Rising to the challenge in a crisis – one operator’s story

31 Mar 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on the entire aviation sector. But amongst the uncertainty, there are Avinode members doing incredible work to make a real difference in these difficult times.

We caught up with Andrew Gratton from Svenskt Industriflyg to chat about how his company has created an air bridge to ensure the flow of vital protective medical equipment into Sweden. Andrew also talked honestly about the challenges they and the rest of the industry are currently facing.

You’re doing an amazing job together with Bactiguard in flying essential medical supplies from Asia for use in Sweden. How did the collaboration come about?

Well, we already had a relationship with the people at Bactiguard. When a colleague heard about their need to get this medical equipment into Sweden we just said, “Listen, we don’t have cargo planes but what we do have is an ethos where whatever the problem, we’ll solve it”. 

That culture really comes from the top. We have such strong owners who ensured this was never a financial question. I think Bactiguard really appreciated that because they think the same way. Their CEO was telling us we just had to solve this as there were doctors in hospitals who needed resources during this crisis.

So, we put the commercial stuff aside and just steamrolled it. We have these pristine aircraft, for catering to another segment, but for humanitarian work we’re just going to do whatever we have to do to get that aid over. And everyone is happy to play their part. For example, we had a customer who had flown to Hong Kong. We called them and explained, “We have this humanitarian scenario, we need to utilize the aircraft in between your flights” and they said, “I don’t even care, do it!”

And is this a very different kind of challenge to what you’re used to?

Well, not really. At Svenskt Industriflyg we’ve always been involved with more industrial type business. We started out servicing the forestry industry and supplying logistics for individuals and companies in that sector. That led us to develop several products within our portfolio that cater for government, military and medical customers.

A few years ago, our CEO challenged us with taking even more social responsibility. He wanted to see us doing work for people who need us the most, which led to us applying for government tenders to fly for hospitals, organ transplantation and the Swedish military. 

We’ve really grown into this area of what we call ‘Special Missions’, which has taken a huge time and financial investment. Most recently we’ve spent a lot of money adapting our fleet of Falcon 7x jets to accommodate lifeports so we can conduct ultra long-haul ambulance flights. We had to apply to the relevant authorities, have prototypes of special fixings made to test it, and even reconfigure our aircraft to make it happen. We’re the only company in the world to do this so far.

That must take a really dedicated team.

Absolutely! People have no idea what it takes to deliver these ‘Special Missions’, which are only possible thanks to the total dedication of our team. We’re so proud of them. We have a single digit percentage staff turnover including pilots who’ve spent their entire career with us.

The humanitarian aid flights that we’re operating, even on the best days without Coronavirus to contend with, they’re quite a challenge. You can’t just fly medical equipment and dangerous goods as you wish because there are many things to plan for. And our team must now deal with myriad of new legislations and regulations, which are different for each country, state and even city we fly to.

Take our weekly Bactiguard flights. For that sort of trip there are more than 1,000 parameters to consider each time we fly. That takes an incredible amount of time from the team and they’re delivering every time. They’re remarkable.

In terms of the current crisis, what trends have you seen as an operator?

Like everyone in the market, we saw a significant drop off in requests – including an 80% drop in a five-day period. Then the dynamic changed from people being really concerned to governments implementing measures. At that point things swung back, and we were inundated with requests from people who probably didn’t have the means to take on our service but were desperate to repatriate themselves and their families. 

After that spike it started to drop off massively again. Our light jet fleet diminished to about 10% capacity and our mid-sized jets saw a knock off to 20-30% capacity. 

But our long-haul jets bucked the trend. While we saw an upswing in repatriation it was often coming from Asian countries and the United States, back to Europe. Then, as those private individual, family and business flights fell away, we were able to replace them with a rapid increase in humanitarian aid and flying for the government, flying hospital personnel etc.

From talking to others in the industry, what’s the feeling out there?

We’ve really spoken to a lot of people to understand what’s happening. There’s no getting away from the fact that in this time of uncertainty, clients are equally concerned. The issue we’re all facing is that much of our work is directed towards businesses, business leaders and governments using us as transport. That’s understandably slowing down.

The sad reality is that there’s a lot of scaling back needed. Aircraft are expensive assets to own and the amount of personnel you need for some of the small margins you make means there are extreme overheads. The banks still need paying so downsizing is inevitable.

And what does that mean for you?

We must be real about the times we’re in too. We currently have about 90 staff and we’re looking at how we can scale back some parts of our business and shift some of the team to do other work. But you’re asking a lot of people, to maybe reduce their hours. 

To be fair, the response from the team has been resounding and they’re committed to doing whatever it takes to get through this.

The same goes from us all at Avinode. If we can help in any way, just let us know.

Thank you. One thing I’ve really appreciated throughout this is the data provided by Avinode and Schedaero. The way your systems function helped us spot the trends quickly so we could take proactive measures. That has been incredibly useful.

Are you contributing in the crisis, or do you have an interesting story to share? Send an e-mail to [email protected].

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