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Decades after the soaring cities of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) transformed the desert landscape, the thriving region has become home to some of the world’s most significant aviation hubs. These days, both Abu Dhabi and Dubai have become critical international connection points, thanks to their respective resident aviation carriers. But there’s also another player that’s putting more planes in the sky than ever before and catering to a growing class of elite travelers.
RoyalJet was founded in 2003 as a joint venture between Abu Dhabi Aviation and Abu Dhabi Amiri Flight (now known as Presidential Flight). Chaired by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Hamad Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, it now owns and operates 12 Boeing Jets and three Bombardier Global 5000/6000 aircraft with more on the way. Its services range from aircraft management, charter and leasing to medical evacuation flights and VIP aviation consulting.
The expertise driving this rapid expansion belongs to CEO Mohammed Husain Ahmed, a man with 25 years of experience in the aviation sector in the United Arab Emirates. Before joining RoyalJet, Ahmed held the role of General Manager of Abu Dhabi Airports – a tough gig during the recent upheavals caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ahmed also oversaw the program to deliver more Emirati air traffic controllers by establishing a new college in 2007. “The Emiratisation rate at that time in the air traffic control space was approximately 4.5 percent,” he recalls. “Then, by 2016, it had become 97 percent, so it was a very good program.”
These experiences equipped Ahmed with invaluable insights into the aviation industry. “It gave me a lot of experience, and before that I was working as an operations guy, smelling the fuel of the aircraft, as we say. So coming from the bottom to the top was a wonderful journey for me,” he says.
It was this broad overview of the industry that saw Ahmed appointed to RoyalJet last May. The move proved to be a change of pace, since the premium private jet operator serves a very different type of customer, such as VIPs, heads of state and members of international and local governments.
But despite the boutique feel of the carrier, he perceives significant growth opportunities ahead. “We are in the process of getting our next aircraft and fleet enlargement and enhancements,” he says. “We’ve recently made some good deals and bought two new aircraft and there are three more in the pipeline that will arrive in the next two years.”
Joining a new organization always comes with challenges. However, Ahmed says he’s developed a successful strategy for tackling them. “One of the things I focused on when I joined RoyalJet was the leadership inside the organization. I did this to make sure my executives are in close communication with each other, which is the same as I have done when joining previous organizations,” he says.
“These leaders make most of the decisions and so this approach is about empowering them. As a result I’ve seen a lot of improvement in performance and decision-making over the past three-to-four months.”
Since Ahmed joined the company, the team schedules two daily meetings – one early in the morning and the other at night. “That is so nothing is missed or delayed. If there is an issue opened in the morning, it shall be closed at night,” he says. “That’s mandatory – that’s the leadership team’s golden rule.”
This collaborative spirit frequently means people take the extra mile to ensure total efficiency. “This is so operations can deal with something on the maintenance side, while maintenance sometimes take a position on the commercial or finance side,” he explains. “The collaboration between all of the directors has been wonderful in the past five months.”
One of the first things Ahmed noticed as he settled into his new RoyalJet surroundings was that there was a lot of room for improvement in the private jet sector. “The biggest opportunity is to enhance the level of service by harnessing the latest technology,” he says. “Also, ensuring connectivity in the United Arab Emirates between Abu Dhabi and the other emirates.”
Luckily, this is where a large part of Ahmed’s skillset lies and he feels confident that he can drive positive change. “I’m very good at getting everybody to see the bigger picture,” he reflects. “So while we’re concentrating on the private jet sector, that shall be in line with the commercial sector. This is one of the hats I wear in government, to get everybody aligned and working toward one strategy and goal.”
Enhancing the fleet is now the company’s foremost priority, however, the timelines involved in this fleet expansion represent a significant challenge for the airline.
"One of the things I focused on when I joined RoyalJet was the leadership inside the organization. I did this to make sure my executives are in close communication with each other, which is the same as I have done when joining previous organizations."
“Let’s say that today you want to invest and you have many billions of dollars to buy a new aircraft. The reality is that it’ll actually take you a minimum of two years to receive that aircraft. You need one year for the manufacturer and then you need another for the fit out of the aircraft,” he explains.
“So while you want to grow immediately, because of the nature of this industry, you need to be patient and give it time. You can’t change everything in a day or a month.”
Rather than simply accepting this frustrating state of affairs, Ahmed decided to find a way around it. Instead, he approached other aircraft suppliers in the market and made deals with three of them for secondhand aircraft in the short-term.
But this approach can also come with limitations. “Even though that you want to buy these aircraft, there are a lot of processes involved – inspection, de-registration and registration, approvals,” he acknowledges. “Sometimes you do a little bit of modification, too, so it may take a minimum of three-to-four months to get your aircraft into your fleet and operational.”
While there can be no denying that the last few years have been incredibly tough for the aviation sector due to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ahmed says RoyalJet has been lucky to have escaped relatively unscathed compared to the commercial sector.
“At RoyalJet, we were slowed down a little bit by the pandemic but we were better off than others because, during the closure in the commercial sector during 2020 and 2021, RoyalJet was flying the whole time,” he says. “So, I think we were one of the first to really recover as the aviation industry emerged from the pandemic.”
"Many regulations have been addressed by the government authorities and adjusted due to the pandemic and also because people gained experience in how to deal with things."
He says the airline learnt some important lessons during this period around services, pricing, aircraft scheduling and crew scheduling, which are areas that have consequently been improved in the aftermath of the pandemic. “Many regulations have been addressed by the government authorities and adjusted due to the pandemic and also because people gained experience in how to deal with things.”
The next 12-to-18 months will see RoyalJet focus on its Emiratisation program with the launch of the National Development Program, which will assign an Emirati staff member to each small and medium-sized enterprise for job-shadowing. “They will have a plan for the next five years and will end up as an officer, supervisor or in a technical role in the departments inside RoyalJet.”
With so much in store, the future looks bright for RoyalJet, with the company’s financials set to be the clearest indicator of its success. “But because we are providing a service, our success will also be measured according to the feedback and the satisfaction of our customers,” Ahmed explains. “Our customers aren’t just any customers, they’re VIPs and heads of state and government, which is why it’s so important to measure our success with the feedback and satisfaction from our very important clientele.”
A major factor in ensuring the airline hits the mark on this front will be its service offering. “There are a lot of private jets in the market and there’s a lot of competition, but we cover the majority of the demand because we’re the biggest operator in the world for Boeing Business Jets,” Ahmed explains.
RoyalJet currently has 14 in its fleet, which is a unique impressive tally. Boeing Business Jets cater to up to 40 passengers, making them an excellent alternative to the larger Airbus 320 aircraft more commonly used in the private jet market.
But it’s not just its aircraft that sets RoyalJet apart from the competition. If an aircraft breaks down or requires maintenance shortly before a scheduled flight, other airlines may simply cancel the flight and return a customer’s money. RoyalJet will always ensure an alternative is found and the customer is flown to their destination.
“Because we have a fleet of 14 aircraft, when we commit to operating a flight, you can be assured that you’re going to fly in one of our aircraft. There will be no cancellations,” he explains.
“That’s our difference. Because we know that you have a commitment to meet, and if your flight is canceled, that’s going to impact your travel plans and you’re going to lose money and business. So, no matter what, RoyalJet will always get you to your destination.” And that’s even if it means upgrading customers to one of the Boeing Business Jet aircraft.
The value RoyalJet places on its relationships with its customers is also evident in other ways. With many of its customers owning their own aircraft, the airline also steps up when they experience mechanical issues of their own, signaling the strength of its partnerships with its vendors, suppliers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).
“When I joined RoyalJet, I was surprised by the amount of connectivity and the excellent relationships between RoyalJet and its vendors, suppliers and OEMs, and this is something we also share with our customers,” Ahmed says.
“Say your aircraft is flying from X to Y in Europe, it breaks down and there’s a spare part you need. You can call RoyalJet to benefit from the leverage that we have with OEMs and other suppliers and get this spare part to fix your aircraft abroad,” Ahmed says.
"When I joined RoyalJet, I was surprised by the amount of connectivity and the excellent relationships between RoyalJet and its vendors, suppliers and OEMs, and this is something we also share with our customers."
These strong ties create the perfect environment to share expertise, training and to help support each others’ growth. “Sometimes we act as the middleman between a lot of vendors and suppliers among our UAE companies,” he adds. “It’s a competitive industry, but we’re ready to help anyone in UAE, even if they’re a private jet service provider or one of the commercial airlines.”
More than just a relationship-building exercise, this approach delivers financial rewards thanks to the long-term maintenance programs RoyalJet has put in place with many of its thousands of suppliers, manufacturers and vendors. The availability of spare parts, made possible through these partnerships, is also critical for RoyalJet’s success, with the airline’s supply chain fundamental to its maintenance processes.
This customer-centric and employee-focused approach is an important component in the company’s success. Even as technology becomes evermore advanced in the aviation world, Ahmed stresses that it’s critical not to lose sight of this key point.
“Companies can’t survive and they can’t succeed without excellent staff and manpower,” he says. “It’s so important to invest in experience, know-how, training and finding the right caliber of talent so that in time, your organization will evolve into providing outstanding service.”