INTERVIEW | Andrea Zanetto: Aviation is an amazing success story for Malta

Comlux Aviation CEO Andrea Zanetto speaks to BusinessToday about the VIP aviation business and explains why Malta is crucial to the company’s - and industry’s - success


You describe yourself as one of the leaders in business aviation. What is it that Comlux does?

Comlux is in the business of VIP aviation, which differs from business aviation in that it provides services of a higher grade. VIP aviation’s customers are world leaders, businessmen and very high-net-worth individuals. We are very well-known for operating large air craft, and this is reflected in the people who use our services, since it means they can afford them. Our clients sometimes travel in large groups – such as delegations travelling for meetings around the world – which necessitates the use of a large plane. However, we also operate typical business jets, which is a lesser known aspect of our company. We have around 20 aircraft in total, half of which are big planes and the other half business jets.  

The way Comlux operates is that it has a mandate from its clients to operate the clients’ own aircraft in a professional and commercial environment. We operate their aircraft for their own use, or for chartering – our clients allow us to operate those aircraft both to serve them, and for the charter market. Some clients are more dedicated to the charter market, allowing us to operate in full liberty, while others prefer to use only a portion of their aircraft’s activity for chartering and reserve it mainly for their personal use.

Our company can be described as medium-sized, and we feel this ensures we avoid offering a “mass service” and ensures we give the best service to our clients. It is important for us to have direct contact with our clients, at the highest level, and to offer a tailor-made service which meets their individual requirements. We listen to our customers and provide the service they require. This also means that our operations change over time, because our clients requirements change.

Who is your average customer?

Comlux provides exclusive aviation services to corporations, head of states, governments, royal families, managers of corporations… the top of the chain.

We count amongst our clients various well-known musical groups, for instance, which use our services when they are on tour, visiting several countries around the world to perform. One example of a rock band which has used our services multiple times – while touring in the United States, Europe and Australia – is AC/DC. We also serve top level sports team, including football teams, baseball teams, hockey teams and even golf players, flying them around the world. In fact, we operate, on behalf of Crystal Cruises, a Boeing 777-200 long-range aircraft, which can fly for 19 hours straight, allowing Comlux to answer for any request by and sports team to go anywhere in the world. During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, for example we flew soccer teams from South America to Moscow.

Our service allows clients to travel from their airport of departure to the airport closest to their final destination, without having to use another connection, such as a small aircraft or a long taxi ride. Business and VIP aviation brings with it the convenience of not being solely restricted to the major airports serviced by commercial airlines.

We also have dedicated terminals and a specialised partner which takes care of passengers from the moment they arrive at the airport till when they enter the aircraft. Everything is highly organised so all aspects of travel are very smooth and hassle-free, from customs to security control. This represents another key goal of our services – we aim to not only serve our clients on the board the aircraft during the flight, but also on the ground, before arrival to the aircraft, and after arrival – we take care of the entire flight and travel experience.

What is the major focus of the Malta office?

Comlux has been in Malta for over ten years, having established itself on the island in 2007, and obtained its air operator’s certificate (AOC) in 2008. In fact, it was the first international aviation company to set up in Malta, and Comlux’s air transport division is based on the island.

The Malta office is involved in everything to do with air transport for VIP aviation.

However, Comlux as a group is involved in three overarching activities in total, with the Malta office being one of three pillars.

The first pillar, which is based in Zurich, is aircraft transactions – the purchase and sale of aircraft – where we support our clients to looking to purchase a specific aircraft and help those who want to sell their aircraft. We also purchase new aircraft from the manufacturer and sell them to the market.

The second pillar is cabin completion, which is based in Indianapolis. Here, Comlux is involved in designing and outfitting aircraft interiors. Generally, we deal with very large aircraft, such as Airbus A319s and A320s, which are completely empty from the inside before we start outfitting them. We then build the aircraft’s interior to aeronautical standards.

Malta represents the third pillar, which, in a nutshell, involves the handling of all that is needed to fly our aircraft. Our air transport operations are all based in Malta. This includes flight operations, flight control, finance, sales, aircraft maintenance and human resources

How big is the private charter business in Malta?

I would say that Malta is the most successful place in the world in terms of growth of business aviation companies. Business aviation has expanded in Malta from involving just one company – Medavia – to close to 40 different companies, over a span of just ten years. And it is so successful mainly because of Malta’s entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility, where all the rules are respected, but the business is understood. I think the size of the country also helps. A small size means agility, a quicker understanding of a business which is developing and less bureaucracy. Moreover, a lot has to do with people – Malta is lucky to have capable, professional people at the right places in charge of aviation. Moreover, this business would not grow so fast unless there was the right strategy and support in place. The sector in Malta is very-well supported. And I believe that, at this stage, the sector is mature and should be consolidated.

When it comes to business aviation traffic into and out of Malta, this isn’t very high. Overall, Malta is a great destination for business leaders and high-net-worth individuals, but in very small numbers. If you compare the numbers with those in Paris, or even to a smaller destination such as Olbia in Italy, these see much more business jets. It must also be kept in mind that Malta can’t be compared to big cities, such as Frankfurt and Moscow, when at any one time there are many business jets on the ground. 

However, I think this aspect of the sector will keep developing locally over time. There are plans for developing the Malta airport, for instance, and for upping hotel, leisure and business facilities’ standards. This is a good thing when it comes to attracting business flyers to Malta. The future looks bright in this respect, and Malta has a greater opportunity to grow here than the average in Europe.

Why did Comlux choose Malta as one of its bases of operations? What is attractive about the jurisdiction?

After Medavia, we were the first aviation company to set up in Malta at a time when the local sector was still new. We made the decision to operate in Malta based on a number of factors, and at the time we were actually evaluating a few other countries.

One of the factors was the fact that English is spoken in Malta. English is the language of aviation, and, in Europe, unless you are in the United Kingdom, Ireland or Malta, you could face an issue where your employees cannot speak the required level of English.

Another factor was Malta’s great aviation background, involving Air Malta and all related companies. We found a solid basis in terms of aviation knowledge and the spirit on the island. In parallel to this, we were also well-received by the authorities, including the Civil Aviation Directorate within Transport Malta and the Transport Ministry. The Transport Minister understood our needs and supports business aviation.

They saw us as an opportunity, not a burden. Moreover, Malta’s legal framework is interesting and pragmatic. It is simple to do business here, and this is what a small company requires; agility, clear rules and no excessive bureaucracy.

Over time, Malta also developed very modern rules to manage owner assets such as aircraft, with all the latest regulations in place to support ownership when it comes to tax and security matters. The banks, insurance companies and owners were very happy to register aircraft in Malta, because it is very safe place to do so.

Back in 2008, people in the aviation sector hadn’t really heard about Malta. They would ask: where is Malta? But nobody asks that question anymore, and the business managed to establish itself in five or six years. It’s an amazing story of success, and we are proud that we took the right decision to come here, after which all our competitors followed.

Do you find enough adequately trained staff locally, or is it a challenge sourcing suitably qualified human resources?

Our team is very international. Around 50% of our staff are Maltese, but we’ve also attracted many professionals from outside the country. In total, we have 35 different nationalities working at Comlux in Malta, if we include cabin crew and pilots. We encourage multiple cultures and languages, because we believe that in this business you need to have multi-national background to understand clients, who hail from all over the globe. If you don’t understand the diversity of cultures, you’ll never understand clients’ requirements. The Zurich and Indianapolis teams are also very diverse. Having different cultures is a group standard for Comlux.

When it comes to finding suitably trained staff, I should note that this was easier when we first started out in Malta, because many people were either retiring early from Air Malta, or had decided to take a different career path, or were coming from similar plane maintenance businesses and so on.

Today, the competition is quite tough, because there are many players and it is now an employees’ not employers’ market. However, our staff give us a long-term commitment, spending on average at least five to six years with the company. For managers, its eight years. This is a sign they enjoy working in our environment and they also find a career path with us. We want to give our employees the chance to become managers and have multiple examples of juniors who became senior managers. If they put in the necessary hard work and receive the right training, they can achieve this. Comlux also brings in professionals from outside, who already would have occupied senior positions. Therefore, we have a mix of internal know-how and external knowledge.

Do Maltese business people make use of the services you offer – is the service popular with local businessmen? 

No so much, because it isn’t within our scope. This is because we operate large aircraft, which are generally used by bigger countries or huge corporations.

Comlux has just announced receiving its fourth ACJ-320neo completion order with new cabin contract. How important is this for the company?

The 320neo is a very modern aircraft, especially when it comes to engines. In fact, “neo” stands for “new engine option”. Its engines are very efficient and offer a 15% saving in fuel, together with being very environmentally friendly, with lower emissions than previous models. The aircraft itself has been partially redesigned, making it the most modern aircraft you can buy.

ACJ stands for Airbus Corporate Jet. This is where Airbus meets VIP aviation. Airbus designs aircraft for airlines, but they also consider designing specific aircraft, based on the 320 model, for VIP aviation. Comlux is very successful in this area, because it purchases these types of aircraft and outfits their cabin. The ACJ-320neo is one of many aircraft which Comlux has purchased. We then outfit the cabin according to our clients’ requirements, and then sell the aircraft to them. If the client wishes, we also operate the plane for the years to come.

Comlux has purchased three ACJ-320neos. By far, we remain the VIP aviation company which has purchased the most aircraft from Airbus. We’ve also done multiple deals with Boeing and Bombardier. We have a very good relationship with these three manufacturers, and we also proudly operate Gulf Stream, Embraer and Dassault Falcon Jets aircraft.

In August this year, Comlux Malta announced it had been awarded IS-BAO Stage 3 certification. What does this mean for the Maltese operation?

IS-BAO is an acronym for International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations, which is a body which audits companies like Comlux which are already certified by the relevant authority in their country of registration but which are willing to apply higher standards. We applied for IS-BAO years ago, and we had to go through three steps, with IS-BAO Stage 3 being the highest level. IS-BAO certification, which is renewed every three years, allows us to ensure we are in line with all regulations and recommended practices in order to have safe operations.

This auditing program is focused on safety management systems (SMS), a concept which was developed in the last 15 years or so, and is a mandatory activity for every airline.

SMS is a system which allows us to certify safe operations in all aspects. There are many processes which have to be implemented to achieve this certification, but the principal one is the culture of the company. It would not be possible to successfully implement safety processes if a safety culture were not embraced from the top. This relates to the behaviour of everyone in the company. If any staff manager sees a danger, this has to be immediately reported to the manager. Managers have to evaluate any hazard and take the necessary steps, while staff have to act appropriately to reduce the risk. Proactively analysing risks is another aspect of safety management.

Every time we serve a new destination which isn’t one we typically fly to, if we foresee that there is any risk in terms of weather, the type of runway, the surroundings, and so on, we have to undertake a review before deciding on whether to operate. We then assess the level of risk and decide if we need to do any additional training or if we need to limit our operation. You can’t entertain any business if you don’t understand your risks. At the end, we do all this in order to ensure the operation goes smoothly, without any trouble, and that we serve our clients’ requirements.

How solid is the European business jet sale and charter industry at the moment? What trends do you see across Europe in this sector? Are clients moving away from ownership to leasing and charter?

The industry suffered a setback in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Subsequently, however, corporations and private individuals seized new opportunities to do better business. Over time, we’ve seen that very high-net-worth individuals who managed to grasp certain opportunities subsequently grew very quickly, and this brought with it its own set of opportunities for the business aviation sector. Now we’re seeing a kind of maturity in the business aviation sector in general, although this differs by region.

Geo-politics also has an influence on the development of business aviation. Russia’s issues with other countries, for example, gave rise to certain matters which had to be dealt with. The Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia, with its own approach to and style of governance, has also changed the behaviour of business aviation travellers. Africa presents strong opportunities for developments. China is still growing, but at a lesser rate than before. South East Asia offers several opportunities and business aviation has space to develop there. Due to the size of many of these countries, business aviation is a solution for travel, and we foresee a need here which has not yet been fully exploited. But European business aviation is still seen to be leading in terms of culture, safety standards, quality and service level.

The real-world is dynamic and ever-changing. You cannot assume that next year will be the same as the current year. The market is always changing and asking for other type of services. It is possible that the market will shift from aircraft ownership to fractional ownership, aircraft leasing or short-term chartering. This all depends on clients’ needs, and our approach to the business has, and does, change accordingly.

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