Geneva business aviation hits turbulence

Private jets on show at this year's business aviation convention in Geneva, EBACE Keystone

Geneva is Europe’s second busiest airport for business aviation but its traffic in the sector is declining. While economic factors have contributed to this, Geneva’s business aviation community partly blames the airport authorities.

This content was published on September 14, 2015 - 11:00
Marianne Burkhardt,

It takes only six minutes to step out of Gregory Prenleloup’s Porsche Cayenne, go through passport control and security and climb into the Citation CJ2 jet on the tarmac. 

Preneloup, president of private jet operator and luxury travel organiser Jet Event, stoops in the low-ceilinged cabin. With its six plump-cushioned beige leather seats, mini-wardrobe, flat-screen TV and lacquered mahogany fixtures, it looks a little like a luxury caravan.

Flights chartered through operators like Jet Event account for two-thirds of European business aviation movements. The others are privately owned, mainly corporate aircraft. Besides saving time the sector offers flights between numerous airports that airlines don’t serve.

Prenleloup remembers that between 2006 and 2008 there weren’t enough jets to meet demand. “It was crazy - I don’t think we’ll see that situation again,” he says.

While the global financial crisis hit the sector hard, there is growth at a number of airports including Farnborough and Luton in the United Kingdom and Nice in France, according to the European Business Aviation Association’s (EBAA annual review 2014/2015.

However, traffic in Geneva – the most important European city for business aviation after Paris-Le Bourget – is still in decline.

Bad business

In Switzerland as a whole, with Geneva leading the way, business flights (arrivals, departures and domestic flights) nearly recovered to pre-crisis levels in 2011 (more than 83,000) before dropping again each year with fewer than 77,000 in 2014.

By contrast, Geneva airport – which unlike Paris-Le Bourget also serves scheduled and charter flights - is experiencing considerable growth.

“Swiss business aviation is going through a very difficult period,” says Prenleloup, who is pessimistic about the sector’s future in Geneva for a number of reasons.

“The authorities at Geneva airport favour low-cost airlines and refuse us flight movements,” he says, reiterating a concern voiced by other operators.

For him, limited take-off and landing slot availability for business aviation are the biggest problem and one he does not encounter at other airports around the world.

To demonstrate, Prenleloup logs on to Geneva airport’s slot system with his smartphone. “Let’s see what’s happening this Saturday,” he says. All the unavailable slots are shown in red. “Look - 7, 8,9,10, 11, midday – they’re all the times I can’t sell flights. Everything is red,” he says, irritated. “Sure, I can tell my passengers they can fly at 13.00 but if they want to leave at 9am, they can’t.”

Runway dollars

“Sometimes we have 10,000 dollars sitting on the tarmac - we’re going to be killed off,” says Prenleloup, whose clientele is predominantly Russian.

He believes low-cost airlines have damaged business aviation in Geneva, pointing out that “millionaires and billionaires now fly with easyJet as well as with private jets.”

He also observes that since the financial crisis, Genevan companies that regularly chartered private jets use them less and fly with airlines. Prenleloup believes this is not for financial reasons but rather because they are now wary of flaunting luxury.

According to Prenleloup, a few private jet owners have moved their aircraft to Switzerland’s Sion airport about 150km away, while some operators have laid off staff. 

Online private jet booking network PrivateFly sees a monthly average of 12% of its bookings going into or out of Switzerland, including many business flights to or from Geneva. PrivateFly CEO Adam Twidell says the limited slot availability makes flight planning challenging, especially during the ski season and for last-minute requests. 

Adam Twidwell, CEO of PrivateFly, was named one of the top ten leaders in the sector at EBACE 2014 and 2015 Shaun Curry

Alternative airports

PrivateFly increasingly looks at alternative airports for clients wanting to use Geneva. Twidell gives the examples of French airports Lyon Bron, Annecy and Chambéry.

“There is certainly a concern for future growth of private aviation at Geneva airport,” he says.

This concern has led Geneva’s business aviation community to set up an association, an initiative that Geneva airport press officer Bernard Stämpfli says the authorities welcome.

“In the mix of aviation models present at Geneva airport, there is a will to preserve business aviation because it is very important in terms of its economic impact on canton Geneva,” he explains.  

A study by PwC revealed that the sector benefits the Geneva region by bringing in private banking clients, corporate executives and potential investors. It also facilitates high-end tourism (including the medical tourism market), particularly from Russia and the Middle East.

But Geneva airport’s bread and butter is the scheduled and charter sector, which accounts for more than 77% of traffic. easyJet holds a 41.9% share of its scheduled flights market.

Stämpfli says the co-existence of different types of aviation is difficult to manage but the airport and air traffic controller Skyguide cope well. Operators find slots to satisfy their clients’ demands “approximately 90% of the time”, he says.

No shows

He points out that some operators overbook slots as a protective measure, preventing others from using them. At times, there have been between 15 and 50% no shows.

“During our last meeting with the main operators, they admitted they were killing the system,” says Stämpfli. “So now it’s up to them to sort it out between themselves.” He suggests they could introduce a penalty system so that the time slots they are allocated aren’t wasted.

He points out that while most of Europe’s biggest airports have separate platforms for airlines and business aviation, Geneva caters for all sectors with a single runway.

Stämpfli says suggestions from operators like Twidell to build a second runway are not possible.

The airport has a territory of 340 hectares and the law requires an area of 750m between the central axes of two parallel runways. 

Move mountains

“If we build another runway, we either invade France and build it in Ferney or move the Jura mountains,” he jokes.

There is another accusation from the operators: scheduled and charter traffic are favoured because landing and passenger charges generate more revenue. But Geneva airport operations director Xavier Wohlschlag explains that business aviation is simply is not a priority under the airport’s federal concession.

And confronted with demands that the restriction on flights between midnight and 6 am could be eased for modern business aircraft which are quieter, the authorities say environmental and noise regulations make this impossible.

Both Stämpfli and Wohlschlag stress that business aviation is important for Geneva and will be “strictly preserved” as part of the airport’s policy framework.

And the airport is working with the operators to optimise use of the slot booking system and densify parking, which is also an issue.

Stämpfli points out that aviation is a barometer of the economy. When times are tough, corporate travellers switch from business to economy, while those who fly with private jets sometimes take scheduled flights.

He underlines that despite the “alarmist discourses” of certain operators and private aircraft owners, the situation in Geneva is “complicated but operates very well”.

Geneva aiport in figures (2014)

15.2 million passengers

187,600 flight movements

134 destinations

79,000 tons of freight

Net revenue: CHF404 million (CHF376 million in 2013)

44,000 jobs linked to the airport’s activity, directly or indirectly.

CHF7.2 billion in added value to the region.

(sources: Geneva Airport, Infras)

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