Seated in the lounge area of the Sharjah Airport FBO, launched back in 2014 and located adjacent to Sharjah International Airport (SHJ), Aviation Business got the chance to sit down with Richard Lineveldt, managing director, Middle East, Gama Aviation.
As head of the Middle East branch of the UK-based multi-national business aviation services company, Lineveldt went on to discuss the business’ latest announcements and developments within the region, as well as the company’s ongoing role in effectively managing all business aviation handling at the Sharjah International Airport.
Beginning first with fleet expansions, Lineveldt shares that Gama Aviation has grown its fleet significantly over the past year. In 2017, the company added a pair of Learjet 60 aircraft, as well as a Gulfstream 550.
The managing director also noted that a pair of Bombardier Global Express business jets were in the process of being delivered. Though these aircraft will operate out of Hong Kong, he explains that the operational framework for the business jets will be provided by Gama Aviation’s Sharjah Infrastructure.
The addition of the Learjet 60’s into the fleet has also enabled Gama Aviation to offer air ambulance services to what Lineveldt described as an underserved niche within the UAE market.
Offering medical repatriation and air ambulance missions, the ad hoc service was introduced halfway through 2017 and has quickly found favour with operators from outside the region, particularly those in Europe and Turkey.
“It’s [air ambulance] a transfer from country to country and it is a private service as well. It is an on-demand service, where the assistance companies will contract you in for it and it is not provided for by the local government itself,” explains Lineveldt.
The offering is similar to the Scottish Air Ambulance Service, which Gama Aviation’s headquarters in the UK has worked closely with the country’s National Health Service (NHS) to deliver over the last 25 years.
Performing roughly 4,000 emergency air ambulance flights per year, the service primarily tackles missions in rural and remote locations in Scotland, where conventional medical transportation is typically inconvenient.
To date, the fleet utilised by the Scottish Air Ambulance Service comprises of three Beechcraft King Airs, one which is equipped as a multi-role relief aircraft with twin Lifeport capability, as well as two EC145 helicopters that are provided by a contracted third party.
In addition to increasing the size of its fleet in the region, Gama Aviation has taken steps towards expanding its presence within the GCC, by establishing a physical presence in Saudi Arabia.
“We are very excited and focused this year on the expansion of our business into Saudi Arabia. It is the largest part of the business aviation market in the region … it is somewhere where we’ve been looking at going into,” explains Lineveldt.
“There has been some regulatory changes there, in terms of the ability for individual aircraft management, which makes it quite challenging for single owners to look after the aircraft themselves. So we are in the process of finalising a company formation in Saudi Arabia, to be able to provide our management services to the clients.”
Working closely with Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Civil Aviation (GACA), Gama Aviation has already formed a company in Jeddah and is currently in the process of finalising its operational infrastructure.
The business aviation services provider will soon be in a position to launch air operations, which in addition to being the least capital-intensive part of the process, is typically the first step in the group’s strategy when entering new markets.
Once a solid foothold has been established and ample time is given to build up its reputation, Gama Aviation will consider introducing additional services in the country.
“If any ground opportunities present themselves — passenger handling or provision of maintenance services — in time, we would be happy to look at those,” adds Lineveldt.
Despite a large part of the company’s focus shifting towards Saudi Arabia, Gama Aviation remains heavily invested with the UAE market. This no more evident than with the ongoing development of the company’s Business Aviation Centre, which will serve as a private aviation terminal based at Sharjah International Airport.
The new $30m complex is intended to replace Gama Aviation’s current facility, which according to the managing director was always intended to serve, “short-to-medium-term business.”
For the future of the group’s UAE operations, a more comprehensive and collocated setup will be required.
“Our long-term goal, with the support of Sharjah Airport Authority and Department of Civil Aviation, has always been to build a standalone, built-for-purpose executive facility, which we have started to construct,” explains Lineveldt.
“The earthworks are about to proceed and we will probably receive it after about 12 to14 months build-time. It will be opened during the first quarter of 2019.”
Part of the reasoning behind the Business Aviation Centre was to address operational challenges faced by the company’s staff on a daily basis. As it stands, the various functions of the business are handled at different locations around the airfield.
While the arrangement has served Gama Aviation’s needs to date, the truth of the matter is that it has created inefficiencies in how each of the various divisions interact, whether it be the FBO, maintenance teams, and parking services.
“It’s not all collocated and I’ll admit there is quite a level of inefficiency that comes with that. Unfortunately, the team have found very good, creative, and efficient ways of getting around these challenges, but ultimately that is not how we are going to get ourselves ready for growth,” comments Lineveldt.
“With the approval of the Sharjah Airport Authority and the land they’ve provided us to construct the facility on, we will have enough space to collocate all of those functions into one facility.”
In addition to housing a brand-new FBO that will reportedly be on a larger scale than the company’s current facility, the complex will also include a set of hangers at roughly 12,000sqm in size.
The Business Aviation Centre will also house Gama Aviation’s regional headquarters, which will be located right above the new FBO.
When pressed on his viewpoint on the state of the private jet aviation market for 2018, the managing director admits having reservations on the possibility for major growth this year.
He explains that while current aircraft owners are enthusiastic about upgrading to newer business jet models, there is a severe lack of new entrants into the market.
“Also we have to admit, we are competing in a market where chartering of aeroplanes has become very cheap and there is a lot of competition in the market. That discourages people from investing in their own aircraft,” explains Lineveldt.
“There is enough charter availability around for them to charter on an on-demand basis without having to have what they see as the inefficiency and hassle of owning their own aircraft.
“The OEM and aircraft brokers are struggling with that question on how they attract new entrants into the market. That is very similar to what is happening in Europe.”
Despite the possibility of a stagnant 2018, Lineveldt does expect the market to pick back up over the next three to five years. In terms of fleet trends, the managing director expects ultra-long range aircraft with ranges over 6,000 miles to continue being popular with high-net-worth individuals due to their perceived prestige.
In terms of specific aircraft, the Bombardier Global 6000 the Gulfstream G650ER continue to be popular in the market, though many prospective buyers are also keeping an eye on the upcoming Gulfstream 600 and the Bombardier Global 7000 business jets.