A decade ago when Empire Aviation Group began service as an operator of business and private jets, its offices at the Dubai Airport Freezone resembled a classroom, says executive director, Steve Hartley.
“They were lined up one behind the other and everyone was shuffling papers as we scrambled to get our air operator’s certificate (AOC) to fly,” he says.
Ten years on Hartley and his team were carving into a cake at the Dubai Airshow celebrating how the company has grown. Empire now has a fleet of aircraft flying all over the world. “We began with a single Dassault Falcon 900 with which we applied our AOC for. Now we operate four for the same customer and have a fleet of 24,” he says.
Hartley began his professional life as a surfer. At the age of 19, the South African was a national champion who went on to sell his business building surfboards and embark on a 38 year career in aviation. Hartley was a partner in the National Airways Corporation which he sold to Imperial Group in South Africa in 2005 before starting Empire in the UAE two years later. A certified pilot in the US, he also holds a pilot’s license in the UAE for hawker jets.
Things have changed dramatically in the 10 years since, says Hartley. “We used to be known primarily as a regional Hawker operator. But now we have G650s, three global express jets and two Falcon 7xs, and only one Hawker.”
The acquisition of high performance jets is an indication of how the dynamic of demand has changed, says Hartley. “People want to fly further and faster with greater comforts. Our most in demand routes are east of here into Asia. Hong Kong and China are big destinations for us. But we also go West into the US. With the G650 we’ve done Dubai to New York direct. It’s a strong one for us.”
Empire’s investments in San Marino and India are helping it to grow further. “The operation there in terms of maintenance is easier. If we have an airplane that needs maintenance in Singapore we can get a factory approved facility to do that now, where in the UAE you would need UAE approval of that facility before you could get it done. If we were operating in the old days like with the Hawkers, we’re happy to do maintenance here. But if you’re flying 14-15 hours east and west maintenance becomes an issue.”
Getting a non-scheduled operator’s permit (NSOP) has been “a real battle,” says Hartley, but one that will make a lot of sense. “We’ve made a significant amount of investment in replicating our Dubai offices in Bangalore. There are real management players in India and having the NSOP will allow us to really tap into that. Just prior to this conversation we had a meeting with an European bank that we’re speaking with to manage their assets there. So it’s a real opportunity for us.”
In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is something to keep an eye on, but the market isn’t growing yet the way the news would portray, says Hartley. “The Saudi charter market is big but we’ve not been acting there because of the non-approved operators there. And we don’t want to do something that’s borderline.” Empire went as far as signing an MoU with a company in the Kingdom towards a joint venture, but opted not to go for it because “we didn’t feel comfortable with the integrity of the people we were doing it with,” he says.
“For us our strength is integrity, honesty, and quality. If there’s a question of doubt we’re not going to do it,” says Hartley. Still, Empire has “some very good Saudi customers that we fly regularly,” adds Hartley, even if the biggest corporate jet market in the Middle East might take some to open up. “If the news about liberalisation and new cities materialises that’s a huge opportunity. If you look back to 15 years ago, Dubai has grown exponentially. If Saudi does what Dubai has done, that will create a whole new opportunity,” he says.
Until that happens, Hartley expects more regional consolidation to take place. “We’ve seen that with some, Execujet would be a good example. We’ve been approached too,” says Hartley. But on the dawn of a decade in the business, Empire’s content to maintain its boutique operation. “We got here with our staff and nothing would have been possible without them. Our customers call for a more personal feel rather than want us to turn into a goliath where you have to get past a call centre to book a flight,” he says. “And we’re happy with that right now.”