Reasoned Optimism

posted on 23rd September 2020
Reasoned Optimism

After EVA posed a bunch of difficult questions about coping through the pandemic, sustainability and the future of business aviation, a team of senior Avfuel executives stepped forward in response

The aviation industry has taken a hard knock from COVID-19, yet it seems Avfuel has continued forging ahead, unveiling newly branded FBOs, signing supply deals and expanding its loyalty schemes. What has the company’s philosophy been during these peculiar times?

Industry veteran, Avfuel President and CEO Craig Sincock, replies: “As always, we’ve remained focused on our customers, listening to their needs and adapting to the ever-changing marketplace as quickly and efficiently as possible. At Avfuel we value the human approach and in all we do we consider what’s best for our internal and external customers.

“We understand it’s been a challenging time for many of our customers and we diverted resources to support them wherever and whenever possible, while also encouraging forward-thinking initiatives.

“As operations return, we’re ready to support them, rising to the re‑start challenge and adapting to post-pandemic operational changes as efficiently as possible. We believe challenging times are built for leaders. Although no one knows the exact outcome of the test we’re facing, we’ve been working with customers on how to survive for the short term by identifying and empowering natural leaders, and making sure they collaborate and remain flexible to adapt to the volatility of the situation; then we suggest identifying the subsequent generation of leaders who will see the organisation through the next emergency, always thinking about succession. In the long-term, we know that business will return in a changed world; it’s important to build up the organisation to suit the new, evolving environment, and not just rebuild the old one. Those who anticipate the changes and adapt to them will thrive again. Businesses just need to hang on tight.”

Executive Vice-President CR Sincock explains: “Early on we adapted our operations to maintain business continuity while ensuring the health and safety of our employees, their families and our communities, transitioning the majority of our staff to alternative work locations. As restrictions lift, we’re implementing a staged return-to-office plan that allows for fluidity as the situation changes. But through it all, we’ve been able to – and will continue to always– provide seamless support to our customers.
“I think most people in the company would agree that we haven’t experienced a ‘downtime’, but rather a shift in priorities. Marketing turned to educational efforts. Sales spent less time on the road and more time connecting virtually. Quality assurance collaborated with industry organisations on releasing guidelines on critical measures, including actions for reduced operations and decommissioning fuel equipment owing to coronavirus. Credit worked one-on-one with customers on receivables based on their individual situations. And all of this is in addition to our work on sustainability, securing the supply of SAF [sustainable alternative fuel], offering carbon credits to offset carbon emissions, and incorporating a book and claim programme as a new, efficient way to purchase SAF.”

Several industry commentators have suggested that post-COVID recovery presents aviation as a whole with an unprecedented opportunity to ‘reset’, especially with regard to sustainability. SAF is an important component in Avfuel’s future strategy, but remains very far from being the primary fuel used by the business aviation community. Why is that? When can we expect to see SAF as the only fuel available for business aircraft?

Keith Sawyer, Avfuel’s Manager of Alternative Fuels is candid in his response. “Quite simply, the biggest hurdle to full adoption of SAF is the development of the manufacturing and supply chain infrastructure. Avfuel is working diligently to source, blend, test and transport SAF for special demonstrations and events within the business aviation community, in the hope that raising awareness will inspire commitments and demand to further encourage SAF production.

“Business aviation also has the challenge of competing for limited supply with commercial airlines; while that commercial demand is down because of the pandemic and associated economic factors, we can expect it to recover at some point.
“Avfuel predicts that within 10 years, SAF will represent 15 to 25% of the world’s Jet A supply. Demand is rising and we are planning to have the infrastructure in place to move, store and deliver it to our customers. Great strides have been made, but it will be many years yet until SAF is the only fuel available for business aircraft. In the interim, carbon offset programmes like ours are an efficient, cost-effective means to attain sustainability goals and reduce carbon emissions, in addition to book and claim modelling that can grant access to SAF for customers despite proximity to availability.”

Can you share some details of recent FBO signings and explain how these happen?

Responding with enthusiasm on 24 August, Craig Sincock said: “Avfuel is proud to have added 22 new branded FBOs to its network so far in 2020, including DFW Airport, Avflight Grand Rapids (KGRR), ProJet Aviation (KJYO) and MRB Aviation (KMRB).

“The branding process differs for every partnership – each operation is unique and we treat them as such. Avfuel employs a dedicated, talented team of sales personnel, and the staff to support their efforts, from marketing and logistics to taxes and credit, to connect with customers and prospects, develop relationships, identify needs and find solutions to support them. Often, a new or renewed partnership occurs through relationship development. With consideration for the pandemic, that relationship development looked a little different, but we got creative with ways to connect, including video calls and webinars; we’ve since begun visiting customers again, with the utmost consideration for safety.”

Your AVTRIP loyalty programme has more than 47,000 members. What are the latest AVTRIP developments?

Marci Ammerman, VP Marketing, explains: “Out of appreciation for our customers and in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on flight activity, Avfuel is preserving the tiers of its AVTRIP members who earned a gold or platinum status for 2020 through 2021.

“This allows members to receive the benefits they earned until they’re back in the sky. However, members who fly and fuel enough in 2020 to step up tiers for 2021, will still be able to do so. As always, AVTRIP members are also assured that their points have never, and will never, expire. Those that do not accumulate 5,000 points by the end of the year (redeemable for a reward) will roll over into 2021. And while FBOs start to see enhanced traffic as restrictions begin to lift, we have a number of branded locations offering bonus AVTRIP Points.

“Furthermore, we’ve been providing more ways than ever to earn bonus points, in addition to our partnership with Go Rentals and Sporty’s, whereby pilots can earn points for their car rentals and membership, respectively. Toward the end of August, for National Aviation Day, pilots had the opportunity to win 5,000 AVTRIP Points for engaging with a social media post. We’ve been busy thinking of ways to reward our members with points, even if they find themselves grounded.”

Avfuel has worked tirelessly to help its customers but, in common with many aviation companies, its efforts in the fight against COVID-19 haven’t stopped there. What have you been able to do?

“We’ve been working diligently to support our customers and community with resources and other means to navigate COVID-19 and sustain business continuity,” CR Sincock reports. “Along with maintaining 24/7/365 support, our special initiatives have included collaborating with industry organisations on critical measures, like educating customers on actions for reduced operations and decommissioning fuel equipment. We’ve also been assisting with local PPE shortages; the Avfuel team created face mask ear hooks and face shield headbands for frontline workers.

“We waived fees for Avfuel customers using our online FAA-approved Part 139 Fuel Safety training to soften training expenses and encourage new and recurrent training while face-to-face training is unavailable. We released our 2020 scholarship applications early for more flexibility. Meanwhile Avplan, our flight planning and support division, maintains complimentary consultations and trip feasibility assistance 24/7/365.

“We began the Avfuel Virtual Meetup webinar series, helping us stay connected with our branded locations and providing helpful insights. Furthermore, we’ve supplied our customers with a constant flow of communication through resources gleaned from our in-house team, our FBO network and the industry at large, to make certain they didn’t miss critical operational best practices or accessible relief. The resources in these communications are compiled at Avfuel.com/COVID19.”

How has COVID-19 so far influenced your future plans?

It’s a tough question to which Joel Hirst, Vice President of Sales, responds: “In a very short time frame, the aviation industry experienced an unprecedented shock from coronavirus. Like all its counterparts, Avfuel felt the effects of the pandemic with a reduction in airline fuel sales, flight hours, FBO requirements, crude oil prices and inventory movements. In reaction, we closely monitor sales trends to predict what will happen in the coming year, three years, five years, etc. We then adapt our focus and strategies accordingly.

“Looking ahead, we’ll continue growing the Avfuel Network with new branded agreements; continue to make strides in sustainability by sourcing, blending, testing, storing and distributing SAF, as well as facilitating carbon offsets, and exploring book and claim modelling; and continue developing new solutions for customers as an all-round aviation services facilitator. With these initiatives in focus and our customers always first in mind, we’re in a prime position to achieve our 2021 objectives and goals.”

And what about the wider industry?
What are Avfuel’s predictions there?

It’s another fitting question for Craig Sincock, who says: “Avfuel supports every aviation sector; having a broad portfolio makes for a stronger company and a stronger network. From the initial shock of the pandemic, fuel demand from airlines took a sharp decline – as of late August they are running at a 40–50% level year-over-year, and I predict their recovery will take two to three years.

“In the same time period, we saw large cargo operators, those that handle trips across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, have an almost immediate increase in demand and that part of our business increased significantly. Military business is actually trending slightly up year-over-year too.

“And, of course, business jets had an initial drop, but quickly came back. Operations seem to be at 80–85% compared to 2019 levels. Our forecast is that all these segments will remain approximately at the level they’re currently running throughout the end of the year. The industry may move up a step when vaccines are developed and there are more therapeutics for the virus, but to get back to 2019 levels, the final step will be a global economic recovery – it may take a year or two to get the entire industry there, but it’s difficult to say exactly how long.

“It’s important to emphasise that in aviation we have reason for optimism. Our industry is one of the world’s biggest infrastructures. Its necessity is beyond refute and, as such, we can be confident business will return. The military, law enforcement, hospitals and medical operations, the coast guard, commerce, business and personal connectivity, education, agriculture, search and rescue, cargo and freight, and government, all rely on flight.”
As an organisation, Avfuel has a family feel, albeit a family spread around the world. How has it kept its people safe while continuing to serve customers?

“The safety of our employees, their families and our communities has been the top priority and concern throughout this pandemic,” CR Sincock says. “Our IT team worked at lightning speed to set staff up for remote working, enabling the teams that needed to be in the office to spread throughout our buildings at distances far exceeding health safety guidelines.
“As guidance and direction came out of our leadership team, our HR staff quickly compiled protocols and a myriad of health resources to support employees; these resources were all made easily accessible on our existing internal website, so the entire Avfuel family could remain on the same page and maintain safe operations.

“Many of our sales team worked out of their homes to begin with, but one of the harder aspects has been not seeing customers on a regular basis. To facilitate connections while remaining socially distant, we got creative with webinars, Zoom calls, virtual meet-ups and happy hours; and while we’ve begun to implement some face-to-face meetings when needed, we miss our more frequent face-to-face opportunities.”

The message from Avfuel’s executive team is one of coping well during the crisis, but your staff, customers and industry partners have all played important roles in that success. What message would you pass on to them?

“A resounding thank you,” Craig Sincock states. “Thank you to our Avfuel family for their flexibility, dedication, ingenuity and collaboration as we worked around the clock to keep operations running smoothly and efficiently during a challenge the like of which we’d never faced before. Their focus on the customer experience through it all has made the biggest difference. Their adaptability as focuses and responsibilities have shifted has ensured our longevity through the pandemic.

“To our business aviation customers, thank you for your continued loyalty and support. Your feedback has and will continue to inspire solutions as we look ahead to a bright future.

“To our industry, thank you for staying the course and supporting one another through thoughtful collaboration. Despite all the hardships aviation has endured over the past months, I am inspired by the resolve and dedication of industry leaders as we continue to look forward.

“The value of aviation for a globalised world is indisputable and each of us plays an indispensable role in keeping the world connected. At Avfuel, we like to say we’re not in the business of selling fuel, we’re in the business of connecting people, businesses, governments and cultures. And as borders open and distances close, we’re ready to help facilitate those connections.”