Volare Aviation offers the unique possibility of buying an aircraft from stock and flying it away within a day or so, a fact that hints at an enormous capability that has adapted well to the post-Covid market
Companies offering complete business aviation solutions are not unusual, although the definition of ‘completeness’ varies between them. The step from being purely an operator to also offering aircraft management is an obvious one. The combination of aircraft sales and acquisition, management and charter, also makes sense, while maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) sits comfortably alongside cabin refurbishment.
But operators offering a truly complete range of business aviation services are unusual, rare, even unique. The UK’s Volare Aviation is an operator and aircraft management provider, with a specialist sales and acquisition department, in-house MRO and refurbishment facility. It works across the spectrum of fixed-wing business aircraft and has a dedicated helicopter department. And charter, previously a minor part of the business, is now expanding as the company establishes a charter brokerage based on its current fleet of more than 30 aircraft, ranging from the Leonardo AW109 helicopter to a newly available 737 BBJ.
Founded at London Oxford Airport in 2013, Volare Aviation has changed and adapted considerably over the past two years in direct response to the Covid pandemic. Owner and chair Dustin Dryden explains: “The business was set up to buy and sell aircraft, which is quite a rarity since most aircraft are traded through brokerages or bought new. But we have a balance sheet that enables us to buy in stock, plus a large maintenance and refurbishment centre, and hangar space in which aircraft sit awaiting buyers. There are maybe only two or three other companies working that way globally and we serve an international market.”
And yet where other companies do buy aircraft into stock, they tend to be opportunistic rather than adopting the strategy as a business model. Dryden and his team show on a daily basis just how successful the model can be, so why has no one else followed their lead? “The main reason is that it requires a huge amount of capital and it’s very difficult to get bank debt because banks just don’t understand aeroplanes. Plus, the engineering and other expertise to understand exactly what you’re buying is quite sophisticated and not readily available,” he says.
Thinking about how the business looks today, Dryden continues: “Pre-Covid it was unusual for us to sell an aircraft into the UK and very rare for one to stay with us here at Oxford. Covid changed that. It changed how people perceive aviation and how they use it, and that’s been a huge factor in how the business has progressed. Relying on third parties for anything has become extremely complicated too. Rapid logistics for parts shipping just doesn’t exist anymore, for example, so we’ve progressed our supply chain.”
That progression has enabled the business to become more insular, to the point where virtually everything, including engineer training, fixed-wing and rotary AOCs, sales – and soon, charter – is handled in-house. Remarkably, Volare’s full service MRO capability is available across every manufacturer with the exception only of Dassault. Dryden explains: “It gives us the scope to look at an aircraft, buy it the same day, move it to Oxford, perform MRO on it and then operate it under any of our many approvals.”
This gamut of flexible capability helped see Volare through the pandemic and introduced a new type of customer. “To some extent we’ve gone from being a business aircraft operator, with a managed fleet of two jets and two helicopters a couple of years ago, to being a family aircraft operator today, with a managed fleet of 14 Leonardo helicopters and 17 fixed-wing aircraft. We expect the fleet to number 50 aircraft by the end of the year. Two of the 31 aircraft we manage today were bought for business purposes, the rest are used primarily for moving families and all belong to local owners. Covid has caused a huge, dynamic shift that’s driven a lot of first-time buyers. It means we have people coming to us looking to buy aircraft with no knowledge of how to use or operate them.”
That naivety over how the industry works has brought challenges that Volare is uniquely equipped to meet. Just as they might with a car or even a home, many new buyers want to view an aircraft, try it and, if they like it, do a deal immediately. Volare can do that because it has a stock of refurbished aircraft ready to go. Dryden continues: “The average time for the traditional process of aircraft acquisition from first look to entering service is three months, even before refurbishment. We supply refurbished, shiny, good-as-new aircraft with wonderful histories that a customer could, for example, view on Monday, pay for on Tuesday and fly away on Wednesday, because we’re an operator too. We’ve made it a very simple process for the customer and it’s been hugely successful.”
Volare’s jet fleet has the Bombardier Challenger at its core, but also includes Global and Hawker models, while the helicopter operation relies on the AW109, there being considerable cost saving benefits to operating fleets of similar types. That said, the company trades in many other types, so the Sikorsky S-76 and Leonardo AW139 have passed through its hangar, while a 737 BBJ should have arrived at London Oxford by the time these words are read.
Dryden has a long association with the airport, beginning with gaining his instrument rating and commercial pilot’s licence at Oxford as a teenager. “I’ve been here as a student, an employee, selling Cessnas and Schweizer helicopters, and as a business owner. It’s a beautiful area within an hour’s drive – 20 minutes in a helicopter – of central London, and we have an excellent relationship with the airport.”
In 2021, Volare delivered 21 aircraft, the majority of them having passed through its engineering facility for refurbishment and 80% remaining in the Oxford-based fleet. That so many joined the fleet truly marks a step change in the business as well as signifying growth in staff and infrastructure. At the same time, the charter market has boomed so that demand is overstretching capacity and charter rates have increased. In response, Volare Aviation, with its projected 50-strong fleet, is now busy setting up a dedicated charter sales operation for the first time in its history.