Travel by private jet in the Middle East has evolved from a one-off personal indulgence for the elite to a corporate travel necessity that offers agents a lucrative commission-earning alternative to commercial air travel options
The private jet industry took off in the Middle East in 1975, when Jordanian operator Arab Wings launched the region’s first air taxi. Since then, private jet operators, aircraft management specialists and charter brokers have surged into the region rapidly expanding the market.
Dedicated terminals have been constructed in Dubai and Abu Dhabi for private jets, with their own check-in and immigration facilities, as well as all the other amenities associated with modern commercial airports, including duty free shops.
A chartered jet is no longer simply a private and luxurious way of flying from A to B, but an entirely independent method of travel that will look after a customer’s every need from start to finish.
Limousine hire, accommodation arrangements, immigration and visa requirements, landing permits, and even restaurant bookings and theatre tickets can be arranged by aircraft operators and VIP terminals.
The Middle East’s private jet industry has recognised its own growing importance, and in 2005, following the Dubai Airshow, a group of private jet operators and manufacturers got together to form the Middle East Business Aviation Association (MEBAA).
“Following the big demand on business jets, we felt there was a need to test the water and see what was the size of this market in general in the GCC areas, and how well it would grow in the future,” explains Ammar Balkar, the association’s president and CEO.
According to Balkar, who was previously vice president sales and marketing of Abu Dhabi-based private jet operator, Royal Jet, travel agents still haven’t jumped on the highly lucrative private jet bandwagon.
“It’s because they think it is only for the elite, and they just want to sell tickets on normal commercial airlines,” he explains.
“The variety of aircraft now available means that prices go from $3000 to $15,000 per hour.”
He recalls that during his time at Royal Jet, agents who did make enquiries would say the price was too high, but when you factor in the added benefits – convenience, privacy, security and flexibility, and the fact the price is the same for one or eight passengers – then the relative expense is not that great.
While private jet chartering is no longer the exclusive territory of the super rich, it is still reserved for passengers with luxury in mind.
Modern charter aircraft range from two- or three-seater Learjet aircraft to much larger aircraft configured in an all-business class formation such as the Boeing Business Jet (BBJ).
Royal Jet’s Boeing 737-300 BBJs can seat 30 in a VIP configuration, providing space on board for high levels of comfort and in-flight catering.
Royal Jet’s fleet includes four BBJs and two 14-seat Gulfstream G300 jets: “We also have an AMRO RJ 85, which might be of interest to travel agents and tour operators; all the seats are business class seats. It is currently in a 36-seat configuration,” explains Christopher Crum, CEO, Royal Jet.
“Something like that would enable them to book a larger number of people going to a regional destination from here in the UAE.”
The aircraft is also ideal for Hajj and Umra travels he adds.
For the leisure sector, agents should be “unique and creative” and present private jets as a luxurious addition to a special holiday package, such as a wedding anniversary or special occasion, when a private jet might add to the experience, he says.
Looking the business
While considerable numbers of people do use private jets for leisure travel, business trips still account for the majority of jet charters.
“If someone calls and asks for four first class tickets to Bahrain for the next day, to return the same evening, that is the perfect opportunity to suggest a business jet,” says Paras Dhamachara, CEO of Dubai-based Elite Jets.
In a bid to boost sales through more traditional outlets, Elite Jets recently signed a strategic alliance with Al Naboodah Travel.
The agency’s sales team has been trained to use the Elite Jets booking system and taken through an orientation and familiarisation programme to help them pitch the correct kind of jets to their customers.
“Travel agents are getting more interested recently,” says Caron Gledhill, director of sales and marketing for Elite Jets.
“When we made our strategic partnership with Al Naboobah, [other agencies] started to see there was a possibility for them to get involved too. With commercial carriers cutting commissions, there is even more reason for them to get involved.”
Elite Jets also partners with luxury concierge companies Quintessentially and Platinum Concierge Services.
In Saudi Arabia, Private Aviation Solutions (PAS), the private jet wing of National Air Services (NAS), is one of the leading companies providing jet charters in the country that accounts for nearly 50% of all private jet movements in the region.
“Over the last two years ground handling agents in the Kindgom of Saudi Arabia have reported an increase in ground handling activity of more than 50% with a forecast of private aircraft movements of more than 15,000 for 2006,” reports Keith Bonson, managing director Aircraft Fractional Ownership & Lease, NAS.
While it is easy for outsiders to blame the travel trade for failing to sell private jet products, Bonson acknowledges that charter companies have the responsibility of making sure that agencies are catered to, both in terms of training and awareness, and providing a readily available product.
“Due to high internal demand our ability to serve the regional travel trade has been limited,” he says.
“For any business to be effective in selling a product, they must have knowledge of the benefits to their clients. Although the concept of the use of a corporate jet for business, or private travel has grown in the region, there is more that the private jet services companies can do to inform our target market of the benefits of private jet travel.”
Since travel agents are service oriented and look for the “most appropriate travel solutions” for their clients, the benefits that private jets provide mean they should be more involved in the sales of jet charters, he adds.
For agencies that want to make their first venture into the private jet market, Bonson suggests meeting with a locally based private jet operator to learn more about the product and build a relationship with the operator.
Do not disturb
Privacy is one taken very seriously in the luxury travel market, from exclusive entrances in hotels, to blacked-out windows in limousines, but luxury aviation services have raised the game.
Dubai International Airport now boasts its own dedicated terminal for all private jet arrivals and departures, completely segregated from the commercial terminal buildings.
Airwing VIP, the VIP terminal of Dubai International Airport, provides elite travellers with dedicated check-in, fast track visa issuing and customs services, a fleet of limousines, car rentals, hotel bookings, and its own duty free outlet.
Eleven luxuriously appointed waiting lounges that can double up as meeting rooms, feature plasma screen TVs and leather armchairs, while a bigger room on the first floor can comfortably seat up to 60 people.
While the immediate benefits of flying on a business jet are clear for the filthy rich and senior directors, other factors that might convince mid-management to book their team on a private charter flight are less publicised.
“[On a commercial flight] you can’t discuss important business deals because the details are often highly sensitive,” explains Elite Jets’ Dhamachara, himself an experienced pilot and CEO of the company.
“Instead, you can take six executives on a private jet from Dubai to Bahrain for example, and brief them during the flight. You don’t waste any time. Business is very competitive and cutthroat these days.”
Best of both worlds
Lufthansa Private Jet (LPJ) is a unique luxury product combining first class travel on scheduled Lufthansa flights with business jet connections from Munich and Frankfurt, for “top end customers with a special focus on cutting travel time and enjoying exclusive products”, according to Schaher Murad, marketing manager for Lufthansa German Airlines in the UAE.
Middle East customers arriving in Frankfurt and Munich on Lufthansa flights are met by a personal assistant at the aircraft and taken by limousine to the Lufthansa First Class Terminal.
After going through personalised immigration and customs check, a limousine will bring the passenger directly to the private jet, bound for the destination of their choice.
The whole transfer process between the Lufthansa flight and the LPJ takes less than 45 minutes.
“The LPJ can be booked as a flexible point-to-point service or as a convenient hub feeder flight along
with a Lufthansa long haul flight,” explains Murad.
Travel agents can book the LPJ services in the same way that they usually book any Lufthansa or Swiss flight, since the carrier offers a one-stop-shop for all of its products through its call centre.
“By being able to sell this service to their clients without the need of going through an additional charter company, travel agents can get involved in such lucrative business without any additional cost or effort,” Murad says.
“Passengers have a choice of 1000 departure airports in Europe, and can fly from there direct to another European airport or to Lufthansa’s hubs, Frankfurt and Munich without delay.”
LPJ flights can also be booked to destinations in Russia.