Embracing evolution in the air charter industry

Air Charter Service

Air Charter Service (ACS) was formed in the basement of Chris Leach’s Kingston upon Thames home in 1990 and has evolved into a global player in the charter broker business, as the industry has changed at an increasingly rapid pace.

Decades after its founding, ACS has a network of offices spanning North America, South America, Europe, Africa, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Middle East, Asia and Australasia, arranging 28,000 charter flights every year for its thousands of clients around the globe.

While the industry has changed in many ways, from the aircraft types and airlines to the professionalism of brokers, “the essence is still there,” according to Dan Morgan-Evans, Global Cargo Director at ACS. “Knowledge of the market and service to the client – they are the key ingredients to any successful broker. You can add technology or newer aircraft but knowing your product and relationships and service are still the key.”

Human input is essential

As with other sectors of the airfreight industry, digitalisation is spreading throughout the broker business, shaping elements of the current model. Morgan-Evans sees it as a way to aid existing systems, rather than replacing them.

While innovation can help to reshape how air cargo operates, including in the charter broker sector, it is clear that there are some customers who want to keep that personal, traditional connection that made ACS what it is today.

“Digital innovation is there to improve processes and act as a tool – whether that is internal or customer facing, but this is not Uber,” the ACS director explained. “Human input is essential in this business, as several private jet companies claiming to be the ‘Uber of the skies’ have found out. Complex charter operations require trained people for the foreseeable future.”

This is why digitalisation in the charter broker business has its limitations in the eyes of ACS, as the company believes online broker platforms are unable to meet the more complex, specialist requests. “You may be able to plug in a route and a payload but you won’t know if you can do it! Load plans, permits, one way availabilities, dangerous goods, sanctions – the complexities go on. I think we are a while a way from when traditional interactions and relationships are no longer needed – if ever!,” Morgan-Evans said. 

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Supporting humanitarian operations

ACS has a global reputation for responding swiftly to emergency situations, working around great logistical challenges to ensure the smooth running of relief operations. For over 30 years, ACS has worked with non-governmental organisations, governments and aid agencies to coordinate a wide range of cargo charters, moving everything from heavy equipment and vehicles to food and medical supplies.

The provision of humanitarian supplies via charter services is usually a highly critical operation due to the need to quickly react to the situation on the ground and the urgency of the local population’s need. This is generally compounded by the fact that the local infrastructure may be damaged or affected, demand for aircraft has increased, reducing available stock, and airports can get congested with cargo at departure and arrival points.

Some of the relief efforts where ACS has overcome these hurdles to offer their support includes: providing aircraft to transport people fleeing Afghanistan in 2021, sending supplies to Pakistan following the 2022 floods and, more recently, facilitating the movement of aid to Turkey after a deadly earthquake hit the region.

“It could be said we were founded on humanitarian work as our founder and Chairman Chris Leach’s first contract was with the World Food Programme,” Morgan-Evans said.

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Expanding network

ACS has showed that, globally, it has no plans to slow down its growth, having expanded its North American operations and recently reported strong results in France. Moving forward, the charter broker is keen to continue its mission of moving into new territories where there are potential markets, as well as being reactive to conditions in the industry.

Bigger economies often provide greater opportunities for charter brokers but ACS is careful with its planning, not entering a market where it doesn’t believe there is a chance of success.

“Even though we have expanded massively over the years, there is a nimbleness to ACS that allows us to move quickly as the market dictates – and that includes our other core divisions of private jets and commercial airliners,” Morgan-Evans highlighted.

“Initially we were UK-based so the UK was always the strongest office but as we opened offices around the globe we started to spread that share of the load,” he said. “Global spread was part of the strategy, not just to have the network, but to spread the risk of down markets in certain areas. The diversity, both regionally and divisionally, were the main reasons we were lucky enough to thrive during and since Covid.”

While looking to grow, ACS recognises there is a need to balance an expanding company, industry and cargo market with the need to become more sustainable. The charter broker has been a carbon neutral company since 2007 and has invested in Erik Lindbergh’s research into electric flight. However, that solution is still some way off being a reality for the industry.

“There are several steps, and several years, before we are even approaching an entirely sustainable space – carbon-offsetting, Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) and then electric or hydro-powered flight,” Morgan-Evans admitted. But, despite the challenges in achieving those visions, ACS is doing all that it can now, providing carbon off-setting and providing funding for research to make aircraft more fuel-efficient.