The chartered aircraft company that's taking off

Chris Leach started Air Charter Service from the basement of his house in 1990. Today, the company is a market leader, operating 2,800 flights a year. Kate Hilpern reports
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The Independent Online

Never before has there been a greater demand for chartered aircraft. Whether it's a wife of a major entrepreneur wanting a variety of aircraft to fly VIPs from around the world to attend her birthday party or a footballer wanting to get from his outer London training ground to a promotional event in Battersea within minutes, air charter companies have never had it so good. "There is a lot more wealth around than there used to be and a lot more people wishing to avoid the zoos that our airports have become," says Tony Bauckham, managing director of Air Charter Service.

Adding to the surge of interest in this industry is the huge choice in aircraft now available, he adds. "A businessman might want a Lear 60 to get him and his colleagues to a conference in Cannes, while a rock band needing to be onstage in Dundee might opt for a 48-seat VIP Canadair Regional Jet to fly them and record company staff from Luton in just an hour, then wait and fly them all back after the show. At the other end of the extreme, on the cargo side, an oil and gas company that's had a blow-out in Timbuktu might need the giant Antonov 124 to uplift a very heavy valve and provide a door-to-door solution."

Air Charter Service has become one of the leading names in both passenger and cargo air chartering, currently enjoying a turnover of £64m. But it has not been the easiest of sectors to break into, admits Bauckham. "Back in 1990, when we started out, this was an industry in which the vast majority of companies consisted of one man with a desk, a phone and a fax – and many had a reputation for being less than professional. So when Chris Leach, our founder and now chairman of the board, decided to start up Air Charter Service in the basement of his house, he faced an uphill struggle."

Indeed, for the first few years, business was sometimes worryingly cyclical and Leach struggled to make it pay. "He had some years when January, February and March were ridiculously slow and by April, he and his wife would look at each other and wonder if they'd done the right thing. But as the latter half of the year approached, cargo orders would pick up in preparation for Christmas."

Now operating over 2,800 flights annually, with a customer base of more than 600, Air Charter Service is clearly onto a winning streak – something that Bauckham attributes to three main reasons alongside the growing interest in the sector generally. "The first reason is that up to four years ago the company focused purely on cargo. At that point, Chris noticed the potential for growth for passengers and that's when he asked me to get involved in the company. We'd been to college together and I had over 30 years experience in all aspects of aviation. My point is that he didn't run before he could walk."

Secondly, Bauckham points to the company's emphasis on its staff, of whom it now employs 75 worldwide. "It sounds clichéd but they really are our greatest asset and as such, we put them through a very comprehensive training scheme and never let them speak to our clients until we feel they are professional and knowledgeable enough."

Staff are taught everything from how to use the photocopier (so that no minutes are lost trying to unjam it) right through to all the legal aspects of contracting. In addition, they are put through courses on sales and customer service right through to hazardous materials. "If a client calls, they know they'll get an accurate and second-to-none service," explains Bauckham.

The third reason for the company's success, he believes, is that Air Charter Service provide a 24/7 operation. "Some of our competitors use voicemail or switch the phones over to an operations department when brokers aren't available, but whenever you call us, you'll get a broker."

Air Charter Service is not without stiff competition, however. "There are two other companies that we compete with on a head-to-head basis, but as the passenger side of our company grows – which it is doing in double digits year-on-year, now constituting almost 50 per cent of our business – we are getting closer to them," reports Bauckham. "There are other much smaller competitors too – firms made up of five or six people – but we don't worry about them because our customers tell us they choose us partly because they want to work with a large established company like us. If nothing else, it means we have good buying power because we give the airlines such a lot of business."

In fact, Bauckham doesn't really worry about competition at all. "We feel competition is healthy and keeps us all on our toes, ultimately giving the customer a better service," he says.

Among the business challenges that Air Charter Service currently faces is taking very large orders from corporate blue chip businesses and government departments that require a substantial amount of capital upfront. "If there's a big car launch for a large auto company, for instance, then we are requested to bid on the tender. These companies would not normally expect to settle their bill for 30 days, which means they are essentially looking for 30 days of credit. Our major competitors have the capital to offer that type of credit, but we don't. To have £2.5m to £3m outstanding is a real difficulty for us."

Globalisation can also bring about problems. "We've opened offices in London, New York, Moscow and Dubai and our next step is to expand to other major cities. But we need capital to take on the premises and kit it out, and then we need to place brokers in there who will be starting in a new market from scratch. We've been successful in doing this so far, so we feel we'll overcome it, but it is nevertheless a challenge."

The most satisfying area of the business, says Bauckham, is the humanitarian side. If a landmine clearance vehicle has to get from France to Sudan to join the regeneration programme, for example, Air Charter Service would provide an Ilyushin IL76 to take the huge machine there is a matter of a few hours. Meanwhile, if 600 Scandinavian evacuees needed assistance in the Middle East, Air Charter Service could get four Boeing MD82 aircrafts to carry them home. "Although humanitarian orders have always been a big area of our business, they continue to grow. I think it's largely because donations to charities now tend to be bigger and more regular than in the past," he says.