Out of the former Formula One hangar at London’s Biggin Hill Airport is emerging a new business run by a team with long-standing experience. Global Flight Solutions, with Chief Executive Officer Paul Forster at the helm, is part of the new breed of business aviation businesses that are emerging post-recession and engaging with the new opportunities derived from the new landscape for business aviation. Jo Murray reports
The Formula One world has long been associated with private flight. Since July 2010, Bernie Ecclestone’s former Biggin Hill storage facility has been in use as a private aviation business – Global Flight Solutions – focused on aircraft sales, management and charter with a number of other services in the pipeline. Both fixed wing and rotary aircraft are on the agenda.
Forster is responsible for putting the business together, along with his business partner who stays behind the scenes. Forster himself has 30 years’ experience in the business, having started out as a flying instructor, became a commercial pilot and then moved into senior management. Both Cabair Group and Sloane Helicopters is on his CV, along with significant experience in air ambulance work – a scene his is eager to re-enter.
Apart from copious office space, an aircraft hangar and a maintenance hangar leased out to Hawker and Cessna maintenance company Avtech next door, Global Flight Solutions’ assets include a Lear 45XR and a Hawker aircraft. An AOC is a hard-won prize and it is this that enables Global Flight Solutions’ transition from delivering purely private operations to offering public transport flights.
Through aircraft ownership, sales and management, Forster is in the process of building a charter fleet that includes a King Air, a Citation Jet, two eight-seat Hawkers, a nine-passenger Learjet, and a Challenger 604 for inter-continental operations. There are also Globals under management but these will remain privately operated. Forster is also re-evaluating the air ambulance market and looking for a way back in, using the Citation Jet as a possible conduit.
What is really encouraging to Forster is the way in which pre-owned aircraft sales have picked up since the beginning of February. He is now recording three or four expressions of interest a week from market players who are truly interested in buying – not just kicking tyres.
When it comes to aircraft values, Forster says: “People are still looking for deals. There are still some very good deals out there, especially for Hawker aircraft.” He reports that the corporate world is coming back into the pre-owned aircraft purchasing market if the deal makes sense for the business and if shareholders approve. He refers to a 1993 Hawker, for example, priced at $2.5 million which is not untypical in the prevailing circumstances. At these prices, if shareholders approve, it certainly seems to makes sense to own the asset, after all, it has already taken a hit in terms of depreciation.
And, at this level of pricing, buyers often do not need to approach a bank for financing. Even a brand new interior is probably only going to cost another $30,000 which, for some, is eminently affordable.
Where banks are involved in the transaction, Forster says they are generally looking for a 30% down payment and enough comfort built into the deal to be sure that the borrower is going to repay. Lending criteria have become stricter, he reports, but they are not so different post-recession compared with the heyday of 2008.
Apart from his fleet, an AOC and long experience, the other factor strongly in Global Flight Solutions’ favour is that it is part of the renewed enthusiasm for operating out London Biggin Hill. This is an airport that has languished in the doldrums for far too long but is emerging as a shining star of London private flight.
Forster is an advocate of supporting the other companies operating on the airport and is enthusiastic about the potential being unleashed at the airport – with more to come over the next five years.
He also points out that owners and operators have become much more savvy during the course of the recession; they are asking many more questions and they require transparent pricing. They are also questioning the choice of airports operated into, the costs associated with those choices and the appropriateness of the services available at those airports.
Forster says that Global Flight Solutions will offer the personal touch, provide a great safety culture and operate by the book. He has a chief pilot on board who has earned his stripes on Concord. There are four other pilots on the payroll and three or four freelance pilots on call. Steve Miller has come over from London Executive Aviation to provide operations management and all flight planning is outsourced in order to control costs.
Business development going forward is also on his mind. Training may well be on the agenda given that the facilities provide copious space for expanded services and the team has this experience to bring in this line of activity.
In the final analysis, Forster says that operating in this market is all about operating at the right time, at the right price and being transparent. He says profits will flow from servicing a large pool of clients rather than dependence on limited revenue streams. He is also confident that the business will be built by the team – not by Forster alone.