Time is as valuable as money, as any successful businessman knows. And in this era of globalisation, being able to reach anywhere in the world quickly to exploit any business opportunity is crucial.
Yet, few Singaporean businessmen own business aircraft, with most of those based in Singapore belonging to expatriates as the state allows foreign-registered planes to be stationed here, as long as one also has a Singapore operating permit.
This is despite the fact that Singapore is a centre for business aviation in Asia. Changi Airport Group (CAG) says business-aviation traffic has boomed. “In Singapore, it has enjoyed strong growth since 2007, registering a compound annual growth rate of about 14 per cent,” says CAG, which manages Changi Airport and Seletar Airport.
Most business aircraft-makers and maintenance companies also have a large presence here. For example, Gulfstream’s maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) company, Jet Aviation, has a big facility at Seletar Aerospace Park, as do Cessna, Bombardier and Hawker Pacific, which does MRO work on aircraft such as Dassault Falcon jets.
No doubt, increasing business between North America and Europe, and Asia has fuelled growth in the industry, as CEOs and top executives have more reason to visit this part of the world. More business among Asian countries, too, has resulted in the need to fly between cities quickly and easily.
A jet, however, is a major investment. A large cabin model that seats 10 passengers or more can cost upwards of US$50 million (S$69 million). Besides, Singaporeans prefer to keep a low profile, and probably take their lead from the Government. “You will never see Singapore politicians photographed using a business jet,” notes a senior executive in the business-aviation industry. But, if they do, who can blame them?
The fact is, business aircraft trump commercial airlines on several fronts. For one thing, far from being the ultimate “ego trip”, they are “time machines”, convenient and time-saving.
If you need to visit three nearby cities in a day for meetings, for example, you can do so on a business jet because you can fly according to your schedule. As Embraer sales director for executive jets Manfred Baudzus puts it: “The plane departs when the boss arrives and boards.”
Business aircraft can also land at smaller airports closer to the city centre. Jakarta’s Halim Perdanakusuma Airport, Kuala Lumpur’s Subang Airport and Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport, for example, are all less than 40 minutes by car from the city core, compared to the close to two-hour journey from the international airports.
Time is saved, too, when the plane is able to fly non-stop between smaller, second-tier destinations, compared to commercial airlines that will always route through main city hubs.
Indeed, although the latter have been trying hard to retain high-end travellers by improving amenities in first and business classes, they still can’t provide what a business aircraft can, namely, control of the passenger list and absolute privacy, advantages that business-jet owners value highly. That is why, with rare exception, a business jet will never have a name printed on its side, not even that of the company.
Office in the Sky
It’s no surprise that the transportation of choice for top-tier executives is kitted out to the nines. “In commercial aviation, you need to make a business case for buying a piece of equipment for the aircraft but, with a corporate jet, it’s a case of ‘whatever is the latest, I want it’,” says Baudzus.
The first civil aircraft to have an all-glass cockpit, for example, was the Gulfstream GIV, which was certified in 1987. Drag-reducing winglets, too, appeared on corporate jets before they did on commercial airlines in the last decade. The same goes for systems to avoid terrain collisions.
The trump card that these planes have is constant Internet connection enabled by satellite communications. Phones, e-mail, broadband and so on are common features. They have to be, as, according to Cessna Aircraft’s vice-president of sales Chris Bogaars: “Most executives today won’t even consider a business jet, unless it has Wi-Fi.”
Equal care goes into the customisation of interiors. Aircraft manufacturers take pains to find out the customer’s design preferences, and can provide myriad choices involving lighting, upholstery, metal finishes and wood veneers.
Besides having teams of design experts, manufacturers also tie up with specialist design firms. Dassault Falcon works with BMW Group Designworks USA, for example.
Cultural preferences are also taken into account. In 2011, Airbus corporate jets introduced the Phoenix design catering to Chinese customers. The cabin features a large round table for socialising purposes, which can be turned square to facilitate mahjong playing. There’s also a karaoke area and the choice of auspicious red for decor.
The limit on customisation is set by aviation regulators, which have to approve of all the interior products.
Bogaars notes: “The difference is large between business jets today and those 15 years ago.” Modern technology such as fly-by-wire has made aircraft more efficient and safe, and flights more smooth. The distance that aircraft can fly has increased too, thanks to improvements in aerodynamic design, lighter materials and more fuel-efficient engines.
A recent trend in the industry has been the development of large business jets, in response to demand from emerging markets such as China. In fact, China is now the largest market in the Asia-Pacific for business jets.
“Dassault Falcon has 35 to 40 jets in China, with the top-of-the-range model, the 7X, being our biggest seller. We’ve also sold a couple of jets in Singapore,” says Jean-Michel Jacob, the firm’s senior vice-president of international sales.
Generally, a large business jet is considered to be one that seats more than 10 passengers. Medium-sized jets seat six to 10 and, small jets, five or less.
Airbus, renowned for commercial aircraft, has a division called Airbus Corporate Jets (ACJ) that specialises in large planes. ACJ marketing director David Velupillai reveals that “about 25 Airbus corporate jets are flying in the Asia-Pacific, out of the more than 170 that we have sold to date”. China is its biggest market in the region, with the number of billionaires expected to reach 1,040 in 2017, from 470 in 2012, according to the company’s market research.
To this group, a large jet is a reflection of success. As a result, some business-jet manufacturers are debuting larger aircraft. Dassault Falcon’s top-of-the-range model is the 7X, but it also has two larger business jets in development, the 8X and the 5X.
Bombardier is developing two large aircraft, the Global 7000 and Global 8000. Cessna, renowned for small and medium-sized business jets, is developing a large jet, the Citation Longitude.
There are practical reasons for wanting a larger aircraft. If you need to travel with an entourage – family, friends, advisers or people paid to look after you – you will need a large aircraft. Plus, a bigger airframe can carry more fuel, so the aircraft has a longer range.
In Singapore, you can land your aircraft at Changi Airport or Seletar Airport – but both pose their own set of challenges, according to Logan Ravishankar, chief executive officer of Singapore-based business-aircraft management company My Jet Asia.
Changi has only one FBO (fixed base operations company that provide ground handling), Jet Quay. There are six at Seletar – Hawker Pacific, Jet Aviation, ST Aerospace, MAJ Simco Aviation, Universal Singapore Airport Services and Wings Over Asia.
Another issue with Changi is slot constraints, due to growth in airline traffic. As the airport has to take the needs of big airlines into account, you may be unable to take off and land at the times requested. In addition, business jets are often parked far away from the passenger terminal. That means you need to be bused to your aircraft.
Seletar, on the other hand, has expensive fuel charges, with the price 33 to 40 per cent more than that at Changi, say industry executives, because Seletar has only one fuel supplier.
Still, CAG has been encouraging business-jet operators to move to Seletar where there are no slot constraints and where people can walk straight from the terminal to their aircraft.
The current business-aviation passenger terminal at Seletar is to be demolished and rebuilt. Ultimately, this means business-jet operators can look forward to a better, Changi Airport-style experience.
To address issues such as privacy and expedient clearance, CAG is exploring plans to provide a dedicated clearance channel for business-jet passengers to clear immigration, Customs and quarantine counters more efficiently.
Significant improvements to Seletar have already been made. The runway, for example, has been extended to 1,836m, so it can now handle larger business jets; an instrument landing system has been installed; and the number of aircraft parking stands has increased.
However, Ravishankar says Singapore overall is still behind the US and Europe, when it comes to business aviation. One reason is that Singaporeans have a misconception that business aviation is a luxury. “It’s not about luxury,” he says. “It’s about convenience. A business jet is a business tool.”