Hours after last month’s Japanese earthquake, phones began ringing at the U.K. base of the world’s largest aircraft broker. Less than a day later and Chapman-Freeborn had dispatched a Boeing Co. 767 from Frankfurt to Tokyo carrying 48 rescue workers, their dogs and 12 tons of equipment.
It was the same after the temblor in New Zealand and outbreaks of unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Ivory Coast, adding up to the busiest few months that the $3 billion aircraft-charter brokerage industry has ever experienced.
“You can’t shy away from it,” Chapman-Freeborn Managing Director Alex Berry said in a phone interview from the company’s headquarters in Crawley, England. “When there are a number of disasters in any one year we do an awful lot more business.”
Natural calamities and political uprisings have stoked demand for aircraft from 13-seat Gulfstream G-IV private jets to Antonov’s 285-ton An-225, the world’s largest transport plane. Chapman-Freeborn has arranged 125 evacuation flights in two months, ferrying 20,000 passengers to safety and spurring annual sales as much as 60 percent to $800 million, Berry estimates.
Rival plane brokers Air Partner Plc and Air Charter Service Group Plc say they’ve also been tapping a surge in demand. Air Partner rose as much as 3.4 percent to 530 pence, the biggest jump since Feb. 25, and was trading at that price as of 2:24 p.m. in London, taking the stock’s gain this year to 19 percent.
For crisis-torn regions the companies provide a “service of last resort” when scheduled operators pull out, Air Partner Chief Executive Officer Mark Briffa said in an interview.
In warzones such as Libya that withdrawal may be especially rapid because of perceived threats to aircraft and employees, with British Airways, Gulf carrier Emirates and Germany’s Deutsche Lufthansa AG all suspending Tripoli flights indefinitely within 48 hours of each other in February.
“The speed at which the scheduled operators pulled out of Libya really did catch people by surprise,” Briffa said. “Getting people out afterwards was a real challenge.”
After Japan’s magnitude-9 quake and subsequent tsunami, at least two airlines, Lufthansa and Italy’s Alitalia SpA, scrapped Tokyo flights because of concern that radiation leaks from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant threatened the safety of crews.
“I can’t recall so many different situations around the world going off at the same time,” said Matt Purton, director of commercial jet sales at Surbiton, England-based Air Charter Service. “We did about a year’s worth of business in two weeks.”
Air Charter last month rented a fleet of four Boeing 747s to provide shuttle flights from Tripoli to Malta to evacuate oil, gas and construction workers as the Libyan crisis deepened.
Chartering a jumbo costs $250,000 for short-haul trips and up to $1 million for inter-continental flights, according to the company, which has this month been airlifting refugees from Abidjan in Ivory Coast for United Nation refugee agency UNHCR.
The brokers operate by sourcing aircraft and crews from specialist carriers such as Egypt’s Air Memphis and London Gatwick airport-based Astraeus Airlines, as well as network airlines that have spare planes during slower periods.
Chapman-Freeborn, which also charters passenger planes for sports teams, music tours and diplomatic missions and freighters for shifting military equipment, oilrigs and explosives, has rented aircraft from British Airways in the past, while Air Charter Service last month hired a Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. jet to evacuate people to Singapore from Japan.
The brokers are also responsible for organizing insurance cover and liaising with agents on the ground to arrange the permits necessary for an aircraft to take off and land.
“Getting airplanes in is not that easy,” said Air Partner’s Briffa. “When communications have been down for two days and you need to get permission, that’s a bloody challenge.”
Where ground infrastructure is absent or damaged, brokers may first need to help arrange the upgrade of an airport before other flights can function. Chapman-Freeborn organized more than 70 percent of relief trips to Haiti after the earthquake there last year, including transport of forklifts to Port-au-Prince.
“The airport itself didn’t have any equipment to unload freighter aircraft,” MD Berry said. “So the first thing you have to do is get that there, or you end up with a load of planes on the runway full of gear that you can’t get off. You have to be prepared to knuckle down and get on with it.”
During the Egypt crisis, Chapman-Freeborn provided a Hawker Beechcraft 800 jet to transport a group of executives from Cairo to Istanbul. The company has also supplied Gulfstream IVs, which can cost $30 million new, and rented a Dassault Aviation SA Falcon 7X jet to Dutch salvage workers following the blowout that sank the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
In Japan, the nuclear crisis has also seen the sole Antonov An-225 used to carry the world’s largest concrete pump from the U.S. to Fukushima, where its 70-meter (230-foot) boom will help entomb the reactors once they’ve cooled. The device was made by Stuttgart, Germany-based Putzmeister Holding Gmbh, whose pumps encased the Chernobyl power station’s melted core in the 1980s.
While natural disasters remain impossible to predict with any certainty, according to seismologists and meteorologists, political turmoil in Arab states shows no sign of abating.
Nine Syrian soldiers were killed yesterday when gunmen ambushed their vehicles in the coastal oil hub of Banias, where tanks were deployed to contain protests, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported, and the Gulf Cooperation Council has urged President Ali Abdullah Saleh to quit in Yemen, a country Chapman-Freeborn’s Berry says is “definitely on the radar.”
A fresh surge in demand for evacuations in coming months might be harder to cope with than in the winter, when there were more planes standing idle, Air Charter’s Purton said.
“There was a lot of spare capacity, it being low season,” he said. “If it was the northern-hemisphere summer we’d have limitations on what we could have done.”