Middle East-based companies continue to make inroads in the U.S. market, but more on the handling side than in charter, the region’s leading business aviation advocate said on the eve of the NBAA-BACE show.
“The market for handling and FBO is a bigger opportunity than the AOC market,” Ali Alnaqbi, founding and executive chairman of the Middle East Business Aviation Association (MEBAA), told AIN. “In the U.S., AOC operators constitute a very big market. Middle East companies have tried to enter that market, but it didn't really work.
“Handling has been a success [in the U.S.] for these companies. Of course, Jet Aviation is everywhere, as is ExecuJet, and so on. But companies headquartered here [in the Middle East] are focusing on the U.S. market. We've seen growth in the FBO direction, but not very much progress on charter.”
Alnaqbi has seen movement on sales of preowned aircraft from the Middle East into the U.S., due to the Trump administration’s introduction of bonus depreciation for aircraft operators in 2017. “The General Aviation Manufacturers’ Association (GAMA) recently issued statistics showing the trend for preowned aircraft moving from here to the U.S. I would say that in our market, in the Middle East and North Africa [MENA], preowned activity continues at a healthy percentage, along with new aircraft sales.”
Alnaqbi is keen to represent MEBAA at NBAA. “We continue to attend the NBAA Convention and promote MEBAA. We have a lot of potential meetings, where new companies [could] join us. Some of them want to learn about our market, or to find out more about the security situation. Others want to understand the potential, or to locate a partner to do business.
“We would like to be viewed as giving advice to the potential investor who wants to come [to the MENA region], whether to open a branch, launch operations or even test the market. Sometimes, companies want to base a foreign-registered aircraft here, and [understand] the relevant rules and regulations. The Middle East is a promising region and everyone wants to have questions answered."
CUSTOMER SERVICE FOCUS
Alnaqbi asserts that the growing international presence of Middle East-based companies in the U.S. has helped to transform business aviation hospitality. “I think we [in the Middle East] have transformed services, from the ‘[typical] branding’ to more of a focus on customer service. We've seen this happening with many companies here, a trend of: ‘Yes, you are doing business, but why can't you do it with more comfort, luxury, and a [bit more panache]?’
“We've seen this trend happening with [Dubai-based companies] Jetex Flight Support, Hadid International Services, and UAS International Trip Support. Business aviation is a [mature] industry that has repetitively focussed on charter, handling, and fuel for the past 50 or 60 years, with small, incremental improvements on the fundamentals. I think it's about time to focus on customer service, rather than just on generating sales. It doesn't do any harm. If you can afford to provide a luxury service, why not? It's all about service.”
He said that, in addition to serving well-heeled clientele, Middle East operators did their bit for humanitarian causes. “We will do everything to satisfy our customers. I am for change. Business aviation is not all about luxury, but it's part of it. I am not only going to fly on a scheduled carrier because they are [a big-name] airline, but because of the service I am going to get. How much am I going to pay? Is it value for money if I am sitting in a seat for 14 hours? Comfort, seat, and service are important.”
Fresh from an International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) boarding meeting in Brussels in late September, Alnaqbi confirmed to AIN that he would take over as chair of IBAC next year. “I am a board member and the vice-chair of IBAC as we speak now,” he said. “And, come January 1, 2020, I'll be the chair. According to IBAC bylaws, I will serve in that position for three years.”
IBAC’s certification programs for operators (IS-BAO), and handlers (IS-BAH) are helping to drive industry quality. “We have introduced standards for operators and handlers. We are developing new standards for other services as well, including aircraft brokerage. Today, [IBAC is] an observer at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). I would like to see a permanent position at ICAO for IBAC, [not just as] an observer, but also as a decision-maker.”