One of private aviation’s worst kept secrets was Flexjet’s planned entrance into Europe last May at the annual European Business Aviation Conference and Exhibition held annually in Geneva. Expectations were a big party and lots of festivities. For Flexjet, it was to be an important step in its never-ending battle with market leader NetJets.
We’re here to build a company for the next 20 years, not the next several months…”Marine Eugene, managing director, Flexjet Europe
When COVID postponed the launch, the assumption was to mark EBACE 2021 on the calendar. In fact, Directional Aviation boss Kenn Ricci said so much back in the middle of May 2020 after the industry had seen flight activity drop by 80%.
By November, it was apparent without any announcements, Flexjet was moving forward with its European expansion. Earlier this week, Marine Eugene, Flexjet’s managing director for Europe, told a gathering of the British Business and General Aviation Association the back story.
“We’ve been working on this plan for many years, in terms of understanding the market, building the foundation, preparing the marketing, the sales, but in March (2020), when the COVID crisis hit, we postponed everything, thinking generally, we’re done for a year. We’re not going to do anything until 2021,” she told attendees.
However, the fast rebound from sister companies within Directional’s OneSky Flight group caused a change of view.
She pointed out Sentient Jet had a record number of new customers signing. FXAIR, launched in July and focused on selling Flexjet operated aircraft retired from its fractional customers “made an immediate impact” For Flexjet in the U.S., by year’s end it was back to pre-pandemic activity. U.K.-based broker PrivateFly had year-on-year growth and record number of new customers, she said.
Just a month after the canceled celebrations in Geneva, Eugene said, “We did see an opening in the summer…we saw resilience and interest.”
From the U.S., Eugene told attendees her bosses were ready to make a move. “Kenn Ricci and (Flexjet CEO) Mike Silvestro said, ‘Let’s just go forward. Let’s bring a couple of Praetor 600s to Europe, and let’s go under the radar and start our plan again.’ After all, we’re here to build a company for the next 20 years, not the next several months, and that’s been a remarkable, very exciting move and quite bullish.”
The former NetJets executive noted, “I think it talks about the mood, the resilience, and adaptability in the company, and we’ve seen some good progress and traction.”
Eugene didn’t downplay the challenges. Asked about the future, she said, “The year hasn’t started in a straight line, but we see opportunity. We believe in the choice of our fleet. We believe there is a market niche that is not really well served in Europe.
To spur trial, Eugene noted Flexjet recently launched a jet card. Initially, it was offering only fractional shares and leases.
“It’s a very exciting future, and the group is in a very solid place,” she noted.
Asked if Zoom will take the place of private jet flights, Eugene said, “(Believing) key decision-makers, CEOs, and the top level of Fortune 1000 companies will conduct business on zoom is ludicrous.”
However, she believes, “Health and (lacking airline) schedules will push the c-suite to private aviation…There is still a general sense…the industry has a real growth opportunity.”
One concern is possible closure of small airports in the U.K and Europe. “The network of small airports is critical to our industry. The key principal of flying private is avoiding big airports,” Eugene noted.