From bouts of turbulence to nightmare passengers, air stewardesses have to cope with their fair share of challenges on a daily basis. “You learn to keep a smile on your face,” says Gabriella Somerville as we climb to 12,000 feet above the capital.
The founder of private aviation firm ConnectJets – which manages private jet and helicopter purchases through outright and fractional ownership, a lease or jet sharing – spent seven years as a member of the cabin crew at Virgin Atlantic in 1988.
She then moved moving onto British Airways and later had a stint at Bombardier Skyjet International, the private jet charter division of the business manufacturer.
City A.M. has joined Somerville for a demo flight of the Piaggio Aerospace Avanti EVO, the new aircraft she’s selling, for its first visit to the UK at London City Airport.
She launched ConnectJets in 2009 with her own seed capital. “I went in quite foolhardy in one way, completely on my own into what is quite a tough market, and it was in 2009 when it was a downturn so lots of people thought I was quite mad,” she admits. But she saw opportunities and went in with an “aggressive strategy that won us favour in the end”.
ConnectJets is on course to turn over £2m this year and the business model has shifted quite a bit since the early days. “When I started it was fundamentally charter and we were also leasing which was a good market at the time,” Somerville says.
“In one sense the model developed around what was happening in the marketplace; in the last three or four years it moved again with a shift into aircraft sales. Predominantly you have your charter client who’s flying with you, it’s a turnkey that he then might lease or go and buy fractionally so you’re creating that product chain for him to move up into.”
Her newest gig marked a significant step: she secured a contract with Italy’s Piaggio Aerospace to be the firm’s exclusive sales agent for their Avanti EVO turboprop in the UK and in the process became the first businesswoman to be appointed sales agent for the company.
“When you go into business aviation it is a male-dominated arena and obviously in aircraft sales it becomes even more so,” she says. “When you go into that meeting room with 100 salespeople from around the world and you are the one female, the good thing is the toilets are always empty! But on the other side, can it be intimidating? It has been sometimes, yes. My aim is to see more and more women take those key roles, director roles and run their own companies. It’s still a tiny percentage in what’s becoming a big market.”
An important part of Somerville’s role is establishing relationships with prospective clients and she pitches away while we fly over the Millennium Dome. She says the Avanti EVO’s eco credentials are particularly impressive. The aircraft that retails at just under $7.8m is more fuel efficient and quieter than competitors, thanks to rear-facing turboprops.
Her clients vary – some corporations, some individuals, including celebrities. Some want extravagant aircraft in size, complete with a cappuccino machine that costs $60,000 to install, others want their new purchase painted champagne gold.
How much do they care about going green?
“It’s becoming more of a priority than it has been in the past,” she says. “Where there has been bad press on business aviation it has usually focused on the guzzling jets, whereas the twin turboprop is known for its fuel efficiency with 40 per cent less emissions. That is attractive for a corporation, for shareholders – you’re more likely to be scrutinised if you have a jet rather than if you turned up in a turboprop.”
Somerville thinks there has been a shift within business aviation regarding its carbon footprint “in a very positive way”, and her efforts to win prospective clients over with the Avanti EVO “sit quite perfectly at this time for the market”.
Above all else, there is one particular hot topic in the aviation industry at the moment: the small matter of airport expansion in the south east and just where it will be. Somerville flies her clients “to whatever airport they want”, but she does have a personal preference.
“I think there’s got to be an alternative to Heathrow,” she says. “I’m not sure Heathrow is going to provide what we need in terms of demand and sustainability in the long-term.”