I sip on an Instagram-worthy ‘selfieccino’ – my face is printed on the foam. Around me, staff are at full force; a well-oiled machine tending to at least a dozen others. Outside, Rolls-Royce Phantoms wait patiently to be driven.
I’m not at a five-star Dubai hotel. I’m where the world’s rich and famous fly in and out of the city. Sitting beside me is the man behind the magic: Jetex Flight Support CEO Adel Mardini.
“I was driving the crew between terminals and airplanes in Damascus. That’s how I got all the experience I have in this business. I started from scratch – seven employees and a laptop.”
But how did a driver who seemingly could not afford to fly first class – let alone private jets – gather enough funding to establish his own capital-intensive business? He claims former customers he met during the start of his company in Damascus “saw the potential of Jetex and decided to partner up to make our dream come true”. While he refused to divulge the initial investment sum, he says the majority of current private investors are based in the United Kingdom and France – not that it matters, as Mardini is still behind the wheel, except this time he’s driving a global aviation service giant with nearly 40 fixed base operations (FBO) around the world and hundreds of employees.
Mardini says wealthy travellers are increasingly finding private jets more economical than flying on traditional airlines
If you haven’t figured it out from the selfieccinos, the company which launched at the Dubai Airshow in 2005 is no ordinary firm. For one, its flagship FBO in Dubai World Central (DWC) boasts futuristic, $13,000 sleep pods, billiard tables and of course, Rolls-Royces that drive passengers to the aircraft.
It’s all part of the plan, Mardini says, with the luxury concept of its Dubai FBO rapidly being replicated at its other facilities around the world, from France to Latin America and East Asia.
“The concept of FBOs started 100 years ago as a kind of gas station for anyone coming to fuel aircraft and take-off again. But now, the concept has changed. Our customers have everything. They have private jets worth millions – so what do they want? The experience. That’s what we’re selling them.”
And what an experience it is, which is why passengers who otherwise would only spend a few minutes at an FBO now spend at least half an hour unwinding in what could easily be mistaken for a hotel lobby.
“If you go to any five-star hotel, you are really only in the lobby for a short period. So, why invest money in the lobby at all? You’ll never use the lobby, but they’ll deliver you experiences. They’re selling you something that you don’t touch. In our case, we are a hotel here, and an aviation company on the runway. We’re a mix of both.”
If it’s good enough for Bond
It explains Jetex’s star-studded customer base, from Will Smith to Shah Rukh Khan and none other than James Bond himself: Pierce Brosnan.
It is to cater to these high net worth individuals that Jetex has expanded beyond the aviation support business and now specialises in bespoke concierge and travel services that can cost up to millions of dollars.
Our customers have everything. They have private jets worth millions – so what do they want? The experience. That’s what we’re selling them
“That means exceptional experiences – the full package. If you’re flying to Dubai, or to the Maldives, it’s not just that you’re coming in a private jet. If you need hotel bookings, tour operators, yachts, anything – we can do that. It’s part of the business that our customers demanded. They like how we treat them and our service, so they asked us for more,” Mardini says.
He tells us about a client, “one of the world’s biggest names”, who requested a two-week African adventure.
“[They] asked us to plan a trip to Tanzania. We rented them a private jet, a helicopter, arranged a safari and got them a villa with security and a private butler and chef; everything. These are the kinds of things we deliver.”
The sky is the limit
In keeping with Mardini’s mission to grant private flyers everything and anything they desire, Jetex last year announced its first foray into aircraft sales. It was appointed the sole Middle East dealer for the Japanese-made HondaJet, with a first demo aircraft slated to arrive this September.
“We’ll be selling the aircraft and doing all the service out of our base in Dubai. It is full support: sales, logistics and maintenance. This is all part of us increasing our portfolio, being an aircraft dealer on top of what we are doing.
“I see good potential in this. It’s still a new product on the market, but I believe that when people start flying on it, they’ll like it,” Mardini says.
Jetex provides VIP travel experiences for families, diplomats, celebrities, athletes and entrepreneurs
He’s not stopping there. Jetex has also collaborated with California-based start-up Wright Electric to be the first company to bring electric-powered private jets to the region. As part of the partnership announced last year, Jetex will install electric charging infrastructure for jets in its FBO network and invest in the production of the first electric private business jets.
“We’ll start [with the routes] between Dubai-Muscat and Dubai-Salalah. We’ll then expand to the rest of our locations as well,” he says, with the infrastructure expected to be completed by 2020.
Jet to success
While the region’s aviation sector is experiencing turbulence due to geopolitical issues, business aviation continues to grow at a steady rate, at least according to Ali Ahmed Alnaqbi, founder and executive chairman of the Middle East and North Africa Business Aviation Association (MEBAA).
“While we thought it would be in the [higher] double digits earlier – which it still might be – it’s actually around 10 or 11 percent. We expect to close this year at 9 percent,” Alnaqbi tells Arabian Business.
“We still have issues. Most countries have some issues politically, with war and other stuff that drags away the attention of business aviation. It’s only logical, but it’s still steady, and we look forward to a bright future.”
Playing a key role in its growth is the Dubai Expo 2020 and expansion of the Dubai World Central, Alnaqbi says.
“There will be a lot of business people coming. We expect [business jet movements] to the UAE to increase, not only Dubai, but Sharjah and Abu Dhabi as well, and other nearby parts of the region. We will heavily promote business aviation during Expo, with the UAE as a main hub for the region.”
Jetex, for its part, is preparing for a massive influx of business jet traffic, adding approximately 1,000 annual flights to the average 2,500 at its Dubai FBO. Mardini predicts the boom will continue long after the Expo is over, bolstered by swelling airport infrastructure across the region.
“This will have a big effect on our business… the people will keep coming. The investments that the UAE is making here are not for six months. They will show people what they can do and how they can grow their businesses.”
But it’s not only in its current locations where Jetex is expecting growth. It’s eyeing new opportunities much further afield; next up is African hubs including Rwanda, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Latin America.
“Latin America has huge potential. The fastest growing location is Bogota, in Colombia. We’re targeting to be there. It wasn’t a safe city, but now it’s a number one destination in Latin America. Private jet owners are going there to spend their holiday. Everything in our business depends on stability and infrastructure,” Mardini says.
Flight of your dreams
Despite the boom in private aviation, the sector continues to be identified as a treat for the rich and famous. But Mardini says it’s a myth that’s quickly being dispelled.
“Private jets are actually affordable. It’s no longer something that is very far away for people. It’s achievable.”
Ali Ahmed Alnaqbi, founder and executive chairman of MEBAA
That’s particularly true for groups such as corporate teams or large families, both of which are common in the GCC, and where the cost of a private jet is often comparable to flying first class on major airlines, which sell individual tickets at thousands of dollars apiece, with longer flights costing well over $10,000.
“You’ll pay the same price. We had a family who flew from here to Istanbul, 16 passengers on a Gulfstream. They told me they paid less than they would have paid flying first class on Emirates,” he says.
But passengers can save a lot more than just their money, Mardini claims, such as stress, for instance.
With Jetex, the transport bus is replaced with a Rolls-Royce; the time it takes to get to the aircraft is dropped to a few minutes; and the crowds, well, they disappear, with the aircraft only about 60 metres away from your luxury car drop-off.
“The hassle isn’t the flight. It’s the terminal. When you reach, you’re okay, but there’s also the hassle of customs, immigration and queues. [With private planes] you can come [to the FBO] 15 minutes before departure, while at the airport, you must arrive a minimum of two or three hours earlier,” Mardini says.
It’s almost impossible to ignore how far Mardini has come in a relatively short time. I wonder if the glamorous world of private jets and celebrities has left him a little distracted, but he tells me he greets each customer who flies through the Dubai FBO. Why? It’s the very thing that’s let him fly high, from driving crew between terminals to running his concierge in the sky.
With a global coverage spanning the US, Latin America, Europe, Africa and the Gulf, Jetex serves more than 5,600 different types of aircraft each year
“We need the feedback, or you can’t improve the service. I wouldn’t say our passengers are picky, but I’d say they know details and the value of services. That’s why we want to be at a high level every time. That’s our job. And we take it seriously.”
MEBAA in Morocco
The next major private aviation event in the region – the MEBAA Show Morocco – is slated to take place at Marrakesh Menara Airport on September 25 and 26 this year. The event comes as Middle Eastern private aviation companies are increasingly eyeing the African market, where business jet financier Global Jet Capital estimates the sale of business jets to Africa to rise by 160 units by 2025, a total expenditure of $3.9bn.
Wright Electric and Jetex: An eco-friendly partnership
The proposed electric private aircraft has an estimate range of 540km, according to Jetex and Wright Electric, allowing passengers to fly between Dubai and Muscat or Malaga to Casablanca, for example.
In late 2017, Wright Electric and EasyJet announced a separate partnership to develop electric-powered, environmentally friendly short-haul airliners that could transport 180 passengers as far as 500km.
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