By Frédéric Vergneres

Particularly discreet in recent years, the company based in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates is taking a new turn and is preparing for ambitious prospects for the coming years. Interview with its CEO, Rob DiCastri

©Royal Jet

In recent years, RoyalJet has been relatively quiet in the operator sector? What are the spokes?

 RoyalJet operates mostly in its own sector of private aviation – a niche market you might say is above the crowd.  The customers of this sector (which we have dubbed “Premium Private Aviation”) include Heads of State and Royal Family Members of various countries, along with other Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) from around the globe.  These customers demand the highest levels of confidentiality and discretion, so we try to stay somewhat under the radar from a publicity standpoint. As a result, you generally won’t see us advertising very often or making too much noise, since we need to protect the exclusivity of our brand and respect the privacy of our guests.

Even when we have something significant to announce, like we have recently, we tend to share it with our customers first, via private channels.  By doing this we give them the first opportunity to come for a private viewing, for example, or to sample any changes we’re introducing in order to continuously improve their experience when they fly with us.  

If the new development is significant enough, we then choose whether or not to announce it to the wider market, as we’re doing now with our entirely redesigned FBO and our fully refurbished and upgraded BBJ aircraft.  If we decide to go public with something we want it to be worthy of discussion as in this case, yet executed in a way which is in keeping with our brand and our customers’ expectations.

Regarding the concept of “spokes”, similar to other operators in our sector, there aren’t generally too many recurring destinations.  Our customers of course choose where they want to go and when they want to travel, which is one of the key benefits of private jet use, so our destinations vary significantly.  We regularly take guests to various island vacation spots including the Maldives, the Seychelles and Mauritius, to popular vacation spots further afield such as Morocco, Switzerland and Thailand, to really any major business or political center where they are holding their meetings.

Of course these days the vaccination and quarantine status of countries (including the establishment of Covid corridors) significantly impacts our guests’ choices, so we’ve seen some change in historical trends.  This is changing, however, as more borders open and vaccination rates increase.

Last June, you announced a new era for RoyalJet? What does this new transition consist of?

 What we just revealed for the first time in June are the first steps in our comprehensive customer experience transformation.  This includes our new logo, our entirely redesigned VIP lounge at our Abu Dhabi FBO and our refurbished and upgraded BBJ aircraft, but it is more than that. 

Over the coming weeks and months we’ll be upgrading the full end to end RoyalJet experience, to show our customers that we haven’t been complacent during this global pandemic. We’re excited to demonstrate to them what they can expect from us as they continue to return to flying with us.  

We have rolled this out internally with our staff first, to make sure we’re all speaking the same language, then to our customers, so that they get the first look, and now to the market.  We are truly taking RoyalJet into a new era and are thrilled to give everyone a taste of what we’ve accomplished so far and what is yet to come.

In terms of what has been accomplished so far, first of all we completely redesigned and upgraded our VIP lounge.  We had been planning to do for quite some time, but it wasn’t possible for us to undertake such an extensive project prior to the pandemic.  It was just too busy.  When it was clear this crisis was going to impact the traffic in our FBO for an extended period of time, however, we took the opportunity to move ahead.  

In addition to this, we had already begun working on our customer experience transformation project and it became clear that in order to bring to life the changes we were considering we needed to start here.  Whether it’s just prior to boarding their flight or upon their arrival, we want the experience our customers have in our lounge to be consistent with the rest of their journey with us.

This is why we’ve paid so much attention in this redesign to the flow, the ambiance, and the overall experience available to our customers in this space.  From the arrivals process, to the colour scheme, the lighting, the sound and even the scent we have purposefully created a space which is calm and comfortable for them to enjoy.

We also wanted to take this opportunity to better demonstrate to our visitors that we are an Abu Dhabi company.  A key element of our new vision is to project the values and the identity of Abu Dhabi and the UAE and we’ve started to do that in this space.

To begin to demonstrate this, the design we’ve chosen focuses on the elegance and sophistication that the leadership of Abu Dhabi has brought to this city over the years and continues to bring through various projects.  Our goal was to create a timeless space which projects these values, and our choices of local artwork, historical documents, local products, resources, entertainment and just the look and feel of the lounge were made with this in mind.

At the same time we have fully refurbished one of our BBJs, which we worked on with AMAC Aerospace and Honeywell. The newly refurbished and upgraded aircraft boasts a modern and refined interior design, which is purposefully consistent with the look and feel of the VIP lounge.  

The environment is again intended to be calm, with clean lines and a streamlined set up in keeping with the company’s new set of guiding principles. In addition, the lighting, cabin control systems and inflight entertainment on this aircraft have been fully modernized and it has also been outfitted with Ka band high-speed internet connectivity.  

This is now the sixth aircraft in the RoyalJet fleet to be equipped with the highest internet speed available on the market, which allows customers to stream their favorite programs straight from the internet either on their own devices or over the cabin wifi system. 

Why this transition?

Our goal with this transition was and is to provide an even better customer experience than we have over the past 18 years.  RoyalJet is already an amazing company and provides an amazing service, so this is not a turnaround project or designed to fix anything in the company, but rather a purposeful effort at continuous improvement. 

You might think that we’re doing this because of Covid, but we began this process in the fall of 2019, so it wasn’t launched as a reaction to the onset of the pandemic.  We have soon come to realize, however that the successful implementation of this program would not only achieve our initial goal but also help us come out of this crisis stronger as an organization and more competitive.

We want our customers to be excited to come back to flying with RoyalJet as the world opens up, and to feel safe.  This transition is therefore focused on providing them with an enhanced journey which is as much a part of their experience as their destination.  

To be specific, our hope with this transformation is to create moments of delight for our guests, which can become lasting memories.  This is no easy task, since flying private is not a luxury for them, but rather just a normal mode of travel and likely something they have been doing for most of their lives.

What is RoyalJet’s current fleet and how could it evolve in the near future?

RoyalJet’s fleet mainly consists of owned or managed Boeing Business Jets (BBJs).   For many years we have operated the largest fleet of these aircraft in the world, and this year we have actually increased our lead in that area.

In the first half of 2021 we have added two BBJs to the fleet – one for private use only and one for owner use and charter – bringing the total to ten of this type.  

The beautiful privately owned BBJ we added under management which is available for charter is a unique and intriguing aircraft.  It boasts a gorgeous VVIP interior, the highest cabin air quality and passenger health available in the industry, the fastest communications on the market, the longest range of any of our BBJs and various other features our customers will truly enjoy.  

It was recently released back into service by Jet Aviation Basel after the completion of extensive upgrades and maintenance. The aircraft will continue to be based in both Europe and/or in United Arab Emirates, where it will be operated for the owner and offered for charter to select customers.

We also operate two Bombardier Global 5000 aircraft – 13 seat corporate jets which are at the top of the market in their class.  These aircraft are very popular, particularly for smaller groups, and allow us to provide options to their customers for their various journeys.

As we move forward, our main focus and priority is to deliver an unparalleled product and experience to our customers. We are therefore continuously looking to bring into the fleet, either via ownership or management, aircraft which help us achieve this.  We have plans to purchase pre-owned and new BBJs and ACJs over the course of the coming two to three years, and we are talking to owners of various types of aircraft regarding providing them with management services.

In the meantime we will take the time to roll out this experience transformation across our existing fleet, ensuring our customers notice more subtle changes.  These could include small touches on the interiors of other aircraft, updates to our menus to bring more locally sourced ingredients to our meals both on board and in the lounge, changes to the onboard and lounge services and entertainment and various other elements which are consistent with what we’ve done here.

There is much more to come and we will reveal more as we go along.

What impact has the Covid-19 had on RoyalJet but also on the Middle East market?

So many things changed with COVID-19.  I’d venture to say that our whole world and the way we look at things changed, and of course travelling was one of the areas where significant impact was felt.  I wouldn’t say that the appetite for travel changed though – but much more the fact that customers became more cautious and simply many borders closed. 

Even in the private jet industry, the impact of the pandemic was immediate and severe.  Here in the UAE the airspace even closed for a period of time as it did in other countries, so of course flying stopped, other than eventually for repatriations and emergency purposes.

As the months moved on, however, rules began to relax, new safety processes started to be put in place to give passengers more comfort, and as a result some travel started to come back.

Initially our traffic was down below 10% of normal, particularly due to the airspace and border closures.  This was inevitable and we simply had to weather the storm so to speak and hope that new measures would help bring that traffic back, which is taking place to some extent now.

At RoyalJet it took from March last year to about August for any significant activity to come back.  At that point our flying reached approximately 50% of normal and up until recently it remained around that level.

We have seen a pickup of late, however, with our activity over the past few months reaching up to 65% of pre-pandemic levels and beyond.  There does seem to be that pent up demand people are talking about, and with successful vaccine rollouts and reduced or eliminated quarantine requirements we’re cautiously optimistic that this will be a strong summer for our company and our industry.

©Royal Jet

What are the company’s objectives?

As part of our transformation project we developed, or re-developed, our vision:

To be the global reference in premium private aviation, delivering personalized delight to today’s leaders,   projecting the values and identity of Abu Dhabi and the UAE.

We also developed a set of principles which will guide our decision making and priorities as we move forward into this new era:

  1. Have a Role of Impact
  2. Create Tailored Journeys
  3. Pursue Delight
  4. Bring a Streamlined Experience
  5. Stand for More Than Ourselves

The RoyalJet experience is about more than carrying passengers from A to B. It’s built on providing unique and memorable experiences – an experiential journey, more than just a physical one. This is our vision for our company and for premium private aviation. We believe we can have a purposeful and impactful role for our clients, our partners and even our competitors – locally, regionally and into the world.

As an example of this, we have recently been granted an Air Operator Certificate (AOC) by the Bermuda Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA). The granting of this certificate – the first AOC to be issued to the Group outside the UAE – allows RoyalJet Bermuda to conduct commercial operations on Bermuda registered aircraft managed by the company. Going forward, where it enhances our customer offering, we will continue to expand our capabilities in this way.

In terms of our short business objectives – We are hopeful that we will see activity levels beyond 80% of pre-crisis levels this summer and that by mid-2021 we will be at or beyond where we once were.

Our game plan is to ensure that we are ready for these increases, we have a product and service that our customers are excited to experience and we are doing everything we can to make their journeys as seamless and delightful as possible.

What market is RoyalJet targeting and how will you approach it?

A: RoyalJet’s market is, and will continue to be, truly global.  We welcome guests from all over the world on board our aircraft on a regular basis and will continue doing so. 

Historically our fleet has been exclusively based here in Abu Dhabi, so we of course have focused on our local UAE customers and those in the GCC region, including doing significant business in Saudi Arabia.  With the growth of our fleet, we began to “float” our aircraft where possible by keeping them in different regions where their missions ended and marketing them to local customers.  We also began to base aircraft elsewhere, including placing a BBJ in southern Africa just before the onset of the pandemic.

Our plan going forward is to capture market share in different regions by continuing the floating fleet concept and by basing aircraft in markets where there is a lack of this type of capacity.  This may include Saudi Arabia, Africa and Southeast Asia, depending on where the demand proves to be strongest, and offerings could include anything from ad hoc charter to block charter and even dedicated aircraft arrangements for customer shuttles.

The recent addition under management of the European-based BBJ will also allow us to expend into that market, which is a popular jumping off point to North America, so this is a very exciting development for us.  

Aviation is global, and we are a global player in the industry.