CEO Claudio Lasagni talks to EVA
Q: Launching a new FBO facility is always a major enterprise. What led you to think of positioning Air Service Basel as a full service FBO?
A: The original Air Service Basel was formed back in 1967 as a general aviation company with the aim of supporting Cessna’s prop plane development and maintenance in Switzerland. From maintenance, it developed into being a small handling operation largely for private aircraft up to King Air and Citation size Then it was bought by Farnair who took the company over largely because they were looking for their own maintenance shop. I headed up a management buyout of the company at the end of 2003. At that point I was in the number two slot at Farnair and I could see that the company had tremendous potential, given its location at Euro Airport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, right at the junction of three countries, Switzerland, Germany and France. I had a very clear vision of where I wanted to take the organisation, which was to develop the company in the direction of being a world-class FBO and a full-service organisation for business jets. At the time of the MBO the company was completely focused on turbo props and prop planes.
Q: What were the facilities like when you took them over?
A: There was a maintenance shop that was well set up for turbo props but it was clear that there was going to have to be a very substantial investment in a redevelopment of the facilities and of course we needed a state-of-the-art administration block for the FBO itself. At the time we were still on the old part of the airport which was formed in the late 1940s, just after the close of World War II. Our plan at the time, which we agreed with the airport authorities, was to build new administration buildings and a very substantial hangarage and apron on the new development zone of the airport, which was clearly designated as development space on the airport master plan.
Q: This was a very bold vision, requiring a substantial amount of funding. Was funding easy to come by?
A: We were very fortunate in being supported from the outset by an excellent investor base. This was a private placement and the sums were undisclosed, but they were substantial. The major investor was a long-term client of mine whom I knew very well, and who could clearly see the potential of the location. Because this was a greenfield site, we were able to take a view of exactly what services we wanted to offer in order to make our FBO a hugely attractive proposition to both operators and business jet owners. We decided from the outset that we would be a full-service FBO, and that everything that made financial sense for us to offer, we would do in-house. So, for example, we provide all the ramp services, including fuelling, cleaning of the aircraft and so on. The exceptions are catering and de-icing.
Catering we outsource to the local hotels, and such is the relationship that we have with our suppliers that I can have a gourmet meal delivered to the aircraft for in-flight dining a very short time after receiving a request for catering. De-icing is a specialist operation requiring expensive machinery and it wouldn’t make sense for an FBO of our size to invest in such a piece of equipment. So we contract that out to a specialist company who can spread the cost across a large number of customers.
One of our really strong plus points, which helps to win us a great deal of business, is the large hangar space that we can offer. We have nearly 7,500 square metres of hangar space and we offer parking for long, medium and short-term stays. We can accommodate aircraft up to the Airbus A320s and Boeing Business Jets (BBJs). We also still have a thriving maintenance operation, focussing mainly on King Airs, the smaller Gulfstreams and the smaller Hawker Beechcraft jets. These are the mainstay of our maintenance business, but we also do a range of other aircraft. We run a highly capable avionics department and do upgrades, modifications and repairs for clients. We specialise in making flight data analysis systems and cockpit analysers for a number of smaller airlines. We are a full FAA approved and IATA approved maintenance house with what the Americans call a ‘Foreign Repair Station Certificate’. We have a good many customers who park their jets here more or less permanently and a lot of calling customers coming into Basel.
This brings us back to the strength of this particular location. Basel is virtually the centre of the pharmaceuticals industry in Europe and on top of this you have tremendous tourist attractions in the area, with easy access by road to France, Germany and Switzerland, so clients come in for that. We are very close to the Black Forest and to the Alsace region and we are not far from our own mountains either. A half hour or hour’s drive will take you to many of the famous ski resorts in the region.
We have a good many customers who park their jets here more or less permanently and a lot of calling customers coming into Basel
Basel is also famous for its fairs. There is the big watch and jewellery fair and the famous ‘Art Basel’ Fair in June which attracts people from all over the world. So the whole set-up is very interesting for both business and leisure flying. The other really great thing about Basel is that it is a slot-free airport and in addition we have a relatively easy line of communication to the authorities here which makes it a relatively easy FBO to run.
We have excellent parking facilities at our FBO if they are being collected by business partners. We also have a small fleet of limousines so we can take them on to wherever they want to go. Our fees are not cheap, but they are bearable, I would say, unlike fees at some of the other FBOs in Switzerland and the neighbouring regions, particularly Zurich. That said, Zurich itself is only 83 kilometres away by car so it is very easy for owners to decide to base their jets with us here in Basel rather than in Zurich, which is crowded with commercial passenger aircraft and has actually little interest in business aviation. Their main interest as an airport is filling their duty free shops with passengers!
Q: How does your customer base split between owners and operators?
A: We cater for around 1,000 flights a year and they split about 50-50 between owners and operators with perhaps the trend going towards greater use by owners than operators. We have very comprehensive facilities here for crews and a very comfortable flight lounge for passengers. It is free for crews to freshen up here, shower and do flight preparation and they have free private parking, which is very unusual. We now have some 29 people in full-time employment here and a reserve part time staff of six ladies who help us manage peak work loads.
Q: Are most of the visiting jets originating in Europe? How much international traffic do you see?
A: We are seeing strong traffic volumes now from emerging markets, definitely more than in prior years and it seems to be picking up all the time. We have a lot more jets visiting Basel out of Russia and the CIS and a good number from China and India. Their top corporations are definitely on something of a buying spree in Europe, looking to add to their portfolios or to form joint venture operations so most of these flights are business orientated rather than leisure. In fact the traffic volumes from emerging markets has become so interesting that I am now considering developing our organisation by opening up a second FBO in an emerging market. However, this is very much an idea that is still on the drawing board and we will do a great deal of research first and have a very solid proposition to put to our investors before we go down this road. If I get the chance to expand into new markets, where business aviation is starting to take off in earnest, I will certainly grab that chance!
Q: Where do you see Air Service Basel in a few years. Do you have ambitions to become an organisation on the scale of a Signature Flight Support, for example?
A: No, not at all. My intention is to grow but to keep the organisation very contained so that we can continue to focus on premium quality. I like to say that we sell Swiss quality service here. We are not the cheapest FBO but we operate to a very high standard and that gives clients a good feeling of confidence. We do what is really needed and wanted by our clients, be they owners or operators. That, to me, is the key to success in this business.