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Mr Niche Guy...

Posted 6 June 2017 · Add Comment

A new Abu Dhabi-based service aims to fill a perceived niche for passengers, which falls between the premium cabin of an airliner and an executive jet. Alan Dron has been finding out more.

Business executives, senior civil servants and families are all potential customers for a new company that believes it can cut travelling time and costs for affluent Gulf residents.
GI Aviation began operations earlier this year from Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen executive airport, initially operating a single Pilatus PC-12 NG single-engine turboprop. A second example of the Swiss-built aircraft should have joined the company by the time Arabian Aerospace goes to press.
Executive aircraft are commonplace in the region, so how does GI Aviation hope to find a gap in the market, especially with an aircraft that is not a jet?
General manager, Marios Belidis, believes that tighter budgets, caused by the slump in oil prices over the past couple of years, will help get GI Aviation off the ground.
Costs have become an issue for many companies in the region and Belidis, who managed the ground-handling services at Al Bateen before taking up his current role, says this is to GI Aviation’s advantage.
“The plan was to introduce an affordable way of flying privately,” he explained. “The right aircraft to allow competitive rates, while maintaining the same comfort as a jet, was the PC-12 NG.”
The cost of flying in the PC-12 NG falls between the cost of a business, or first-class, airline ticket and the price of hiring a private jet. If a group is flying together – business executives travelling around the Gulf, or a family taking a weekend break, for example – the costs are pretty much comparable with flying ‘up front’ in a commercial airliner and can take less time.
Belidis accepts that some VIPs are simply not affected by cutbacks and will continue to hire executive jets for even short hops around the Gulf, but he believes a larger stratum of flyers is in the market for a more cost-effective alternative.
GI Aviation, which is backed by local investors, sees three main segments in its marketplace: business executives, senior government employees and the leisure element.
As with most companies based at airports that specialise in business aircraft, the time between stepping from a car outside the company’s Al Bateen base and entering the cabin of the aircraft can be 10 to 15 minutes, compared to a minimum of an hour if using a commercial airliner. That time saving can be of considerable value to executives. And the aircraft takes off when they want it to, rather than at an airline’s appointed time.
Certainly, the PC-12 NG is slower than an airliner or private jet – it cruises at around 520kmh (280kts) compared to, say, an Airbus A320’s 860kmh (465kts) or a Cessna Citation M2’s 750kmh (404kts) – but on a hop of an hour or so, the difference in journey time is small.
An hour’s flying time from Al Bateen brings Muscat or Muharraq within range; two hours takes the aircraft and its passengers as far as Kuwait or Riyadh.
Senior government officials based at the UAE’s federal capital of Abu Dhabi frequently visit regional offices in the northern emirate such as Ras Al Khaimah or Fujairah. GI Aviation is trying to have them recognise the benefits of using its aircraft for such journeys, noting that a flight from Al Bateen to either of the two emirates mentioned takes less than 45 minutes, as opposed to at least two hours by car.
The aircraft can take up to eight passengers, although it would be more usual for it to carry four or six, which would suit a small group of senior civil servants.
On the leisure front, GI Aviation believes that a family will be able to use the aircraft for a weekend in the northern emirates or Sir Bani Yas island: “We’re in talks with hotels and resorts to fly people [there] in a package deal,” said Belidis.
“I recently visited the Jumeirah Group Hotels and they said their concierge service does a lot of bookings for helicopters or jets, especially US and Russian expats. We’re definitely looking at that.”
Finally, the PC-12 NG is capable of operating medevac flights, with two stretchers and medical personnel in attendance.
GI Aviation also makes the point that the PC-12 NG is certificated to use short or unimproved strips and can tackle gravel or sand surfaces, not to mention shorter runways than either an airliner or executive jet. This opens up more airfields to passengers that are closer to their ultimate destination.
But will a PC-12 NG prove to be suitable equipment in a region where jets are paramount in both the executive and commercial sectors? There is a long-standing prejudice, not only in the Gulf, that aircraft with propellers are somehow ‘old’ or ‘inferior’ compared to the turbofan-powered alternatives.
From the safety point of view, Belidis believes that the aircraft does not have to prove its credentials. “We conduct demo flights to show brokers and influencers in the industry that the aircraft has the same safety standards as a jet.”
The fact that it is built in Switzerland helps, he said, as the country’s reputation for quality and good engineering is well known.
Neither has the single engine been a sticking point. The modern generation of corporate flyers is aware that modern turboprop powerplants are extraordinarily reliable and the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67P, which powers the PC-12 NG, is up there with the best. “People aren’t really bothered by the single engine,” said Belidis.
The engine also aids economy by being flat-rated to 1,200shp when it is capable of 1,845shp. Flat-rating the engine to around 65% of its capacity means that the maximum stresses it was designed to handle never arise, which results in better fuel economy and reduced maintenance costs.
On top of that, GI Aviation makes the point that a PC-12 NG costs around 30-40% less than a jet to charter. The new company hopes to attract a new clientele that has not previously used business aircraft.
Internally, the aircraft is hardly spartan. It has a cabin volume of 330 cubic feet, greater than that of a Beech King Air 250 twin turboprop and of most entry-level or light executive jets. It has a cabin capable of taking up to eight passengers, with interiors by Germany’s BMW Group Designworks.
Externally, the NG benefits from a thorough revision of its aerodynamics, which has smoothed the airflow and squeezed extra knots from the aircraft.
If the PC-12 NG captures the imagination of corporate flyers and their accounts departments, one problem could still arise, cautions Middle East Business Aviation Association chairman, Ali Alnaqbi. Welcoming GI Aviation when it opened its doors for business in January, he said that if it became too popular, too quickly, it could suffer from availability problems, which could damage its position in the marketplace. He suggested that a minimum fleet of 11 PC-12 NGs was necessary to avoid this.
Belidis admits that beginning life with only two aircraft could lead to problems – “We always advise clients it’s subject to availability” – and he accepts that having more equipment would allow the company to reduce the time between receiving an initial phone call requesting a flight and taking off to within three to four hours. But, he says, GI Aviation does not want to follow in the footsteps of some companies that have gone before.
“I’ll be honest, most companies that [grew] really quickly, fell over. We have a new product in the market and we have to test that. If you had a fleet of five to 10 aircraft, the costs would be massive. If it does work well, you’ll see us purchasing more aircraft.”
 

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