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Sat 11 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Come fly with me

Corporate travel providers play an integral logistics role in the Middle Eastern upstream industry.

Corporate travel providers play an integral logistics role in the Middle Eastern upstream industry, and demand is booming.

When one musters an image of corporate travel, you may be inclined to imagine suited and booted executives reclining in big leather chairs, sipping chilled drinks while reading the Financial Times. In reality there is a whole spectrum of travel services for the upstream industry, from transporting workers to remote locations, to providing med-evac in the event of emergencies.

In line with the rest of the oil and gas industry, the corporate travel sector is experiencing a worldwide and regional boom, demand increasing as the level of exploration and production in remote areas expands.

Punctuality is key, but only once the aircraft is available to complete the operation. Due to the nature of the industry, it is extremely important getting crews on and off sites. - AJ Baker, director business development, FAS.

Corporate travel companies have either been hot footing their way over to the Middle East, or have seen their business expanding rapidly from established bases.

Service providers

The different services offered by corporate travel companies can be varied, but comprise mainly of executive or VIP travel, helicopter chartering and medical evacuation.

Air Charter International (ACI) is an aviation solutions firm. Although owning no aircraft, they provide solutions for aircraft chartering - usually on a wet lease basis - to a number of different industries. "We provide aircraft, to mainly airlines but also oil companies, for large transport airplanes, helicopters, or executive aircraft on full time lease," explains Stuart Wheller, founder and CEO, ACI.

"We help with the sourcing, the negotiation, and the ongoing operations. We have our own operations personnel in Dubai and we manage the entire process everyday, so if there are operational issues, commercial issues, or contractual issues we manage them" he adds.

The company was established in 1994, and according to Wheller the leasing business is now quite significant, with 15 to 20 planes currently on lease. "But it is not just providing planes, we provide a support service, advice, guidance and oversight of the whole operation, so we call yourself an aviation solutions provider," he says.

Falcon Aviation Services (FAS) on the other hand provides a range of corporate travel through its own fleet of 16 aircraft, with an additional 25 new helicopters and corporate jets under order to a value of US$430 million. It is a fairly new company, having started in 2006 under the initiative of His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan to fill gaps in the aviation services market in Abu Dhabi and the GCC.

Based in Abu Dhabi, the company delivers a range of services that include corporate and VIP travel, tourism, air taxi and SAR (search and rescue), and has approximately 105 staff working at present.

"We have just begun a three year contract with Total in Abu Dhabi, servicing their offshore personnel travel needs. Most of the oil companies are under long-term contracts, so when these come up for renewal we will be bidding for that work, and we are building our fleet especially to cater for that," says AJ Baker, director business development, FAS.

Baker says that the contract with Total is for three years, operating on roughly 100 hours a month to and from Total's TBK field - 45 kilometres northeast of Das Island.

"We are averaging about two flights offshore per day, normally flying six days a week. We also offer the medical evacuation service for them during daylight hours at present, but we plan to extend our operations as we go forward," says Baker.

"Most of our corporate operations are on an ad hoc basis with little or no warning, but we also do travel transfers between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, transfers out to view certain oil fields -usually taking people to onshore fields in the Empty Quarter - and to do mapping of the drill sites."Wings Corporate Travel is a travel management company that provides solutions to corporate customers, mainly in the oil and gas industry. The company uses a modern approach, utilising the latest technologies and software to provide what they feel is the best possible service.

Wings have recently announced that in a JV with IFA Hotels and Resorts, they were to be opening a new office in Dubai, in order to be closer to their core existing clients in the Middle East.

Tony Sofianos, CEO, Wings, said at the time: "This is a significant step forward for Wings as our corporate brand will be enhanced through our association with the IFA Hotels & Resorts group. Our clients are global multinational companies, and in order to service these clients effectively, we realised we needed to expand our position, aligned with our strategy of providing clients with a seamless 24-7 service, 365 days a year."

Their staffs arrive and they are not hot and dehydrated, they have sat in a nice aircraft with air-con, so when they jump off they are ready to work. - AJ Baker, FAS.

"Our speciality is the oil and gas industry, specifically in the area of crew rotations that we have been doing it in West and North Africa now for almost 10 years, and we are confident we can bring this value to the Middle East," Sofianos adds.

Wings essentially manage the entire travel solution for oil and gas companies, something that requires a sophisticated technological system.

"What we feel will be unique to the Middle East is the technology we are bringing with us. To give an example, in the oil and gas industry commuter security is tantamount, so we have the ability to track all our clients irrespective of where the contract is processed at any given point," says Sofianos.

Challenges

There are high demands placed on the corporate travel providers to ensure the service is of the highest standard. It is not as simple as phoning up and booking a flight, the customer expects cheap prices, expert advice on special situations and delivery on performance - whether this is punctuality, technical performance, high operational standards, or safety and security.

"Our customers demand all these requirements are met, and that's our role - to find the best fit for the operator and make sure the services continue to be provided," says Wheller. His thoughts are in agreement with Baker, who also highlights what he feels to be the most important demand for FAS, namely the availability of aircraft.

"Punctuality is important, but only once the aircraft is available to complete the operation. Due to the nature of the industry, it is extremely important getting the crews on and off production sites for the rotations of the roster periods," says Baker.

"One of the things we have found that has made a big difference for our customers is that we are operating aircraft that are fully air-conditioned - this is something that has been noticed straight away by our clients. Their staffs are arriving and they are not hot and dehydrated, they have sat in a nice aircraft with air-con the whole way, so they jump off and are ready to get to work," he adds.

In terms of meeting these requirements, Wheller does not believe the Middle East poses any more challenges than any other locations around the world. In fact, he says that the area has a lot of positives due to oil revenues being so high.

When asked if security is a problem, the CEO says that, if anything, it's another reason why customers would choose corporate travel.

"Security is one of the reasons why a large number of companies are going for the corporate or private travel option, to avoid the major hubs, for time saving, and security of their personnel - especially if you are operating outside of the developed world. Obviously for any company there is an added value on security," says Wheller.His views are echoed by Baker. "Security is absolutely vital, but it doesn't pose too many problems, and as long as the rules are followed everything tends to be fine. The offshore security procedures are very well documented and the process that needs to be followed, so everyone that travels offshore has to have gone through a number of checks and have certain passes," he says.

Another challenge - one felt by nearly all industries at the moment in the region - is the problem of recruitment of qualified staff. In the aviation industry there are many specialist roles where advanced training and experience is an absolute necessity to do the job.

"One of our biggest challenges is recruiting qualified pilots and engineers. The aviation industry worldwide is going through such a dynamic period of growth that attracting staff to the UAE is difficult. Prices are going up, the cost of living has gone up substantially and the availability of housing in Abu Dhabi is very poor - and what is available is extremely expensive," explains Baker.

"Getting skilled pilots with the necessary experience and background is also a big problem. Ideally you want to have pilots with extensive experience if they are working offshore," Baker says.

"We have a statutory minimum of 2000 hours of flying experience requirement for all our pilots, and that goes up exponentially for any offshore work."

Flying safe

Recently the industry was struck by the tragic news of an accident, where an AeroGulf helicopter crashed into the side of an oil platform off the coast of Dubai, killing the two pilots and five passengers on board. According to reports released after the event the B212 helicopter experienced difficulties during takeoff from the platform, before crashing into the deck and braking up and falling into the sea.

Speaking exclusively with Oil and Gas Middle East after the incident had happened, Mohammed Ghanim Al Ghaith, director general, GCAA (General Civil Aviation Authority) said that unfortunately no-one on board had survived the accident, and that the GCAA would begin the process of a full investigation.

"We started the process as soon as we heard about the accident: we formed a team to start the process of collecting evidence and to question witnesses, and sometimes we might have to go to the manufacture to find out the causes. How long this will take we do not know yet," he said.

The accident was an unwelcome reminder of the dangers involved in corporate travel, however unlikely there occurrences may be. Baker explains that although the event is catastrophe no-one wishes to happen, the positive spin-offs will hopefully make all operations safer in the future.

"Within hours of the accident our staff came together to discuss whether any assistance could be rendered. In the days following our director of operations, chief pilot, general manager, and safety manager all convened to go through what the known facts are and assess any potential impact to our operation," explains Baker.In the case of an accident, not just for an FAS aircraft but any incident related to their operations, the company would provide a full very detailed report for its client based on the known facts and the resulting impacts and changes on FAS' working operations.

"When something like that happens, most companies will do some inward looking, just checking that the correct procedures are all in place, and what things need to reviewed internally. That's something we will always do, but in this case, as it is in the oil field industry we are operating in and there are a lot of similarities, we are particularly focused on ensuring standards are raised," says Baker. Medical evacuation

Despite being a small part of the overall business, something that is becoming more of a priority to many operators is the provision of a medical evacuation service. This requires providing a service that is separate and governed by different principles.

"The most important consideration is the ‘golden hour' principle - being able to attend to a patient as quickly as possible. In 90% of the cases, the oilfield personnel will do the initial treatment, we will then arrive on scene and our paramedics will assist and provide assistance. We then transfer the patient on to hospital for further treatment," says Baker.

"In a priority one case - where there is a life threatening event - we may be called out as a first responder because of the high level of qualifications of our paramedic staff, the equipment we have on board, and we can get the equipment and paramedics to the scene sometimes far quicker than you can using ground transportation or ambulances," he explains.

A major challenge in providing this service is the cost involved. Being able to respond to incidents of these kind, 24 hours a day seven days a week, requires highly trained members of staff being available at all times.

"To have a helicopter available 24/7/365 requires around 12 pilots and four paramedics as a basic minimum, and that is before any of the support, maintenance and admin staff is counted. It's a very high cost exercise, but by having that we can respond commit to a launch time of within 15 minutes from the moment we get a call and we can normally reach most of the sites here in less than one hour," says Baker.

The future

The future looks bright for the corporate travel sector in the region, with companies like Wings moving in to provide the most up to date forms of travel management, and the continued growth of charter solutions companies like ACI and FAS.

"I think that corporate travel in this region will grow faster than any where else in the world. There are going to be an awful lot of operators, and everyone is going to be chopping and changing their pricing because everyone wants to win business. We see this as a challenge and not a threat. We have a sound business plan, we always knew what we set out to achieve and we are quite comfortable we are on target," states Baker.

As long as companies such as Wings, ACI and FAS can resolve issues surrounding recruitment of skilled pilots and engineers, then unbridled growth in the sector seems inevitable. If standards can be improved parallel to this growth, then the Middle East will be able to boast some of the best corporate travel providers in the world.

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