INTERVIEW: “30% to 40% of our business is coming from Russia and the CIS” – Comlux Aviation CEO

Comlux Aviation SBJ Andrea Zanetto, CEO of Comlux Aviation

Switzerland’s Comlux has been present in the Russia and CIS market since 2004 and, last year, the group was the first to introduce a Sukhoi Business Jet (SBJ) to the market. Andrea Zanetto, chief executive officer of Comlux Aviation here shares the operator’s experiences with the Russian-made aircraft, as well as his views on the state of the local market with ATO Show Observer, Russian Aviation Insider’s sister publication, on-site daily distributed at the RUBAE 2018 business aviation exhibition in Moscow.

We’re of course very eager to learn about Comlux’s experiences with the Sukhoi Business Jet. How has the aircraft performed as a bizjet version?

The SBJ we are showcasing on the static display of RUBAE is the first aircraft of the type, SBJ100, built and introduced to the market for VIP charter. This aircraft was a great example of the group strategy to provide full service to the customer from the completion of the interior at Comlux Completion in Indianapolis, US to the operation of the aircraft by Comlux KZ, our Almaty, Kazakhstan-based operator. Now the SBJ is for sale and our group division Comlux Transactions has been appointed to sell it.

Talking about the aircraft, the size is perfect: it allows a lot of space inside for up to 19 people travelling together in a very stylish corporate-type interior featuring a VIP lounge at the front and first class seating in the aft section. Comlux Completion did a great job with the design and installation of the VIP cabin and the cabin is the first one of the type to be EASA certified. The range of the aircraft is good, it is what you need in Central Asia to go to the main business destinations in Russia. The aircraft is based in Almaty, it serves our client mainly, but also the VIP charter market. And it has been very popular for corporate use. We are now looking for a buyer and the static display at RUBAE is a great opportunity.

Did you introduce any modifications to the aircraft, such as auxiliary fuel tanks, or is it just the basic version of the SBJ?

The systems are all standard, because this aircraft is very modern and so it did not require any specific modifications. But in terms of cabin interior, there were a lot of modifications during completion, to the cabin systems, the IFE for passenger convenience, the furniture, the seats – all these are major modifications, requiring approvals. They were approved by EASA, implemented in America to a Russian aircraft. So it’s a great example of cooperation between nations and continents in aviation. And we are happy to have been the ones who did it from A to Z.

How would you rate your cooperation with Sukhoi Civil in this project?

They have great standards, and right approach to customers, even VIP customers. We have been very demanding, and of course we had our issues, but the delivery was very successful. The final delivery occurred in Russia and the registration in Italy, in order to get the EASA certification. Throughout the completion phase, there was an efficient team work between Sukhoi Civil and Comlux Completion, to allow a smooth integration of the VIP cabin inside the SBJ.

Sometimes potential buyers are concerned about the aftersales support that they can receive from Russian producer, because they are not sure that their cooperation with the Russian OEM would be seamless.

From completion to operations, we can say that we had a successful cooperation with Sukhoi. Comlux is present in Russia from the very beginning. Comlux was founded in 2003 in Switzerland, and in 2004 we opened our office in Russia, serving customers there. We have built good long-term and strong connections with the business aviation market: OEM, suppliers, FBO….-. Today we have seven aircraft based in Russia and the CIS region; we fly very often our VIP customers to the US, Middle East, Asia, and to Europe of course.

Comlux Aviation SBJ

What share of your overall business is generated by the Russian and CIS market?

In terms of VIP aircraft management and charter business, I would say that 30% to 40% of our business is coming from Russia and the CIS. That’s why we want to be at the RUBAE this time.

Do you envision expanding to other countries within the CIS, outside Kazakhstan and Russia? Is there further potential there?

We are definitely looking for more customers in the region and develop in the CIS countries. We have strong capabilities in Almaty, we have two hangars in Kazakhstan, and we have Part 145 approvals from EASA, we operate with our own AOC [Air Operator’s Certificate]. To better serve our client needs and to support our worldwide operations, we offer a choice of 4 AOC: in Malta (9H-) – which is the center of our operations- with our EASA AOC 9H-, in Kazakhstan (UP-), in Aruba (P4-) for our Large VIP wide body aircraft, B777-200LR Crystal Skye and B767-200ER. Since Spring 2018, we offer now a 4th OAC in San Marino (T7-). This AOC is very interesting for our Russian and CIS clients who requested it initially. We have already one of our customers flying with us on this AOC with his Bombardier Challenger, and we are looking for other potential customers willing to join with the most successful Business Jet aircraft types.

And why San Marino? What benefits does it offer to aircraft owners?

San Marino is an alternate solution, which is European in terms of geography. We are based in Zurich and Malta, so we are very close to San Marino geographically. It is a very modern authority, based on global ICAO standards and providing excellent service to the operator and to the customer. They have a professional organization, and they can provide registration and commercial operation services. So there was interest from the aircraft owners, but also from the business aviation community including the banks, and therefore Comlux was willing to be there.

Speaking of the AOCs and registers, Russia has a national register as well, and it is logical that the Russian government would like to see locally operated fleet listed on this register. Such plans have already been announced. If this requirement is introduced, would you be willing to apply for a Russian AOC?

An AOC is also about size, so we don’t say no to any opportunities, if there are customers, who are willing to experiment with Comlux standard and a local Russian AOC, why not. This is not a plan today, but we carefully look into opportunities. We were the first international VIP operator in Malta, the first in Aruba, among the first in Kazakhtan and in San Marino; why not continuing in the future. We do not want to be a huge operator; we want to take care of the customers, on one-to-one relationship basis, very customized, very dedicated, very sophisticated. We remain open for more interesting business in the Russia CIS region.

What conditions, in your view, should Russian authorities provide to make such a transfer possible or even attractive for customers?

Aviation is about worldwide standards, more and more aviation community is one-only community. And Sukhoi Business Jet story proves that Russia can reach that standards when they are willing to. ICAO is guiding everybody and I think the answer is be part of the community, which is not European, not American, not Russian it’s ICAO. Therefore, following the standards of the worldwide aviation community is what is required to be part of the growth process. And I’m sure the capability, the expertise and the strength of Russia can get there very easily. It’s a matter of decision more than capability.

That’s very optimistic, but in this context I can’t help but ask if the latest political instability has affected your operations or your relations with customers?

I would say no. We are careful not mixing our professional activity with any political influence. We are also a very neutral company operating since 2003 in countries which are generally neutral in terms of political issues. Our customers decide, we comply with their requirements. The aircraft owner is “king”. Besides the opening of our new AOC, we are open to both large VIP aircraft segment and Business jets segments. We started with a Challenger in 2003, and now we operate Airbus A330, Boeing 767 and B777, ACJ, BBJ, Global, Challenger, Gulfstream, Hawker and Embraer. The Sukhoi SBJ type is one of our latest additions.

But, with so many types of aircraft in your fleet, this must be very challenging in terms of their maintenance and completions.

Our completions center in the USA is focused on Airbus and Boeing for the large completions, but if a customer requires, we are able to do another Sukhoi’s SBJ. We have also the Bombardier Authorized Service Facility Approval on Globals and Challengers. Indeed on the operational side, in Comlux Aviation, we provide CAMO and maintenance supervision on multiple types. We are supported by the best MRO partners around the world in terms of maintenance.

You are well placed to compare business aviation markets and environments in Europe, Russia and Kazakhstan. Is Russia more like Europe – or Kazakhstan?

Well, Russia, and particularly, Moscow area is amazing. There’s a lot of wealth and the VIP Russian community like very much travelling for business or leisure. So it’s a big market, with lots of competition and big players. It’s really the place to be. Kazakhstan is a great country, with geographical location requiring a need for long trips. There is less volume than in Russia but very interesting customers requiring high level of service and long-term expertise in aviation business. This is where the level of VIP service is the key. In Europe the charter business is becoming more and more as a commodity. Of course, the price is very important, and the competition is fierce. Europe remains the place for travel for both Russia and Kazakhstan. It is more and more becoming one market. The [2018 FIFA] World Cup in Russia was a great experience for everyone, with a fantastic organization; it was great for business aviation, because we had the opportunity to bring many customers to Moscow and the other major cities where the matches were played.

Is there something that still needs to be changed – or is everything seamless by now?

We have our challenges, and every place has its challenges. Traffic – probably everywhere, not only Russia, but at main destinations, it’s always a problem. So being able to use the full capability of every airport and its ATC is very important, because at the end of the day, business aviation is about speed and service. We were amazed that the operations worked so smooth during the World Cup: with such big volumes of traffic, this is when business aviation requires more attention from the authorities and from the service providers and airport managers. Speed, efficiency is what business aviation needs in order to allow the VIP passengers to have a smooth experience not only in flight, but also on the ground.

What was your experience at smaller airports around Russia during the World Cup?

We focused on bringing long-range incoming traffic, mainly to main destinations in Russia, and it was quite smooth. We have been involved in major events around the world, and every time it is a challenge because the airports cannot have unlimited space.

Did you fly between cities in Russia?

Yes we did. In fact, there was a specific waiver which was put in place at the time of the World Cup. It was a very smart idea to allow operators to do that. Our customers requiring the internal legs were very satisfied.

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