Formula 1 phenomenon Niki Lauda might justifiably have settled into retirement after three- world championships. Instead, he plunged into the complex world of airline entrepreneurship, establishing Lauda Air in 1985. He sold it more than a decade later, returning to airline ownership with Fly NIKI, which merged into Air Berlin in 2011.
In January 2016, Lauda bought Amira Air, a business aircraft operator that had been flying a mixed fleet on an Austrian AOC since 2004. The company was renamed LaudaMotion and successfully combined Lauda’s many years as a business aircraft pilot and operator, with Amira’s experience in aircraft management and VIP charter.
Meanwhile, after years of struggle, Air Berlin and its subsidiaries began insolvency proceedings in August 2017. Lauda’s interest in ‘his’ part of Air Berlin was sufficient for him to begin an acquisition attempt. In January this year, the creditors’ committee of the insolvent NIKI awarded LaudaMotion a contract for the airline’s takeover. “It went bankrupt, so I bought it back,” he told EVA. The Niki brand was retired and its operations transferred to LaudaMotion, the existing business aircraft operator becoming LaudaMotion Executive.
Homebased in Vienna, LaudaMotion Executive’s fleet comprises a Learjet 60, four Challenger 300s, two Challenger 605s, three Global Expresses and a Global 6000. All are managed, while the latter is Lauda’s personal aircraft. The company offers an inclusive management service, CAMO, flight dispatch, charter sales, flight operations, ground operations, crew control, crew training and finance.
The LaudaMotion Executive fleet comprises only Bombardier types, while Lauda himself has strong personal links with the Canadian OEM. “When I bought the LaudaMotion it already had a Challenger 300 and Global fleet, and I’m Bombardier’s Brand Ambassador because I fly a Global 6000; I have a 7000 coming towards the end of this year. But the relationship goes back 20 years, since I started flying Bombardier jets.
“But we have the capacity to operate more aircraft and the new opportunity for us is through LaudaMotion, which is now operating ex-NIKI Airbus aircraft. It means LaudaMotion Executive could easily operate an ACJ, because we have maintenance, pilots and pilot training in the sister company. The next step could therefore be that we operate an executive Airbus for a customer.”
Lauda explained that LaudaMotion Executive manages its entire fleet: “Bring your airplane to us and we do everything,” he says. “We maintain the airplane, train the pilots and operate the airplane commercially.”
While he obviously appreciates Bombardier’s products and service standards, there is surely something more to Lauda’s close relationship with the company. “There is. When I started flying myself, during the 1970s and 80s, first I had a Citation, then I bought a Learjet 26. Later, I got a commercial licence and started Lauda Air, where I captained Boeing 737, 767 and 777 airplanes. I sold Lauda Air, then I had Fly NIKI, so I flew the Airbuses, and now I’m back with Fly NIKI and the Airbus again.”
Even with so much flying in his logbook, Lauda’s enthusiasm for Bombardier, begun with the legacy Learjet 26, is as strong as ever. “I still like their planes. I look at the performance and the endurance they have to help me do my job. As the Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix non-executive chairman of the board, I have to visit every race, which I do, in the Global 6000. I enjoy flying the aircraft myself and I know it very well. I know its strengths and any issues, and that also brings me closer to Bombardier.”
The LaudaMotion Executive fleet might be all-Bombardier, but it includes engines from Rolls-Royce, General Electric, Honeywell and Pratt & Whitney Canada, a supplier situation that might complicate maintenance and service. According to Lauda, it actually creates no issues at all. “It’s very easy. Most owners buy into the engine programmes – they pay an hourly rate and then the manufacturers take care of everything. For me, working with the engine manufacturers is no problem because the engine programme comes through Bombardier.”
F/LIST’s International Cabin
When it comes to his personal aircraft, it should come as no surprise that Lauda’s interest actually extends well beyond flying the jet. He’s worked closely with F/LIST in developing aircraft cabins, including that of his Global 6000. He explains the relationship: “I look at the majority of executive airplanes from my European perspective and I see very few that combine a great paint job and a very nice interior. For sure there are some, but for me, the majority don’t look good. I worked with Hannes Rausch, who previously designed my Lauda Air and NIKI cabins, and my private airplanes for me. We went to
F/LIST together, because we wanted to create an interior very different to other airplanes.
“We needed it to look good to people everywhere, from Australia to America. When people who might want to buy one come and look at the airplane they always remark on the paint scheme and how great the cabin is. With F/LIST’s help we achieved an exceptional product. They found suppliers for the unusual veneers and materials we wanted, we selected them, and they did the entire cabin.
“I’ve done the same thing with the Global 7000, because when I go to the Grand Prix, Bombardier uses the 6000 as a demonstrator – people go to the airport to take a look and the cabin impresses everyone, we successfully achieved an international look. I think whenever I’ve sold an airplane, I’ve sold it on the strength of its paint job and interior.”
Without his Global 6000, Niki Lauda would be unable to live the life upon which he so clearly thrives. “I wouldn’t do what I do without the airplane. The problem for me is the distances. The racing started in Australia this year, then it went to Bahrain, Shanghai and Baku. The travelling is enormous and if I didn’t have the joy of flying my own 6000 myself, across these vast distances, I wouldn’t do it, it would be too much.
“I’m so lucky to have the pleasure of flying the plane myself. On long distances we have three pilots, of which I’m one, and we switch around; between us we went all the way down to Australia from Vienna, and back. The Global 6000 is the ideal tool for my work. If I couldn’t fly privately, I’d never see my family either.”
Speaking in May, Lauda was looking forward to taking delivery of his Global 7000 later in this year. He’s clearly very happy with the Global 6000, so what advantage is there in moving up to the new aircraft? “Bombardier included me in the Global 7000 programme pretty much from day one. I told them there were two essential elements they needed to include: fly-by-wire, because it’s the future, and sidestick controls. I’ve flown Airbuses with fly-by-wire and sidesticks, and the 777 with fly-by-wire but no sidestick, so I have lots of experience with the systems. I said to Bombardier that if they wanted to be different to the competition and come out with a product at the top of private aviation, they needed to do it right.”
It’s interesting and indicative of his 18,500 or so hours as pilot, that when Bombardier presented Lauda with the opportunity to influence its latest model, he chose flight control systems rather than cabin comforts or IFE as his primary concern. “I 100% believe in fly-by-wire as an absolutely critical safety tool for pilots. If they make mistakes, the fly-by-wire tells them not to do that; for me it’s just the best way of flying.
“And the concept of the sidestick is very simple. It’s just as easy to use as conventional controls, but you have a better view in the cockpit because there’s nothing in front of you. I believe it’s also more comfortable, even if it just means you can pull out a table and have your meal in front of you, and it points to the future. People tell me it’s different to conventional controls, but I was recently in the Global 7000 simulator in Wichita, and I can tell you it’s simple. You get in, you touch it and you fly. I can also tell you that the Global 7000’s fly-by-wire system is fantastic.
“The 7000 has the sidestick and fly-by-wire, Bombardier just announced it has a 7,600nm range and it flies at Mach 0.9. For me, as a pilot, when I fly from Singapore to Vienna, it’s about an 11‑hour flight. In the Global 7000 I’ll save around one hour ten minutes because of its speed; for a typical ten-hour flight, the 7000 is one hour faster.”
As Lauda speaks about aviation and flying, it quickly becomes clear that he’s a professional career pilot for whom safety is always paramount. Yet he was also a racing driver of exceptional talent, contrasting one career, where taking a risk is often the only possible means to success and another, where taking a risk is seldom ever a route to success. How did he manage this apparent contradiction?
“It was easy. When I was still racing, I’d go to the airport after the event and when I saw my airplane I knew this was the absolute opposite to what I’d been doing. Racing is ‘take any chance to win’, flying is ‘take no chances and respect the rules’. It’s very simple and I found the combination perfect. I’ve never got into problems in an airplane and I’ve never taken a risk in the air. If an airport’s foggy, for example, and visibility is below my aircraft’s capability, I won’t go there. I respect the rules, just like I hope any other sensible pilot does.”
Lauda’s fascinating for flying stemmed from his original need to travel to, from and between races, and quickly expanded to include the business case behind aircraft operations. “I found the business case more challenging than the piloting; my interest has always been the business first and then the flying.” With the Global 7000 coming, Lauda is training for his type rating, which he aims to have by the end of the year, in time for delivery. Does he aim to carry on flying the jet for as long as he can? “Yes, yes!”
Lauda has owned several aircraft personally and flown a disparate collection of other types through his airlines, but doesn’t hesitate for a moment when asked which his favourite has been: “The 6000. Because its perfect on 10-, 11- even 12-hour flights. But then if I have to go to a race in Europe and operate off a short runway, it’s perfect for that too. The problem is always, ‘Can you afford it?’. It costs a lot of money, there’s no question. But for the combination of what I need, flying long distance and short distance, and from smaller airfields, the 6000 is perfect. The 7000 will be even better, because of its speed. One hour out of a ten-hour journey makes a hell of a difference.”
Lauda is eager to experience the time-saving Global 7000, perhaps because his schedule appears so hectic. His re-acquisition of NIKI, LaudaMotion Executive and his Mercedes-Benz commitments, plus eight-year old twins, combine to make him an extremely busy man. Does he ever think it’ll be time to slow down?
“No! I was lucky that the NIKI and LaudaMotion deal was done during the winter and concluded in February; there are no Formula 1 races in winter. Now I have excellent management here and they’re turning NIKI around. We have a fleet of 11 Airbuses and Ryanair is supporting our sales.
“The racing is generally a weekend job. If the races are far away it takes longer to get there, but basically I work for the airline during the week and over the weekend I go racing.” Does he rest? “I do! I have very good timing, I know exactly what I have to do and I have very good people at LaudaMotion. It’s doing very well. I can’t complain.”