The brokers are also responsible for organizing insurance
cover and liaising with agents on the ground to arrange the permits necessary
for an aircraft to take off and land.

“Getting airplanes in is not that easy,” said Air Partner’s
Briffa. “When communications have been down for two days and you need to get
permission, that’s a bloody challenge.”

Where ground infrastructure is absent or damaged, brokers
may first need to help arrange the upgrade of an airport before other flights
can function. Chapman-Freeborn organized more than 70 percent of relief trips
to Haiti after the earthquake there last year, including transport of forklifts
to Port-au-Prince.

“The airport itself didn’t have any equipment to unload
freighter aircraft,” MD Berry said. “So the first thing you have to do is get
that there, or you end up with a load of planes on the runway full of gear that
you can’t get off. You have to be prepared to knuckle down and get on with it.”

During the Egypt crisis, Chapman-Freeborn provided a Hawker
Beechcraft 800 jet to transport a group of executives from Cairo to Istanbul.
The company has also supplied Gulfstream IVs, which can cost $30 million new,
and rented a Dassault Aviation SA Falcon 7X jet to Dutch salvage workers
following the blowout that sank the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of
Mexico.

In Japan, the nuclear crisis has also seen the sole Antonov
An-225 used to carry the world’s largest concrete pump from the US to
Fukushima, where its 70-meter (230-foot) boom will help entomb the reactors
once they’ve cooled. The device was made by Stuttgart, Germany-based
Putzmeister Holding Gmbh, whose pumps encased the Chernobyl power station’s
melted core in the 1980s.

While natural disasters remain impossible to predict with
any certainty, according to seismologists and meteorologists, political turmoil
in Arab states shows no sign of abating.

Nine Syrian soldiers were killed yesterday when gunmen ambushed
their vehicles in the coastal oil hub of Banias, where tanks were deployed to
contain protests, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported, and the Gulf
Cooperation Council has urged President Ali Abdullah Saleh to quit in Yemen, a
country Chapman-Freeborn’s Berry says is “definitely on the radar.”

A fresh surge in demand for evacuations in coming months
might be harder to cope with than in the winter, when there were more planes
standing idle, Air Charter’s Purton said.

“There was a lot of spare capacity, it being low season,” he
said. “If it was the northern-hemisphere summer we’d have limitations on what
we could have done.”

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