Dallas – With the rapidly approaching U.S. midterm elections comes an opportunity to examine one of the more dynamic and unique aspects of the aviation industry, the charter sector.

From handling political campaigns and roadshows (book tours, concert tours, etc.) to family vacations and business trips, the charter industry accommodates a wide variety of travelers with a diverse array of logistical needs.

Charter brokers like Advanced Aviation Team (AAT) coordinate flights with a high degree of specificity to fulfill the requests of clients with complex itineraries.

In an exclusive interview with Airways, Gregg Brunson-Pitts, former director of the White House Travel Office and current CEO of AAT, described the logistical process behind political campaigns along with the broader trends impacting the charter industry, from the pilot shortage and aircraft availability to increased demand for roadshows and intercontinental travel.

Brent Foster (BF): How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the charter business for AAT?

Gregg Brunson-Pitts (GBP): It’s been interesting. When COVID originally hit, we took a pretty dramatic dip, like a lot of people. Most of our flights completely stopped for a while.

Then, we experienced a pretty big uptick in demand, taking on some new customers, people who were interested in private charters who wanted to stay away from the airlines for a variety of reasons. Primarily because they wanted a safe and private environment.

They wanted to utilize private aviation when travel reopened. We had an initial dip in business with COVID followed by a huge pop.

Was the uptick in business as the COVID-19 restrictions eased concentrated around individual and business or roadshow and campaign flights?

It was a little bit of both. In 2020, we had a very big focus on political campaigns. We did bring in some new clients who were people who came off the sidelines and who had considered private aviation before and maybe given it a look, but because of the pandemic, decided to give it a try.

So we did pick up some clients there who were mainly families or individuals or small businesses. 2020 was a campaign and election year, so a lot of business went to that. 2021 and going into this year, coming out of the pandemic, a lot of the tours and roadshows have come back which has been great.

Focusing in on political campaigns, how are the aviation-related logistics of political campaigns coordinated? How does AAT coordinate the hectic schedules of candidates with numerous campaign stops?

Typically, when a candidate starts traveling or considers running for president, they need some logistical assistance, especially with the aviation piece, so that’s where we can really offer our expertise in this area in terms of selecting the right airport that is close to the event site, keeping them on time, helping them to stay on time, advising on crew duty hours, all the things that go along with aviation in terms of weather issues.

We certainly help to select aircraft that might be the right fit in terms of budget and the number of seats and all the things that go along with being a good charter broker. Missing an event for a political candidate is really catastrophic because they usually have a crowd of people counting on and waiting on them, so we avoid that at all costs.

We really do work hand in hand with a scheduler or a logistics handler for a campaign and become somewhat of an extension to their team in getting their candidate where they need to go.

How does AAT coordinate chartered flights to ensure that both crew rest and maintenance requirements are met during campaign tours?

It all depends. It depends on what the ‘ask’ is from a campaign. What we like to say is that anything can be done; it is just a matter of what the costs associated with it are.

If a candidate needs to travel for 20 hours in a day, we can make that happen. It is just a matter of what the cost associated with it is if we need an additional crew out there. If it’s a three-person crew, they might potentially need to extend the crew duty day.

That’s where we come in and advise and offer different options and solutions and make changes if necessary. A lot of times campaigns need nimbleness, they need flexibility as opposed to other clients that sometimes have set schedules a month ahead of time from one destination to another destination and back and that’s never going to change.

Campaigns are extremely nimble and they need lots of flexibility. Our job as a provider for a campaign is to remain flexible and offer operators and providers that we know are going to be flexible and always available.

Gregg-Brunson Pitts founded AAT and continues to serve as CEO of the company. Photo: Advanced Aviation Team

How does AAT source commercial-sized aircraft for use in charter operations? Is the process different from sourcing a standard executive jet?

Yes, certainly. Chartering commercial airliners is kind of a different beast. There is a much longer, different process that goes into sourcing those aircraft and chartering those aircraft.

The contracting process typically is longer, and the logistics involved are much more complicated. It’s something that we excel at as a company given our background and what we’ve done. The process is definitely different.

How does AAT account for smaller aircraft that cannot accommodate commercial-sized aircraft when a candidate needs to visit?

Business jets, depending on their size, have limitations as well, and certainly airliners. We are always trying to work solutions and figure out what aircraft or airports are the right fit for any client, but for campaigns as well, we want people to drive as little as possible.

Is aircraft availability a challenge for the Part 135 charter industry, and if so how does AAT confront it?

So, the second half of 2022 has not particularly been an issue. In the first half, it was, and certainly, in 2021, it really was.

We have noticed anecdotally that aircraft availability seems to have been returning back to maybe what it was pre-pandemic which has been nice and interesting to notice. 2021 was extremely challenging, even finding available aircraft with operators that we have used for years was difficult.

Now we have noticed that we are able to solicit multiple quotes from multiple operators for contracts.

The Gulfstream G550, an aircraft frequented by clients in the charter industry, is pictured parked at the ramp. Photo: Advanced Aviation Team

How does AAT ensure common safety and quality standards across the operators it uses to coordinate charter flights?

We use, as a baseline, Argus and Wyvern, and work with Argus and Wyvern-rated operators. In addition to that, because we have been in the industry for decades, we also use industry reputation.

We use operators that have a good reputation, so we talk to other operators, we talk to other brokers, and focus on past performance because we do move a lot of planes. We can recommend operators who have done successful trips with us over and over again.

We have a pool of operators who are go-to, recommended operators. We go outside of that pool as well, certainly, but we do have a preferred list of operators.

With election season ongoing, how is AAT working with enhanced charter demand? Do roadshows also factor into the demand increase?

It’s something, as I mentioned before, we excel at airliners. I think that something we really excel at is the roadshow-style, longer contract trip, where we just kind of become an extension of somebody’s team.

If someone has a need for a longer-term contract and logistics support where they might be doing a stop a day or want a dedicated aircraft for a longer term. There is definitely an uptick in 2022 where events are coming back and tours are coming back and concerts are coming back.

There are some similarities between those and campaigns so we are working on more of those.

Are sports teams at the university and professional level ever among the charter clients at AAT?

Not typically. We have quoted some before, but we do not have a lot of sports teams. We have individual sports talent as customers, but not typically whole teams.

Many larger airlines at the commercial level are struggling to find pilots. How is the private charter industry, along with business aviation as a whole, coping with the current pilot shortage?

That’s a good question. We have noticed—and again this is anecdotal, I do not have any imperial evidence to back this up—that some operators that we worked with for years are now maybe at times not able to quote as they have in the past because of the pilot shortage.

Or, in previous years, we would be able to accommodate that long crew duty day or a three-person crew which can extend the crew duty day and that is just not available now. So you get an aircraft and one crew and you get your 14-hour duty as opposed to a crew swap which could really extend the day.

Two crews are just not available for one aircraft anymore and so we notice that now. We will usually ask operators if they have a swap available or if they can provide two crews and it is just not available.

Gulfstream G550 interior. Photo: Advanced Aviation Team

The Russian invasion of Ukraine greatly impacted fuel prices across the globe. How have higher fuel prices and the return of fuel surcharges impacted the charter industry?

We definitely noticed that a fuel surcharge came back earlier this year, which involved prices ticking up. I think what it did most of all was add some unpredictability to pricing.

Where we would typically notice an hourly rate for a certain-sized jet, we would solicit a quote from an operator and it was higher than what we would have predicted. Then we would reach out the next week or two weeks later and then it would be a different price. It added a lot of unpredictability.

Now, fuel has stabilized a little bit and even dropped down in the last th6ree to four months which has helped but the pricing unpredictability is kind of just a thing now because of fuel.

What strategies does AAT use to mitigate price unpredictability for clients?

One of the biggest things is good relationships with operators, continually talking to them about their availability, locations of aircraft, and what’s happening with their owners to just really keep our thumb on availability.

How is AAT, and the charter industry as a whole, meeting the rising demand for intercontinental flights, particularly between North America and Europe? Are operators meeting consumer demand for intercontinental travel?

Yes, I think we are. We have done, AAT has done, more travel between the U.S. and Europe and inter-Europe in the last 9 to 12 months than we did pre-pandemic, which has been nice.

I think the return of commercial availability in the U.S. and Europe along with the easing of pandemic restrictions might weigh in a little bit. It will be interesting to see what happens with that over the next year.

Does travel between the U.S. and the Caribbean form a significant portion of the charter business for AAT?

It’s not a big part of our charter business, but we definitely do fulfill requests for that region. It’s certainly seasonal, mostly winter and spring. We definitely do a decent amount of Caribbean business in the winter and spring.

How is AAT accommodating the growing trend of customers booking charter flights with tight booking windows? Can AAT accommodate bookings on the same date of travel?

So, if you had asked me this question maybe nine months or a year ago, I would have said no. But now, availability is much better and we can get an aircraft. I actually did one for someone who wanted to get out of Florida ahead of Hurricane Ian.

We are able to accommodate the request and quickly get them a charter and move them out the same day. It is much easier now. So yes, on short notice we can do something.

Now with regard to price, it always depends on how much someone is able to pay or what the price point or budget is. We can usually get something on the same day of travel if needed.

What additional accommodations need to be made by charter brokers like AAT for bookings closer to the travel date? Do such bookings necessarily increase the price of a trip?

That just really depends. Sometimes, it depends on the routing. There is so much subjectivity that goes into chartering an aircraft. Sometimes, as a trip gets closer, you might be able to get a good deal on a certain routing, so it just kind of depends.

That is where our value-add comes in and we can help advise our client on a particular trip and say, “let’s wait a little bit and keep watching this. If price is really your driving factor on this trip, then we’ll just continue to watch it and see if we can get a really good one-way price for you.”

However, if the price is not their driving factor then we might recommend they lock in this aircraft now and say “if this is a particular plane that you want, then let’s just confirm it now and take it off the market.”

I like to have a dialogue with my customers and make sure that we’re getting them what they really want.

A Gulfstream G600 aircraft, registered as N600GU. Photo: Andrew Henderson/Airways

Price-wise, is chartering a private aircraft a competitive option for business or personal travelers in comparison to premium cabins on commercial airliners?

I don’t think so. We do get requests like that. A prospective customer will say, “I am price shopping against first class,” and my short answer is always, “I don’t think this is going to compare to what you will find on Delta or American.”

It is just a different experience all around and if someone wants that experience the price is always going to be higher. So it is not a price comparison to first class on a commercial airline.

Is the increasing growth of semi-private aviation, with operators like Aero and JSX, impacting the charter industry?

I don’t put a lot of thought into that. It’s a good question. We’re a boutique company. What we do is very customized and sort of high-end. So if someone is interested in doing something shared like that, we might not be the best solution for them.

My guess is, no, because most private jet charter fliers do not schedule and want their own plane, I think that is on the balance most, but that is an interesting question.

Excellent. Thank you, Mr. Brunson-Pitts, for sharing your time and insights with Airways.

Featured image: Gregg Brunson-Pitts, founder and CEO of Advanced Aviation Team (AAT). Photo: Advanced Aviation Team

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Source: airwaysmag.com

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