Air taxi operations were the subject of some of the biggest hype before the global economic downturn – and the biggest difficulties during it.
Indeed, there were so many claims made about the prospects for high-volume short-hop charter, using light or very light jets, that it was no surprise when many operations came crashing to the ground – or even failed to take off in the first place. DayJet of the US and JetBird of Europe were two of the highest-profile casualties.
Yet one European air taxi operator, Austria-based GlobeAir, continues to buck that trend. Set up in 2007, today it officially announces the doubling of its light jet fleet. The addition of another five Cessna Citation Mustangs at the same time is a challenge in itself. As Bernhard Fragner, GlobeAir chief executive, says, “We have to double nearly everything – team, crew, sales network, maintenance support.”
Mr Fragner last year told me how the high utilisation of his – then smaller – fleet of Mustangs was proving a useful test bed for both aircraft maker Cessna and turbofan manufacturer Pratt & Whitney Canada. He also said that tight control of borrowing and costs meant his operation was profitable.
GlobeAir currently has about 30 per cent of the European market for commercial movements of light and very light aircraft, says Mr Fragner. It is aiming for 50 per cent by the end of the year, including an expansion into Turkey and elsewhere, adds Mauro De Rosa, GlobeAir chief marketing officer.
Would-be air taxi operators may have had to move more towards a charter model to survive. But with the largest single fleet of Mustangs in the world, and options on another five, GlobeAir is adding to evidence that the high-volume model still has some mileage in it.
When I was in Italy last month to fly Piaggio Aero’s P.180 Avanti II, the many-faceted links with history were striking. The Genoa company’s business aircraft invites comparisons with the ill-fated Beech Starship executive turboprop, which tried to do too many new things at the same time, and ended ignominiously with Raytheon, then Hawker Beechcraft’s parent, trying to buy all the existing aircraft to scrap them.
The Avanti, while using a similar wing layout, avoided similar mistakes with weight. In fact, some items at the assembly plant at Cristoforo Colombo airport stood out for the opposite reason. I picked up an engine mount and found the shiny titanium tubing that handles the 850 shaft horsepower of each turboprop engine was lighter than any bicycle frame I’ve ever owned.
The main wing, meanwhile, is machined in two halves – flawless skin, reinforcing ribs and all – from solid blocks of aluminium alloy. This cuts the parts count, and weight, drastically from most metal wings, made from fabricated ribs and covered with a skin, all held together by rivets.
The history of the company has been less smooth. Piaggio Aero – part of the same group as the Vespa-making Piaggio scooter manufacturer until 1966 – overstretched itself and only a rescue by the Ferrari family and other investors in 1998 allowed the Avanti project to go ahead.
More recently the company sold stakes to Mubadala, the investment arm of the Abu Dhabi government, and Tata of India, each of which own about a third. Alberto Galassi, chief executive of Piaggio Aero, told me their involvement has brought not only financial stability but access to new markets. Two Avantis are being operated by a Tata company in India, for example.
This will help, as sales to traditional markets slowed sharply during the downturn, although special mission and medevac uses are showing promise.
I spoke to Mr Galassi in front of an Avanti II mock-up – with a distinctive design by renowned artist Mimmo Paladino that that harks back in some respects to the technical sketches of Leonardo da Vinci – amid the historic buildings of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
As for the actual Avanti II, its flying characteristics were not weighed down by any of this history. Quite the reverse.
My flight test of the Avanti II is in the forthcoming issue of FT Wealth magazine, out on May 27, and on video from then on the FT’s dedicated microsite www.ft.com/corporateaviation.
The business aviation sector may still be cautious about prospects for sustained recovery. But Bob Horner, senior vice-president for sales at Bombardier Business Aircraft, this month pointed to grounds for greater enthusiasm when he addressed the well-attended Aviation Supper Club in Farnborough, organised by Brendan Lodge of JetBrokers Europe.
“We could have sold the first batch of Global 7000s 15 times over,” said Mr Horner. “The next Global Express position is not until 2015. The next Global 8000 is 2019. And we’re still taking orders.
“All the indicators point to an up.”
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