Fast 5: A Charter Broker’s Review Of The Year Of COVID And Brexit

Credit: PrivateFly

Former RAF and NetJets pilot Adam Twidell established PrivateFly as a digital charter broker in St Albans, on the northern outskirts of London, in 2007. After a decade of growth, the company was acquired by Kenn Ricci’s Directional Aviation and, last year, launched its own Jet Card and membership products. Twidell looks back on a tumultuous 12 months. 

1. A year on from the start of global lockdowns, what are the biggest lessons you’ve learned about your company and your industry? 

Overwhelmingly, just how resilient private aviation has been compared with the airlines. This has just shown you that when airlines fall over for whatever reason and they’re not going to the same routes or people are worried about picking up viruses on them, private aviation is there to fill the gaps. So, we’re really resilient.    For PrivateFly, I think what we learned was how creative our team is in coming up with new ideas and new structures. We always see ourselves as an on-demand charter specialist, but actually, we’ve evolved now into a membership product where customers are making bigger commitments - either a membership, a jet account, or a jet card where they’re buying hours in advance. So, over the course of the year, we’ve actually redefined who we are and where we sit in the market. 

2. The sector has seen an influx of new customers during the pandemic. Realistically, how much of that new business do you think business aviation can retain?

Like many other companies in March 2020, we had a huge month. Bringing families back who were overseas, lots of urgent requirements, companies wanting to get their teams back. We thought, ‘Well, March 2021 year-on-year is going to be hard now, because we had such a big month.’  But March this year has beaten March last year. As we stand today [March 24th], we’re 29.04% up on last year. And last year was probably double what we did in March 2019. So, all indications so far are that the new customers who’ve come to private aviation last year are sticking with private aviation. The corporates who are doing a little bit of business flying are still not prepared to send their employees on airlines for essential travel. And the leisure flying - people going to second homes and staying there to work - that theme has continued. I think these customers have a good impression of what private aviation can do and are here again this year.

3. The sector has not only had COVID to deal with, but also Brexit. What kind of impact has that made?

Brexit hasn’t helped anybody in travel. Travel as an industry has all been about easing restrictions, reducing the requirement for visas, reducing administration. That’s what travel’s been trying to do for decades, so Brexit goes against all of that in the mess that we’re in.   Again, we’re resilient. I think private aviation is full of entrepreneurs that can think quickly, and we’re nimble. So, you will see companies evolve and, sadly, move away from the UK because of it.

4. In the midst of all of this turmoil, have there been some things that you’ve found yourself doing that you never imagined?

The obvious one is about home working versus office working. Right at the very beginning, we implemented an all-company call first thing in the morning and last thing in the afternoon, where everybody gets on and we have a summary of what’s happened that day from each of the departments. And I actually think, even if we do go back to some mixed mode of working from home and from the office, that 20-minute call first thing in the morning and last thing at night where everybody can join in and get some visibility is probably a great way of keeping the culture and the communication going as we grow.

5. The massive reduction in airline scheduled activity has arguably increased the environmental lobby’s focus on business aviation as a source of emissions. Is this a threat or an opportunity for the sector?

It’s both. Overwhelmingly, it’s an opportunity to lead the way. This year has redefined what people think about flying and the reason for flying. We will be challenged ever more so about the damage that we do, and I think the role that EBAA is doing at the moment is fabulous. They’re not avoiding the question. They’re putting their hand up and saying, “We accept as an industry that we pollute. And this is what we’re doing about it in the short term, and this is what we’re hoping happens in the long term.” I think that’s the only way forward for the industry, and for every company within it to take the lead of EBAA and put your hand up and say, “We accept we’re polluting, and this is what we’re doing.”

Angus Batey

Angus Batey has been contributing to various titles within the Aviation Week Network since 2009, reporting on topics ranging from defense and space to business aviation, advanced air mobility and cybersecurity.