High society

Royal Jet's directors believe their business jet service appeases even the most demanding personality.
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Keeping celebrities and politicians happy is no easy feat. But Royal Jet's directors believe their business jet service appeases even the most demanding personality.

Rubbing shoulders with high-profile figures may be unimaginable for the average person - but Shane O'Hare isn't like most people.

Since joining business jet provider Royal Jet some 12 months ago, the affable Aussie has worked with celebrities and politicians regularly featured in the global press. According to O'Hare, typical clients flying with the Abu Dhabi-based company include sports and movie stars, musicians, singers, and heads of state.

 

It's inspirational and aspirational to chat with successful people in high positions, such as presidents and politicians from all over.
 

The company's strict anonymity policy prevents O'Hare from revealing names. But he admits to meeting some world famous figures at Royal Jet's facility in Abu Dhabi International Airport.

In recent months, the company flew an unnamed sports team to Melbourne, while well-known politicians travelled to China and Africa. "We regularly go out to our VIP terminal to see important people, and can talk with them in a non-intrusive way," he adds.

"It's inspirational and aspirational to chat with successful people in high positions, such as prime ministers and presidents from all over."

Celebrities aren't the only ones guaranteed anonymity. Indeed, the service also extends to business travellers flying to countries in the Middle East and beyond.

Typical destinations outside this region include Australia and the US. Other locations that the company's Boeing Business Jets, Gulfstreams and Learjets fly to are based in the Far East and Africa.

According to O'Hare, providing flights across the globe has proved popular with local and international clients. His comments are supported by the company's Middle East business aviation market share, which O'Hare says has increased to 18% since Royal Jet's inception five years ago.

Elsewhere, Royal Jet's ranks have expanded to 350 employees, including 60 pilots and 65 cabin crew, while the number of destinations flown to throughout 2007 exceeded 300.

Aside from anonymity and an extensive destination network, Royal Jet also offers quick turnaround times. O'Hare says clients can usually secure an aircraft within 24 hours of booking the flight, subject to availability.

"Someone may ring us when we are fully booked, but we can generally arrange a trip to China, for example, in 12 to 24 hours. But we have a standby crew that can do it quicker than that."

Passengers may be able to fly soon after chartering a Royal Jet aircraft, but O'Hare insists organising each flight is no easy feat. The biggest challenge is securing permits for every country the aircraft travels through on a particular journey.

Carrying out aircraft maintenance, finding available pilots and cabin crew, and meeting client's requests also need to be arranged.
 

It's a challenging process, although O'Hare believes Royal Jet's employees are equal to the task. "You have a relatively small customer base, so everything has to be perfect," he says.

"When somebody rings and says ‘we need to charter an aircraft to pick someone up in Zanzibar and fly them to China' everything has to be planned from the ground up. We need to understand the customers and their needs, such as catering requirements and whether there are specific nationalities they want on board as their crew."

"We then have to plan the trip, such as over-flight permits for every country we fly over on a particular route, quotations, ground handling, catering, crew accommodation and all the customer needs."

"There is a lot of pressure often at short notice to bring all these elements together to make the perfect trip." Like most industry operators, Royal Jet has been forced to adapt to rising fuel costs. Last month, analysts predicted an increase to $140 a barrel - much to the sector's dismay.

Nevertheless, O'Hare is confident the "highly profitable" operation will continue making money regardless of whether or not oil prices climb.

The seasoned aviation figure adds Royal Jet's business model provides cause for optimism. Indeed, unlike commercial carriers, the company can tailor costs for individual flights amid difficult market conditions.

The upshot is that while airlines providing scheduled services need around 70% passenger loads to make a profit, Royal Jet can alter prices to ensure all flights generate healthy returns. It can also provide flights whenever clients require, unlike all commercial airlines.

"The Boeing Business Jet strategy has been highly successful, but it's challenging," O'Hare says.

"The cost structure is different to an airline because you're not selling tickets, you're selling an aircraft. You always cost the aircraft so you can make a profit. An airline works on probability for the trip being profitable because it has to run a scheduled service. It can't always guarantee it will have a full load on every flight, so that's the key difference between us and them."

Despite having flexibility to alter rates, O'Hare insists increasing the fare in line with rising fuel costs is rarely considered. Instead, Royal Jet's management prefers to offer "competitive prices" regardless of market conditions.

Other aviation directors have taken a different stance, with Qatar Airways' CEO Akbar Al Baker recently admitting the airline's passengers will subsidise rising oil costs. But O'Hare and his colleagues are reluctant to follow suit.

"You can't say ‘fuel has gone up $120 a barrel so we will increase the costs by 20-30%' because there's always a risk your competitor won't do that," O'Hare says.

"Private jet businesses are more disciplined and customers understand that. I've seen many examples of an airline that has put up prices based on fuel costs and a competitor hasn't. The market is very competitive so a $5 increase on a ticket when you're relying mainly on travel agents can lose you quite a lot of money. You have to be extremely careful."
 

It appears O'Hare has settled well into his role as chief executive. Prior to joining Royal Jet, the aviation executive spent six years working in Gulf Air's marketing department.

His 20 year career in the industry also includes stints at various national carriers and private operators in different regions.

The switch from marketing to CEO may seem a big move, but O'Hare insists he adapted quickly to the new position. "With the experience I've had in the industry and at airlines like Gulf Air it wasn't such a big leap. I may have a portfolio involving marketing, but the role was closely involved with everything that happens at an airline."

"I've run charter businesses in Australia so that, and my experiences in airlines, meant taking on the chief executive role was a fairly comfortable step," O'Hare adds. "The industry is challenging, but when you understand how it works then everything is much easier."

Spending time in Bahrain before moving to Abu Dhabi has also helped, with O'Hare comfortable in the region. Cultural adjustments had long been made prior to joining Royal Jet, while the working environment was less demanding than Gulf Air.

Indeed, with the airline struggling in recent years, O'Hare and erstwhile Gulf Air CEO James Hogan were forced to endure extremely tough times during their respective tenures.

But despite the instability, O'Hare insists he enjoyed his experience at the Bahraini airline. "Gulf Air is a great brand and airline," he says.

"It was, and still is, going through difficulties. The dynamics are different in terms of the shareholders and the markets, but the first five years I was there was with James Hogan were rewarding. We were working in an environment where we knew we had a good brand. We also had good, experienced people and for us it was about rebuilding the airline."

While O'Hare has fond memories of his time at Gulf Air, his main priority now is to oversee Royal Jet's development. Employing more staff is high on the agenda, although management is more interested in quality than quantity.

"To be the best in the world, you have to employ the best people," O'Hare says. Leasing more aircraft is another key objective, with the directors planning to increase the fleet to 20 by 2013. Management will also focus on developing Royal Med, the company's medical services arm.

The operation, which was originally launched for the UAE's ruling family, carries critically-ill passengers to various locations such as Germany and the US for medical treatment. It represents 10-13% of Royal Jet's business, although O'Hare believes the operation can expand further.

Elsewhere, extending the route network and increasing services is an ongoing aim. China, the CIS countries and Indian Subcontinent have been mooted, while O'Hare is also keen to establish Royal Jet as one of the world's leading business jet providers.

"We have the best fleet in the world, so that's the right aircraft with the right configuration," he says.

"We have the right onboard products, such as the interior, telephones, live TV, showers and bedrooms, as well as a small number of customers and staff. Developing the company and brand is a step-by-step process, and it comes down to how we project ourselves to the market. We want to get Royal Jet in a comfortable margin above the top five business jet providers during the next three to five years."

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