IF you are willing and able to pay more for privacy, comfort and freedom from commercial flight schedules, MJets may be for you. The innovative air service based in Bangkok allows you to fly in style in one of their private jets whenever and wherever you want. Shareholders William Heinecke and Nishita Shah launched the company under the name of Minor Aviation Limited in 2007 with two aircraft.
Despite difficulties at Don Mueang caused by the historic 2011 flooding, MJets expanded its charter fleet in 2012 to six aircrafts with the addition of the ultra-range Gulfstream GV and the Cessna Citation Bravo that can be converted to function as an air ambulance.
In 2013, MJets handled a record number of movements through its private jet terminal with the aircraft management division grew by six aircrafts. With a fleet of ten aircraft, MJets became the leading private jet operator in Thailand.
General manager Simon D’Oyly is a vibrant, fast talking Englishman who spent almost 13 years in the private jet industry, mostly in the United Arab Emirates, before joining MJets 19 months ago. “Setting up a private airline is a big investment not only in terms of money, but also time and experience,” said Mr D’Oyly.
“Finding the right employees is crucial. This field is very different from providing scheduled aviation routes. We don’t fly every day, and we don’t have fixed itineraries or destinations. A lot of our business is ad hoc.”
He then gave some basics on the company: “MJets is a privately owned company registered in Thailand. I am the general manager; above me is Jaiyavat Navaraj, my boss and executive chairman of MJets. He and I share responsibility for running the company.
“We have altogether ten aircraft at our terminal. Four are owned by MJets – a Cessna Citation X, Gulfstream GV, Cessna Citation CJ3 and one Cessna Citation Bravo. This gives us a fairly wide range of aircraft types.
“The Cessna Citation X has a top speed of 1,127 km/h and a range of 5,965 km. The Gulfstream GV can fly direct from Bangkok to destinations in Europe with up to 14 passengers. Its top speed is 966 km/h. The Cessna Citation Bravo and Cessna Citation CJ3 are six-seater aircraft that can fly to destinations in the 3-3.5 hour range and are suitable for regional flights.”
The other six aircrafts at the MJets terminal belong to private owners who reside in Thailand. “We look after their aircraft. Three owners have given MJets permission to charter their planes out if they aren’t using them. This helps them to reduce the fixed ownership costs.
“These are very successful people who own businesses that have nothing to do with the aircraft industry. Therefore, they are happy to find a place for their aircraft with a company like MJets that can manage flight crews, permits, maintenance and other important matters for them.
“Whether the aircraft is flying or not, these owners still have to pay the salaries of pilots and flight attendants. Insurance for the aircraft is another fixed cost, whether it’s flying or not. So in order to mitigate ownership costs they allow us to use their aircraft for charter flights.”
Asked about his daily workload, Mr D’Oyly replied: “I never stop working, I am always busy. It is a real mix of stuff. We have five major business lines including the FBOs which is running things from the private jet terminal; chartering aircraft from our own fleet or our managed fleet; aircraft management where we physically manage other people’s aircraft, maintenance facilities and then we have an air ambulance look after as well.”
MJets officially opened another private jet terminal in Myanmar on August 2 - the Myanmar MJets Business Aviation Center at Yangon airport. While he was not at liberty to disclose the names of MJets customers “because one of the main reason they are flying by private jet is they appreciate confidentiality and discretion,” he did say they are successful individuals, mostly business people.”
“Up until 2008 the growth of the private aircraft industry was just sky-rocketing, but the worldwide recession cooled things off. For example a new Global 5000 aircraft manufactured by Bombardier was sold to a customer in Kazakhstan for US$40 million. At one point, one of my clients wanted to buy it for $61.5 million but the owner refused. A week later, when the financial crisis erupted, the same aircraft couldn’t be sold for $30 million. The industry has rebounded dramatically after 2008, but it’s definitely not recession-proof.”
Mr D’Oyly said that the operators with smaller aircraft are much more sensitive to price fluctuations. People with larger aircraft tend to be little more resilient in times of financial turmoil.
“Growth in the industry is very strong again, and now everyone is looking to Asia. To be placed in Thailand at this moment is fantastic,” he said, adding that countries seeing expansion in the private jets business include India, Indonesia, China and Brazil. I have worked in this industry for the past 13 years and in that time it has gone from a very small number of companies to an exploding market.
“The number of companies doing private jets around the world has probably quadrupled or more, especially in regions like the Middle East, Central Asia and now Southeast Asia.
“We have a lot of passengers flying inside Thailand to Chiang Mai, Phuket or Koh Samui. In terms of our charter business, it is mostly within Southeast Asia, although we also have privately operated aircraft from our managed fleet flying to the United States, South America, Africa and Europe. Our most popular destinations outside of Thailand are Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Maldives,” Mr D’Oyly said.
“Our focus in Southeast Asia is endless. We are a Southeast Asian company and right now we don’t need to look beyond the region in which we operate and open facilities on the other side of the world. I think that anybody currently working in Southeast Asia realizes that the region as a whole is now booming. We are looking at consolidating our presence in countries neighboring Thailand first and then we will look further afield,” Mr D’Oyly said.
“We very much hope that the five-year mandate we were granted for our private terminal by the Airports of Thailand will be extended. We were given a verbal assurance that because of the damage caused to our business during the 2011 floods (the company had to move out for a year) that it will be extended.
“We have increased business 300% year on year, and that’s down to MJets’ contacts within the industry and also to marketing efforts,” said Mr D’Oyly, adding that the company is highly interested in opening a third terminal in Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam or Laos in the near future.
Asked about the air ambulance service, Mr D’Oyly said “most traffic is from hospital to hospital. Patients come for treatment from specialists at Thai hospitals because the quality of medical care here is far superior to what they can find in their home countries. In terms of aero-medical tourism or medical tourism in general in the region, Thailand is a market leader along with Singapore.”
“Many people think that starting an airline is an easy operation, but in fact it is quite complex. I spent 11 years working in United Arab Emirates and I have seen many people start up an airline and lose a lot of money.
“Sir Richard Branson, the British businessman and founder of Virgin Group, was once asked how to become a millionaire in the aviation industry. His response was, ‘You start off as a billionaire.’
“Aircraft must be properly maintained or operated. It is our job to make sure this happens here.”
Mr D’Oyly maintains that private aviation is affordable and sensible if it is properly managed. “Probably the most sensible trip requests we get are from tourists coming to Bangkok who are interested in a tour of Yangon, Bagan, Luang Prabang, Siem Reap and then back to Bangkok. If you are in a group of six to ten passengers spending two or three days in these locations, a private jet can make a lot of sense. It is not only the reserve of the very rich and famous.”
Keeping above the competition
Mr D’Oyly said there are three or four other private jet services operating out of Bangkok these days, but that MJets is undoubtedly the biggest such company in Southeast Asia. “We are probably twice the size of our nearest competitor. We are able to consolidate our position as Asia’s leading private jet operator largely because we are an FBO. Basically this means the company provides a private jet terminal plus other aircraft support services like fueling and maintenance.
“Another reason for our success is that we hire very qualified people. We have a duty to ourselves and to our passengers to make sure that we are providing professional crews that can operate the aircraft safely. Sometimes this is a challenge. You must realize that private aviation in Thailand is still in its infancy. Therefore it is necessary to select and train the best people available.
It is difficult to run an aircraft with less than three crew members. In any 12-months period crew members need training which takes at least one week, plus travelling days. If it is a commercially operated aircraft, this will happen twice a year. Then you have to manage people’s leaves of absence, which is another two weeks. And of course on top of that you may have absences due to sickness or other unanticipated events.
“The Thai first officer is usually a captain from one of the airlines in Thailand. We train the first officer as co-pilot, in the right-hand seat, and after a sufficient number of hours in a particular aircraft type, we move the first officer into a command position as captain. Then we will employ another Thai first captain.
“Our aim is that within three to five years a particular aircraft will have an entirely Thai crew. But this depends as how many hours the aircraft flies. If it is 800 hours in one year then we can probably achieve the goal in the initial time frame.”
The company can even fly to difficult mountain-ringed airports such as Bhutan and Nepal in the Himalayas. “We have flown to Bhutan several times. The pilot must be very experienced and a Bhutanese navigator who has piloted for the national airline must also be on board. We also have flown a few times to Kathmandu. This is another interesting airport. We have done it with pilots who have experience on the route with airlines they previously worked for and we also use a flight simulator to train pilots to land at Kathmandu airport.”
The Rose of MJets
MJets sales director Ms Surivasa Ongvisit, who prefers to be called Rose, briefly described the procedure for passengers flying with MJets. “After you arrive at our terminal, you park your car outside, at the front of the terminal (there’s plenty of parking space), where our staff will meet you and escort you to the departure lounge. We will bring your passport to the immigration officials in the building. We also arrange all customs formalities.
“When you fly with us on a private jet, you should have absolute privacy. Certainly you don’t want to queue for
immigration or customs.
“A passenger doesn’t need to wait for the aircraft, which is ready to depart, when they arrive at the terminal. It takes only 10-15 minutes to complete immigration formalities and you are on your way. After all formalities are completed, the passenger is brought to the aircraft by minibus, if only one to four persons are flying. If more than that we have a bus to bring them to the aircraft.
“We can fly you to Pattaya, or if you wish, anywhere in the world. Our 14-seater Gulfstream GV can fly non-stop to London,” Rose said. “Every aircraft is always staffed by two pilots. If it is a six-seat aircraft there is no other cabin crew and passengers are instructed on how to make their own coffee and so forth. For eight-seat aircraft, we have one cabin crew.
“A return flight to Chiang Mai coming back on the same day will cost about 300,000 baht for the whole round trip. If you want to divide it by seat then the trip would cost 50,000 baht per person on the smallest six-seater aircraft. If the passenger wants to return on the next day the cost will increase by about 50,000 baht. “