A veteran of business aviation in China, Diana Chou sits at the head of the Dragon General Aviation Group she created. An active, influential founder and continuing member of the Asian Business Aviation Association, she is among the region’s key business aviation leaders
Diana Chou stands as a beacon for business aviation in China. Founder and chairman of Dragon General Aviation Group (DGA), she also helped establish the Asian Business Aviation Association (AsBAA), remaining on its Board of Governors. She was the first woman in China to sell a business jet and subsequently branched off into helicopter sales. Now, DGA encompasses three distinct brands, L’Voyage, Aerochine and Jet 8, while Chou also runs other interests outside DGA and sits on several boards and committees with organisations both inside and outside aviation.
Chou’s story is that of a pioneer. Her father had been involved in establishing Dragonair during the early 1980s, but that was not the inspiration for her aviation career. She began her bizjet odyssey in the late 1990s, taking Bombardier’s products into the region after her brother, his business partner and Mansour Ojjeh secured exclusive rights to sell Bombardier aircraft in China, Macau and Hong Kong. Chou’s brother and business partner worked in the US, where they regularly chartered aircraft for business. The partner also worked with the Ojjeh family, owners of TAG, and was neighbours with Pierre Beaudoin, then Bombardier’s Chairman of the Board and now its President and CEO.
With the deal done, the three looked around for a salesperson. Diana Chou was selling cosmetics, for Estée Lauder, and her brother asked her to give it a shot. It was a big ask, because first she had to educate China’s business elite, convincing them of the benefits of business aviation at a time when the country’s regulations and limited infrastructure made operations very difficult. Typically, she persisted. Two years later she sold her first jet. Then decided to sell helicopters too…
Remaining as perhaps DGA’s closest connection to Chou’s business aviation beginnings, Jet 8 sells jets, but also provides financial services, consultancy and more. Compared to the local landscape of 1998, there is now plenty of competition for jet sales, largely thanks to how Chou opened up the market. So how does Jet 8 compete in an expanded marketplace?
“There are many aircraft brokers out there, but also a frequent lack of transparency. We focus on providing the best advice to help the client select the right aircraft. My business partner, Adrien, and I, have a deep knowledge of Bombardier aircraft – Adrien was a top salesperson with them. But at Jet 8 we don’t take inventory and we’re typically paid by the buyer, so we are in a unique, independent position to advise buyers without conflicts of interest. That means we can advise on a Bombardier purchase, but also on competitor brands if they are more suited to the client.
“We share a philosophy of looking after the best interests of the customer rather than our own. We believe that through caring for the clients’ needs, whether buyers or sellers, we’ll be rewarded with repeat business and referrals. A happy customer is the key to building a sustainable business, particularly when the merchandise might command US$50 million, and the relationship has to be built on trust.
“We’ve developed a unique acquisition tool to help potential aircraft owners navigate a complex market. We translate critical parameters that influence the market and impact aircraft ownership, filter out the noise and provide clarity for potential buyers, helping them make the best aircraft acquisition decision. When an owner is ready to upgrade or sell their aircraft, we take a similar approach, representing them exclusively and presenting only the offer that makes most economic sense.”
Sometimes, the best advice is not to buy at all. “If a customer doesn’t fly much, where’s the sense in them buying a jet? We believe that in turning their business down, we’ll win their eternal thanks. We can arrange charter flights for them instead and we’ve developed long-lasting friendships with the majority of the customers we’ve refused. Sometimes these friendships open doors into other business ventures, or bring rewards in another form.”
The first Wyvern-accredited charter broker in Asia, L’Voyage also specialises in providing luxury travel and lifestyle experiences. It offers charter aircraft from a worldwide pool of around 6,000 airframes and represents a number of machines exclusively. As in everything DGA does, quality and service are of primary importance, but how does Chou ensure a fleet of 6,000 aircraft meets her high standards?
“L’Voyage operates to a set of stringent standard operating procedures and trains every employee to the same high standard. Our CRM [customer relationship management] system holds records, including information on aircraft specifications, insurance, AOC and pilots’ credentials, on every aircraft and operator, and we inspect and update those records annually.
“We also watch every flight closely. We have pre- and post-flight checklists and monitor flights en route. If we find abnormalities, we feed back to the operator and seek a solution. If the operator can’t conform to our system, we drop them from our supplier list. It’s also true that customer feedback helps keep us on our toes.”
Owners with underused aircraft might place them with L’Voyage exclusively. “Before we put the aircraft into the charter market, we make certain it’s operated under Part 135,” Chou says. “If it isn’t 135-equipped, we need to convince the owner to upgrade it with the appropriate avionics. Then we work closely with the aircraft management company. They’re responsible for the scheduling, flight planning, dispatch, catering and ground handling, while we are responsible for clearing payments before a flight and arranging ground transportation for the charter customer. Every charter request is screened and filtered, and we present only trips that make the best economic sense to the owner. We also seek owner approval before we sign any charter agreement.”
A charter could easily be an important component in one of L’Voyage’s luxury travel destination packages, but these represent a different challenge again to get right. Chou explains: “I usually try the destination myself first or rely on recommendations from friends and customers. We also select our trade partners very carefully, working closely only with approved, licensed travel curators with in-depth knowledge and personal experience of the destination.”
Under Aerochine, Chou represents Bell in mainland China, Macau and Hong Kong. While there’s an obvious private, corporate and VVIP market for helicopters, there’s also a broader demand for more utilitarian missions in construction, emergency services and basic passenger and freight transport. It’s a set of requirements that seems at odds with DGA’s luxury and business aviation brands, but Chou’s helicopter experience easily wins through.
“When an operator wants to enter a market segment, Aerochine gets involved in the feasibility stage, selecting the appropriate aircraft for the mission. We look at the options they need to select in order to perform the mission, for example whether they might install a single or double hoist on a search and rescue aircraft. We also do cost, financing and performance analysis.
“I’d been selling jets for almost ten years before we were made the Bell representative for China. I believe Bell appointed us on the basis of our market knowledge and ability to deliver, but it operates to a stringent code of business ethics and upholding that standard is not easy. So I constantly emphasise to my team that if we’re to build a sustainable business, we must adhere to and even exceed those high standards. We have checks in place to ensure we do, and staff bonuses are based on those essential KPIs.”
Aerochine also offers Bell-authorised MRO, but there’s more to supporting helicopters in the region than supplying maintenance and repairs. “Safety is paramount for any aircraft operator and we face an uphill struggle to educate Chinese operators that good maintenance practice ensures safe flying and reduced downtime. The only independent MRO for helicopters in China, we’re impartial to how the operators run their flight departments, but we’re obliged to provide expert advice on how aircraft should be maintained according to the manufacture’s service manual and service bulletins. We assist operators with their maintenance schedule and annual checks, and we modify aircraft against their operational requirements.”
Meanwhile, although Bell’s military programmes have remained healthy, its commercial platforms suffered a decline in recent years from a position of pre-eminence perhaps three decades ago. Now, particularly through the JetRanger X and forthcoming 525 Relentless, but also by embracing new technology, the OEM appears resurgent, providing a rosy outlook for Aerochine. Based on her years of helicopter experience, does Chou agree?
“Absolutely! Bell’s tiltrotor technology is proven in military service and will soon be available for civilian use. They’re also the first manufacturer to sign a partnership with Uber to build a flying taxi. Many companies are vying to be the first to launch one, but Bell’s prototype puts them firmly in front of the pack. I believe Bell’s VTOL technology will revolutionise travel.”
Aerochine, Jet 8 and L’Voyage are firmly rooted in aviation, each with its own discrete area of expertise. Nevertheless, Chou reckons the common threads between them are sufficient to deliver important benefits to DGA as a whole.
“L’Voyage offers an entry into business aviation. It’s where our clients experience the efficiency of private jet travel, whether for business, pleasure or just a special trip. Through charter and only where appropriate, we gradually navigate customers towards aircraft ownership. They can charter different aircraft, helping them understand each type’s performance and competitive advantage. By the time they’re ready to move into ownership, they are well-informed aircraft users, able to make sound purchasing decisions, based on their actual needs rather than on impulse.
“At Jet 8 we meet many emotional, excited first-time buyers and we send those who fly less than 300 hours a year away; we recommend they charter. Sometimes, a buyer needs an interim jet while they await delivery of their customised aircraft and we’ll package L’Voyage’s service to offer them a turn-key solution. It keeps the customer close to us and away from competitors who may not have their best interests at heart.
“Aerochine’s customer profile is more industry-orientated, but its database is shared with the group and it also assists corporate jet customers designing helipads for their offices. It can with corporate shuttle procurement too, typically for moving executives between factories over shorter ranges. We’ve developed an internal referral system between the three companies, which is proving efficient and cost effective.”
Diana Chou was instrumental in introducing China to business aviation and she has remained closely aligned with the trade bodies and associations at its core. They include AsBAA, of course, but also The Pacific Basin Economic Council, The Better HK Foundation, The General Association of Zhejiang Entrepreneurs, HK & Mainland International Investment Society and The Ningbo Provincial Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which between them help cement her position as a vital influencer, and keep her close to developments, benefitting both DGA and the region’s burgeoning business aviation sector.
China has traditionally struggled with a lack of airports and infrastructure, plus an excess of ‘red tape’, making it difficult for operators and passengers to properly exploit business aviation. Now the situation is changing, as today’s leaders embrace the possibilities of tomorrow. “In the 13th Five Year Plan,” Chou explains, “the Central Government is encouraging the construction of small general aviation airports. Meanwhile, the CAAC [Civil Aviation Administration of China] is trying its best to relax antiquated regulations and implement policy that encourages general aviation growth. Opening up the lower airspace for helicopter movements and cross border flying, for example, are important developments the Chinese government is diligently working on.
“I’ve been involved in the region’s business aviation for 20 years, watching it grow from two aircraft to more than 600, and I’ve witnessed how the establishment of AsBAA helped the industry lobby various Asian governments, enabling them to see how business and general aviation stimulate GDP and employment. We’ve a long road still ahead, but as an industry we’re making headway.”