Pilot Episode

When your parents encourage you to join flight school at the age of ten you know where your destiny lies. James Bennett dons his captain’s hat for the day and meets Paras Dhamecha, CEO of private airline Elite Jets, onboard a Hawker 1000 and discovers why Neil Armstrong chose Elite ahead of the moon

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By  James Bennett Published  September 10, 2006

|~||~||~|Imagine waking up and finding yourself in the cockpit of an aircraft at ten years old, it’s something little boys dream of but rarely do many of them turn it into a career. Paras Dhamecha, however, did just that after his parents decided to enrol the Dubai resident in the Emirates flight school “one boring summer day”, he says smiling. After hearing his words I suddenly wish my parents had chosen jets ahead of Boy Scout jamborees when I was a child. Envy aside, however, the facts speak for themselves. Ever since his formative years the CEO of private charter jet service Elite Jets has taken his sky-high dream and turned it into a US $35 million turnover (AED 128 million) and US $5 million a year profit making grounded reality. As with any hobby that is turned into a profession, he recognises that he has been fortunate enough to realise his ambition, and that there has never been a time when he has told himself that he doesn’t want to go into the office and work long hours. Unlike many others who take the profession for granted, aviation is firmly embedded in Dhamecha’s blood. “Pilots often say ‘I never know why I got into this business’, but to me it’s not only flying, it’s the passion of the business. Everytime an aeroplane takes off and lands I want to know,” he says. “I’m involved in every aspect of the operation from the marketing side upwards. I fly the aircraft as well and try to do that as often as possible. It’s one thing to be able to say that we offer that service and to try and do it from the ground, but meeting the people that we service is how to learn the job.” Succeeding in the cut-throat, competitive world of aviation where rising fuel costs and exorbitant overheads often outweigh profit is rare, and Elite’s CEO knows that he has a long way to go before matching the business’s big boys. But at least he’s started off on the right track. Or runway in his case. From flight school, he graduated to landing his pilots licence first time round aged 17. From there he went to university but left behind the dream of becoming a professional pilot in search of what most people would term a ‘normal education’. “When I was in university I never thought I would get into aviation professionally or become a professional pilot. I went to Indiana in the US for education and nothing else.” In a relatively small US student town that based its local income around the university’s activities, however, Dhamecha soon grew bored and says that at that moment he knew there was only one thing to do — he had to get back behind the control panel as fast as he possibly could. “My favourite pass time in those days was to take an aeroplane, zoom somewhere and have dinner with friends, then come back, because in the States you can do that and it’s very flexible. Eventually that’s how I built my time, never thinking that I would take the next step.” This was swiftly followed by some more time “flying for fun” and then, one day, the question came: Was he was ready to take his commercial licence and do it for real? The Elite CEO says the choice was “obvious”. “I came to a crossroads where someone said, ‘do you want come and fly a Learjet for us?’ I had the choice of being an assistant trader for Citibank in Zurich or flying a Lear jet in the States, it was pretty obvious which one I wanted to go for.” TURNING POINT Aged 28 Dhamecha turned his back on what the majority of people would categorise as a ‘normal’ career to fly corporate clients in the US for the next five years, but even after following his dream he wanted more — the lure of mixing business with pleasure was just too tempting, even though his venture didn’t go all his own way. “I was flying in the corporate sector at the time and a business partner and I had the opportunity to start a business out there. We got through the entire business plan stage, we got finance, we had the aeroplane and eventually, with good fortune, we decided not to go ahead because we were scared. “You had a captain that wasn’t really a business person and a 23-year old with two years experience, and we got a US $6 million loan to buy an aeroplane! With that we took a step back and had a good hard look at whether it was what we wanted to do. We just weren’t mentally ready to take that step and take on a debt of US $6 million.” Six months down the line the move not to go ahead with his own project proved a wise one as the events of 9/11 unfolded and sent major global markets tumbling including, rather unsurprisingly, the aviation industry. Dhamecha knew his time in the US was over and so packed his things for Dubai and an opportunity in the emirate that was “just too great to give up” — starting and running his own private jet airline business. PERFECT MATCH Started with an idea and then a structured business plan after he came back from the States, Dhamecha undertook a year’s worth of market research. He then took his plan out to the market for a further 12 months talking to venture capitalists and other possible investors. After two years of perseverance, he then finally struck oil. “It was by luck and through my family’s construction company that I met with one of my backers and now partners, JML investment. At the time JML was looking to acquire an aeroplane and so we sat together and I said ‘if you’re looking to do that then why not make a business out of it to offset your costs?’,” he says. “Between that and when we started the business I bumped into National Airways Corporation — one of the biggest general aviation companies in Africa. It was suddenly perfect match. You had a partner that was strategic because of its contacts and its business reputation (JML) and you had NAC with all its operational expertise and finance as well.” Since those chance meetings the total investment has been around US $2 million, built on a “very solid foundation”, according to Dhamecha. However, the long game of little short-term reward people call ‘aviation’ carries huge risks, not just if you’re a nervous flyer, but also when you invest millions and put your reputation on the line — something Dhamecha is all too aware of. “I’m a partner and have options in the business, and as far as risk is concerned it’s me and my dignity. I have to live with that. But, so far, so good. From the time we started in January to September last year, our staff and our revenues have all quadrupled,” he explains. “We charter aircraft but we’re also a dealer. We’re a plane showroom and a one-stop-shop for business aviation. We sell aeroplanes, take them back on management and operate them on behalf of the owners and charter them.” The private jet business is currently booming, mainly due to the large increase in wealth throughout the region, however it is the VIPs that people are interested in hearing about, says Dhamecha. Unfortunately, he adds, the CEOs among his passengers and famous clients remain as “classified” as the flights they take, all except one person, however, who he reveals was “very used to flying”. “People from all walks of life come onboard, people who want private, secure meetings because this is a very private business. I’ve flown Neil Armstrong several times. He graduated from the same university I did so it was a very good conversation. “He was also a Learjet pilot so he had done test flights on the plane I was flying him on. I asked him if he wanted to fly instead of me. He said ‘I trust you’ and laughed,” adds Dhamecha. With arguably the first man on the moon advocating your flights, you can’t go wrong, however the Elite CEO says that to make it in the private jet business you have to constantly monitor and maintain an exceptionally high level of customer service. “The very first time a customer sees or gets any feeling for the company is when they start walking up the steps of that aeroplane. The flight crew become an advocate for the company so uniforms and appearance have to be right and I try to take a couple of flights a month. “I don’t use the captain’s hat but when I fly I’m part of the crew, nobody has to know who I am or what I do. For me it’s more of an excuse to go and get my head into the sky. It keeps the entire system in check.” Despite the company’s relative youth and the notoriously volatile nature of the aviation business, Dhamecha has made, and is making significant headway into the currently profitable Middle Eastern private jet industry. If he continues to fly at these heady heights plenty more CEOs will be taking the Elite route to work.||**||

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