Chris Kjelgaard explains why VIP rotorcraft operator and management company Luxaviation Helicopters has grown so quickly and details how it sees its future
COMMERCIAL LUXAVIATION HELICOPTERS
A mere seven months after its formation in February by Luxaviation Group, Luxaviation Helicopters has become the world’s largest operator of VIP and VVIP helicopters. But while the company’s rise to prominence in the highly discreet, ultrahigh- service-quality business of managing and operating helicopters for the private clients who own them – and flying corporate and VIP charters when their rotorcraft are available – has been very rapid, perhaps Luxaviation Helicopters’ quick blossoming shouldn’t surprise industry observers.
In keeping with Luxaviation Group’s business of providing high-quality business aircraft charters, managing more than 260 business aircraft for VIP/VVIP clients and operating a network of 25 fixed base operators (FBOs) and 15 maintenance centres worldwide, the group decided that upon its formation Luxaviation Helicopters would strive immediately to offer global reach. For most businesses – particularly those operating helicopters – such an aim might be fanciful, but Luxaviation Group already operated globally and upon acquiring ExecuJet in 2015 it became the secondlargest operator of business aircraft in the world. So the group’s new VIP/VVIP helicopter management company had access to topquality back-office support everywhere it and its customers went.
Luxaviation Group set up the new company with a portfolio of 19 helicopters, all of the rotorcraft that group companies already managed for private customers. Most had been managed by ExecuJet, including a sizable number based in South Africa. Among Luxaviation Helicopters’ initial portfolio of managed helicopters, 17 are available for corporate and VIP charter services: one Leonardo AW109, two AW119s, two AW139s(the largest helicopters in its initial fleet), one Airbus Helicopters EC155 B1, three EC125s, one EC130, one EC135, one Bell 230, four Bell 407s and one Bell 430.
To lead Luxaviation Helicopters as its CEO the Group chose Charlotte Pedersen, previously the group’s chief operating officer and a highly experienced helicopter pilot with military and civil rotorcraft and civil fixed-wing pilot qualifications. Pedersen was the first female applicant accepted as a pilot by the Kongelige Danske Flyvevåben (Royal Danish Air Force) and graduated from the US Navy’s helicopter school with the highest grades for her academic and piloting courses. The US Navy graduated Pedersen on the Commodore’s List with Distinction, an honour awarded only to the top handful of pilots in the approximately 1,000-pilot course. After 17 years as a Sea King pilot and safety/survival instructor in the Kongelige Danske Flyvevåben, Pedersen’s subsequent career in civilian aviation saw her record further notable academic and work achievements.
In an interview with AIR International, Pedersen detailed why Luxaviation Group decided to launch its new helicoptermanagement and operations company. “The Luxaviation Group identified that there was a space in the market for bringing the luxuryservice standards of business jets into the helicopter world and, importantly, already had the global experience and capabilities necessary to support the needs of VIP clients who own helicopters and wish to operate them worldwide.
“Private-aviation customers benefit greatly from the Luxaviation Group’s continued integration of services”, said Pedersen. “Neither customer nor broker wants to deal with different service providers and operators to get [customers] to their destination. With Luxaviation Helicopters, customers can now have the whole of their journey – from business jet to helicopter transfer – managedin one place, meaning a more fluid and successful experience for the customer.”
Professionalism and attention to detail are vital
But while Luxaviation Helicopters’ business concept sounds simple in theory, in practice it is anything but. Managing and operating VIP/VVIP helicopters for their owners and operating and arranging helicopter charter flights for corporate or ultra-high-net-worth clients is a business which demands the highest professionalism, according to Pedersen.
“Modern helicopters have the ability to fly almost everywhere, in all-weather conditions, and can be even faster than jets on short distances”, she said. “This, however, requires highly trained crews, world-class maintenance and a professional and experienced back office to arrange customs, permits and security preparations for our clients, whose end destinations might not be an established airport. We have the global ability to manage all these preparations to perfection … [and to offer] the highest security precautions and confidentiality, which are of equal importance in today’s world.”
Accomplishing these tasks takes a lot of work. “As a VIP helicopter management company, we primarily oversee the day-today running of clients’ aircraft. This includes everything from crew provision, training, maintenance coordination, charter services, sales and acquisitions”, said Pedersen. “Training is a significant part of the business. Luxaviation Helicopters’ staff matches the group’s standards when it comes to expertise, customer service and knowledge. The Luxaviation Group operates Approved Training Organisations for fixed-wing aircraft and this complements helicopters suitably. In the future, we will also be able to provide type-rating courses, upgrades, instructor ratings as well as specific operations-related training.” (More on this below.)
How, then, does Luxaviation Helicopters achieve a fully global reach? “We have a large fleet of managed and charter helicopters, which means that our clients can take advantage of our services wherever they are across the globe, using either their own or a charter helicopter”, said Pedersen. “If a client wishes to use their helicopter in the Caribbean one week and in Bali the next, we can make that happen. It is thanks to Luxaviation Helicopters’ fleet of both managed and charter aircraft that this is a possibility – [the] client can have a helicopter organised for charter at their location, or we can organise for their own helicopter to be shipped from one location to the other, and ensure the relevant technicians are on-hand to support the transported helicopter’s assembly as required. It is one of our goals to offer our clients worldwide helicopter availability on short notice. Thanks to our ever-expanding fleet, this goal is increasingly being achieved.”
Luxaviation Helicopters’ goal is “to become the worldwide preferred helicopter management company for all of the helicopter clients in our sector, as well as being the employer of choice for the industry’s employees”, said Pedersen. “Our expansion will occur via acquisition, organic growth and partnership.”
Importance of partnerships
Partnerships with other companies will be highly important, she confirmed. Just three months after its formation, Luxaviation Helicopters cemented its first major partnership, with Azur Hélicoptère, one of France’s leading helicopter-charter operators. Based at Nice Côte d’Azur International Airport and Cannes-Mandelieu Airport, Azur Hélicoptère operates 21 single- and twinengine rotorcraft. Luxaviation Helicopters charters them to provide helicopter transfers to its VIP/VVIP clients’ final destinations in the South of France.
Luxaviation Helicopters sees substantial opportunities for business expansion through forging additional partnerships, according to Pedersen. “Since the launch of Luxaviation Helicopters, clients from across the globe have contacted us who either are in need of a helicopter or have a project going ahead where helicopters are required, but are struggling to find a business with the required expertise to fulfil the request”, she said.
“For instance, it is very difficult for a small operator in Europe to take up such a challenge and move their operations to the other side of the world. There are numerous barriers to their success, from financial outlay to language, legal restrictions, or even being unaware of how to fully respect or work with the local culture”, Pedersen noted. “This is where Luxaviation is able to step in. We have accumulated the knowledge of how to operate a truly international business and we are adept at establishing relationships and overcoming these barriers to make successful business transactions wherever our clients wish. However, Luxaviation cannot do this alone. This is why we appreciate our global partnerships, and are continually seeking new areas where we can work together with other operators on different projects.”
Pedersen added: “As a team player, I enjoy maintaining a good relationship with our competitors, and if together we can identify areas where both our clients and employees can benefit, then I am willing to explore this further together. The helicopter industry is highly regulated, with many specific requirements and restrictions. There is a real need for those businesses and individuals who hold the expertise to be the ones who lead the way for any developments.”
The biggest expansionary step taken by Luxaviation Helicopters to date is its acquisition of Starspeed, a UK-based VIP and charter helicopter operator and rotary-wing pilot training company, in a private transaction announced on September 11. Buying Fairoaks Airport-based Starspeed – a 40-year-old company so highly regarded for its service standards and attention to safety that under Luxaviation Helicopters’ ownership Starspeed is retaining its name, branding, management and entire staff – literally doubled Luxaviation Helicopters’ portfolio of managed helicopters overnight. Starspeed has brought to the marriage a fleet of 19 helicopters managed for VIP and corporate clients, plus four more not under Starspeed’s own Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) but available to the company to operate charters and provide pilot training.
Together, the two companies manage 38 helicopters and in addition to the 17 rotorcraft upon which Luxaviation Helicopters can call to operate charter services, four more are available for Starspeed charter and pilottraining flights. Rotorcraft types included in Starspeed’s fleet of managed and charter/ training helicopters include the Sikorsky S-92 (one aircraft) and S-76; Airbus Helicopters AS350, AS365, EC135, EC145 and EC155; the Leonardo AW169; and the Bell 429. The S-92 is available for charter operations in the UK and Europe and becomes the largest type offered by Luxaviation Helicopters for such work.
Of particular interest to Luxaviation Helicopters is Starspeed’s helicopter pilottraining business, which offers a wide range of type rating (TR) and TR examiner and TR instructor courses, as well as instrument rating (IR) qualification for civilian helicopter pilots and IR instructor training. Starspeed also offers training for qualified military pilots, including all the above courses as well as commercial pilot licence (helicopter) and air transport pilot license (helicopter) qualification. Starspeed operates two helicopter simulators, an Elite S623 and an S623T FNPT II, the former based on the Airbus Helicopters AS350 and the latter the AS355. Using these, it trains pilots for instrument flying and for operations to and from yachts and oil rigs, a type of flying Starspeed has been performing for years.
Starspeed’s exceptional safety manuals and its helicopter safety-promotion work with the European Aviation Safety Agency offered another important attraction for Luxaviation Helicopters. So superb are Starspeed’s safety standards and training that it is the only VIP helicopter operator officially given commercial rights by EASA to operate charter flights to ships, according to Pedersen – a capability that could interest super-yacht operators and their VVIP clients.
Future business growth
Pedersen believes a multitude of business opportunities will emerge globally for Luxaviation Helicopters, all the more so now it owns two VIP helicopter operators and two AOCs. “The private-aviation sector is facing a rapid level of growth in the future, primarily due to the opening-up of the lower airspace in many key areas which traditionally have been closed to private aviation, such as in the Asian region. These regions will see rapid growth in the helicopter sector, both private and also medical”, she said.
“We are also seeing growth in the helicopter industry due to the increasing need for higher levels of security, which is in part delivered in the lower airspace. Traffic congestion, too, is reaching a tipping point in densely populated cities like London and Brussels, which will result in more people looking to the skies for an alternative transport option.”
Pedersen continued: “There are also clear indicators in the market which suggest that private aviation customers seeking seamlessness and efficiency in their travel are looking for greater integration in the provision of aviation management services. The ability to place both fixed-wing and rotary-wing assets under the control of a single management organisation means that complex operations have a greater scope of support services.
“The future looks very interesting and bright”, continued Pedersen. “This is due to the fact that we have the group’s experience and knowledge of providing the level of service our VVIP clients require from private aviation. From jet to helicopter, the skills we already have in the private-aviation sector are eminently transferable. We understand that individual clients should have individual treatment, and we are constantly working on improving our dedicated service.
“The biggest challenge in growing any business is maintaining the close contact with clients that is traditionally … associated with smaller businesses”, she said. “We believe we have found the solution to this – we maintain our local presence and keep the local AOCs in place, and thus are able to work with local employees who understand their clients and their needs. Luxaviation Helicopters and the group function as a back-office support and knowledge bank who can immediately step in and support whenever it is needed. With this business model in place, I do not envisage any limits to our growth.”