Manila to anywhere, without traffic

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Taking to the skies with PhilJets.


WORDS  SANTIAGO J. ARNAIZ | PHOTOGRAPHY ALDWIN ASPILLERA

The old saying “time is money” is attributed to American patriarch Benjamin Franklin. In a letter penned in 1748, he described the opportunity cost of wasted, idle time. Though the maxim was addressed to a businessman living and working nearly three centuries ago, one might imagine the late Franklin spending time in 21st-century Manila gridlock traffic, frustratedly pulling out what sparse hairs he had left and arriving at the same conclusion.

That gridlock is an enormous issue, one that’s rattled local legislators and global leaders, many of whom warn that the nation’s major cities will soon be uninhabitable. President Rodrigo Duterte himself has gone on to say the capital will be a “dead city in 25 years,” setting his administration on a feverish infrastructure development push in response.

But while the government has fully committed itself to the monumental task of rehauling the nation’s infrastructure systems, many of these projects—like the expansive Metro Manila Subway system—won’t be completed for another decade. As a result, the country is losing billions every day to congestion.

For most living in major cities around the country, that’s an inescapable reality. For those that can afford a premium alternative, that’s where aviation groups like PhilJets come in.

Thierry Tea, Chairman and CEO of PhilJets.

Catering to the country’s corporate elite, PhilJets is a leading player in the business aviation industry, offering chartered flight services with their fleet of private helicopters and jets. Thierry Tea, Chairman and CEO of PhilJets, said he started the company five years ago with two objectives: To promote the Philippine business aviation industry, and to connect Filipinos and tourists in the capital to more destinations around the country.

Currently, PhilJets is expanding their services to meet increasing demand for leisure trips, medical evacuations, and aircraft maintenance. But even then, most of their clients continue to come from the business sector. According to Mr. Tea, demand for VIP charter services is only going up from here.

In a country suffering from increasingly congested thoroughfares, alternative transportation solutions are sorely needed. Earlier this year, the National Economic and Development Authority cited a study they conducted with the Japan International Cooperation Agency, estimating that the country loses Php3.5 billion a day due to traffic congestion. That’s roughly Php1.28 trillion a year. By 2035, that number is expected to balloon to Php1.97 trillion, nearly 10% of the national GDP (gross domestic product) last year.

Granted, the average blue-collar worker won’t be swapping out their morning commute with a chartered helicopter trip. But the benefits that a business aviation firm that can offer C-Suite executives the means to get from Makati City to Quezon City in five minutes can’t easily be overlooked.

“We enable more people to do business in the Philippines,” Mr. Tea said. “[Clients] can arrive at the airport, do one or two meetings, then go back to the airport and fly back to wherever they came from—whether it’s Hong Kong, Singapore, or even the United States. It might not look very substantial, but it enables big business to be done.”

Mr. Tea, along with co-founder Matea Delen, started PhilJets in 2013, when he heard that an American television crew was looking for a helicopter chartering service in the Philippines. Mr. Tea had previously served as the CEO of Airbus Group Philippines for a number of years and so had the network and industry know-how to land the deal.

When they began, PhilJets was only a brokering service. Five years later, they’ve built a fleet of 13 aircraft. According to Mr. Tea, they’ve gone from holding 2% of the market to controlling 70%. Over the last three years, Mr. Tea said they’ve managed to grow their revenues 100% year-on-year, with plans to expand even more.

“When you are a startup company like us, you have to grow and grow fast,” he said. “In order to do so, we’ve been investing a lot in trainings, in hiring the right people: The right pilots, experienced technicians, experienced mechanics.”

Mr. Tea said one initiative his group decided to take on has been to bring Filipino talents abroad back home. “We’ve been able to attract experienced [Filipino] pilots who were flying, working abroad in Africa, in Thailand, [elsewhere] in Southeast Asia,” he said. “Today, they are all working back in the Philippines. We are very proud of that—that we are able to bring back employees in the Philippines, so they can spend more time with their families.”

PhilJets isn’t the only firm that’s recognized this growing need for premium transportation services. Geoffrey Cahen, head of sales and marketing for PhilJets, says the local industry is still young, but growing rapidly.

“I will say the competition is not like in some other countries, but it’s there” Mr. Cahen said. “It’s pretty aggressive. Everyone knows there is an increase in need for fixed wing and helicopter charter services as there are more and more businessmen looking to invest in the country.”

“In terms of tourism, the country is also booming, with destinations like Palawan, Boracay, Bohol, or even Taal Volcano,” he added. “We’ve seen that more and more players have joined the competition.”

One such competitor, AirTaxi.ph, has been operating in the Philippines since 1996, and offers chartered flights from Manila to 22 cities all over the country, as well as a host of set day trip packages. Members of their “emerald class” enjoy priority access to their fleet of helicopters and private planes for business, leisure, or emergency medical trips.

“Competition is good,” Mr. Cahen said. “It pushes us to always offer to our clients better services, better packages. At the end, we just need to be more creative in targeting our clients and listening to them.”

In addition to corporate executives and high-flying tourists, Mr. Cahen said PhilJets has seen a lot of demand from different sectors of the mining industry. In fact, after Mr. Tea landed his contract with the American television firm, the company really began to gain traction when they realized how the intricacies of the mining business could benefit from chartered flight services.

“The [Philippines] is also full of mining companies, and those mining companies sometimes are based in remote areas,” Mr. Cahen said. “So they need the choppers, not for personal use, but really for operations—to carry some of the equipment, some of the employees, and sometimes to also carry the precious cargo.”

Though most of their clients look for customized services to take them to specific destinations, Mr. Cahen explained that they do also offer fixed packages, including a helicopter flight directly to Tagaytay. In this package, the chopper lands your group at world-famous destination restaurant Antonio’s for lunch, before flying you off again for an aerial tour around Taal Volcano.

“It takes more or less, five hours,” he said. “One hour of flying time and four hours on site. It’s been a very popular package.”

According to their team, PhilJets’ success can be attributed to the attention they pay to curating their services to meet the possible demands of their clients. “Some clients they just want to do a ten-minute tour around Manila,” Mr. Cahen said. “Some clients they just want to avoid the traffic and are willing to pay for a premium service. Some clients just want to go to Tagaytay or to Baguio to play golf.”

“Each client is very unique,” he continued, “and we try to cater to these clients by offering a customized experience.”

Currently, clients interested in taking to the skies to circumvent Manila’s clogged arteries need to rent out the entire aircraft. Unlike more robust services one might find abroad, local demand isn’t yet at the level necessary to support a pay-per-seat model. But Mr. Cahen said the industry is definitely headed in that direction.

“For now, [our services] can take you from Quezon City to Makati in more or less five minutes,” he said. “So the helicopter will pick you up somewhere in Makati. Then Makati to Q.C., we’re talking five minutes of flying time. Either the chopper will wait for you at Q.C.—if we are authorized by the building—or the chopper will fly back to Manila. The cost would be roughly Php30,000 for the entire helicopter.”

The service is definitely pricey. But if time is money, it’s all about how much you value your time. “Do you want to spend two and a half hours in traffic, getting stressed?” Mr. Cahen asked. “Or would you prefer to spend five minutes… saving a lot of time for more business with your team, with your partner?”