Understanding Cardiff Aviation Chairman Bruce Dickinson’s view of linear thinking provides insight into the three-year-old company. Dickinson, a charismatic entrepreneur who also is an active Boeing pilot and lead vocalist for Iron Maiden, says things in aviation often appear black and white. “If you’re in a black-and-white world, it’s expensive and linear. To establish a niche, you must be somewhere where the world is slightly gray. And it’s only in the gray where the profit exists and the business growth exists.”
He agrees linear thinking works well for some things—such as compliance—but it can hinder creative solutions and new concepts such as launching an MRO shop because you’re interested in starting an airline with very little money.
Dickinson and partner Mario Fulgoni’s skill set is in ACMI (aircraft, crew, maintenance, insurance)—formerly, they were a pilot and CEO of Astraeus Airlines, respectively.
So how do you start an airline with minimal funds? “You need to get the airplanes for free. How do you get airplanes for free? You have a garage where people bring you airplanes that they don’t know what to do with. A bit more market analysis led to the massive gap between the real market value of an aircraft and the book value—especially for 12-year-old aircraft. Their actual physical value drops off the face of a cliff,” says Dickinson.
When the hangars at the former Royal Air Force maintenance base at St. Athan’s in Wales became available, Cardiff Aviation launched in 2012 and “piggybacked with another Part 145” until it received regulatory approvals, he says. Maintenance and training services were the first capabilities offered.
Dickinson and his team’s entrepreneurial ideas are succeeding through hard work and by developing the business methodically. This has fostered outsiders’ confidence that Cardiff is worthy of scheduled maintenance work—as evidenced by a 16 nose-to-tail input from a European airline in November.
Last year Cardiff Aviation’s revenues were £6 million ($9.2 million), up from £800,000 in 2013. The five-year vision is to achieve £50 million in revenue.
The company benefits from the highly trained aviation community in South Wales—where British Airways Engineering, GE Aircraft Engine Services and Nordam also have facilities. After ATC Lasham’s abrupt closing in October, maintenance “apprentices who were on the cusp of qualifying” and experienced engineers are interviewing at Cardiff, says Dickinson.
In three years, the company has grown into a four-bay facility servicing Boeing and Airbus aircraft, providing pilot training with full-motion simulators as well as composites training, parking for up to 20 aircraft, leasing and airline operations support.
In June, it launched an ACMI airline—VVB—with a Boeing 737-400, using its analysis of aircraft values and premised on a massive gap between the real market value and the book value of a 12-year-old aircraft.
“We developed the airline based on the model of mutual collaboration with lease companies because they have airplanes they don’t know what to do with and we have an MRO that can fix them at mutually advantageous rates,” says Dickinson. “We pick airplanes that are worth only $3.5-4 million. We fly them 2,000 hr. per year, and we give the lessor $2 million per year. In three years, that aircraft is still worth $3.5-4 million in scrap,” the lessor has received $6 million, “and it’s no risk for them or for us,” he explains.
The second step of VVB, the ACMI airline, builds on the maintenance and training services—and underpins Cardiff’s Airline-in-a-Box. This service sets up an EASA-compliant airline from procurement to technical services and a cloud-based operational management software from Total AOC.
Air Djibouti will be the first. Cardiff is working with Djibouti to set up a national carrier, “where we carry out everything you need to create an airline.” Air Djibouti plans to start with a 737 freighter and two 737 passenger aircraft in the first quarter of 2016, “and by the end of the second quarter, we should start introducing the 767-200ER, probably to London and Paris,” says Dickinson.
Four other countries have approached Cardiff Aviation, including a couple for straight ACMI packages.
So far, Cardiff Aviation is working with one unnamed lessor, but Dickinson admits, “we have been contacted by two other lessors who are interested in our model.”
Other near-term changes could include bringing a composites clean room back online, building a paint hangar if discussions with an investor work out, and adding EASA Part 21 manufacturing approval.
Cardiff recently added a Boeing 747 simulator, which Dickinson is using to get his pilot qualification on the type. He plans to fly a 747-400 leased from Air Atlanta Icelandic on Iron Maiden’s world tour, which starts in February.
His goal is to turn customers into fans, because customers can walk away. “Relationships between MROs and airlines are hard-won,” says Dickinson. And if Iron Maiden fans own aircraft, then fans turn into customers, too.