UK: NIGEL'S LUCRATIVE LOVE AFFAIR - LOVE AIR. - The Biggles-like character who runs one of Britain's smallest airlines refuses to be deterred by economic turbelence.

by Charles Darwent.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Biggles-like character who runs one of Britain's smallest airlines refuses to be deterred by economic turbelence.

If readers of this upstanding journal are unfamiliar with the existence of the Mile High Club, permit me to refer you to the works of Jackie Collins. If, on the other hand, you are already familiar with the club in question, you may feel you understand the glint that comes into Nigel Harris's blue aviator's eye when it is mentioned. But, honi soit qui mal y pense, the sound that the Mile High Club conjures up to Harris is not so much that of the creaking of aeronautical springs as of the distant ringing of cash registers. 'Someone in New Zealand started Mile High Club flights a couple of years back,' he recalls. 'You know - pay a hundred quid, get into a curtained-off partition behind the pilot with your girlfriend and, er, off you go. Making a bomb, apparently. We may start doing them ourselves next year.'

Harris is managing director of Britain's smallest scheduled airline. He operates what purports to be the world's shortest scheduled international flight, from Lydd or Biggin Hill to Le Touquet, a mere 15-minute hop in Chieftain aeroplanes. Given that the service is much patronised by honeymooners, the name chosen by Harris for his business seems nothing if not apposite: it is called Love Air.

Unfortunately though, albeit the steady stream of romantics, Harris notes that profits on the £3 million turnover of the London Flight Centre (LFC) - the holding company of Love Air and its corporate siblings, which include Montserrat Airways and Air St Kitts and Nevis - will be down to about 5% this year from a profit that was 20% of turnover in Love Air's first year of operation in 1990. Nevertheless, it is astonishing that the company should have stayed airborne at all considering what a pounding civil aviation has had recently due to the economic turbulence. The explanation for Love Air's survival has a lot to do with the MD's bifurcate career. Before founding the Stansted-based LFC 11 years ago, Harris worked not only as a qualified commercial pilot, but as UK sales manager of the Mars Group. Love's commercial loftiness has had a great deal to do with its marketing, which has, in turn, much to do with Harris's choice of its name.

'Why Love?' says Harris. 'Well, there are two answers - the clever one and the real one. The clever one is that I'm a marketing man and the word 'love' is a marketing man's dream. Journalists can call their articles 'Love is in the Air' or 'On the Wings of Love', so it attracts a lot of attention. Last year we married a couple over international waters as a marketing stunt for St Valentine's Day.' But, he coughs, 'they had to re-marry when they landed, but it was great marketing. The real answer is that one day I was flying one of our regulars whose name was Ken Love. I thought, 'Cor, that's a good name." Not unnaturally, Harris now has his eye firmly fixed on doing some sort of deal with Richard Branson: 'Love ... Virgin ... there must be a relationship in there somewhere,'Harris muses. 'Perhaps we could do a publicity shot of one of our Chieftains underneath one of Branson's 747s?' Tsk.

As might be supposed, however, there is more to the story of LFC's success than mere marketing legerdemain. Harris offers an engagingly unflattering description of his business mores: 'I am,' he says blithely, 'an opportunist'. This is a claim amply borne out by the Love story. Back in 1990, the quondam British Independent Airways - then licencees on the Lydd-Le Touquet run - went 'fairly dramatically bust,' says Harris. 'They lost £5 million in six months.' Instead of contemplating a career change to something safer, like crocodile wrestling, Harris did the opposite - he bought British Independent's route for his own LFC.

'We knew that, from 1 January 1993, things were going to change dramatically for European civil aviation with the advent of the single market,' Harris recalls. 'Although our routes are actually international, they would now be counted as being domestic. That makes things a great deal easier and a great deal cheaper, too.' Harris - who, in another previous incarnation, had flown Boeing 707s across the Atlantic for a Jordanian airline - looked at the state of US civil aviation and saw the implication of Euro-geopolitics for aviators in the EC.

'We became very interested in the concept of regional airports,' he says. 'Not everyone wants to fly Heathrow-Frankfurt, and it's on niche routes that money is to be made. It is not that we're being super-clever, it is just the way things are: small numbers, high frequency and relatively low cost - that's the niche we are after.'

But Harris's niches have also been as much spatial as conceptual. Love Air's is, for example, the first (and so far the only) scheduled service from the ex-RAF aerodrome at Biggin Hill, and the logic of this fact is compelling. Using a different airport is not only a way of avoiding competition with the aeronautical big boys, it is also vastly cheaper - £75 per take-off, as opposed to around £500 at Heathrow - and means that Love's flights are not bound to fixed take-off slots: 'When the passengers are on board,' says Harris, 'we go.' Once airborne, Love's 10-seaters, tails emblazoned with hearts, also occupy uncontested niches, as they fly below regular CAA lanes. And, if all goes according to plan, Harris will soon add a smattering of new and similarly uncontested landing-spots to Love's destination board, notably the small but very central airport at Pontois, a couple of RER train stops north of Paris.

Nor does Harris's genius stop at niche marketing. Love Air has a pair of LFC siblings, Montserrat Airways and Air St Kitts and Nevis (apparently, the latter is patronised by HRH The Princess of Wales - another marketing man's dream) which operate in the West Indian Windward Islands. Like Love, their modus operandi is defined by Harris as 'nibble, nibble: feed the big boys and live off them' (ie, there are no main inter-island routes), but their links are synergistic as well as opportunistic. Love's high season is June to October; that of its West Indian siblings November to the following April. As a result, LFC's 65 full-time staff perform a sort of annual aeronautical transhumance - thus the ruddiness of their MD's cheek - commuting lock, stock and sickbag across the Atlantic twice a year. 'I stay out there for as long as I get two faxes or less a day from this place,' says Harris, gesturing at a World War II Nissen hut - the London Flight Centre's Stansted HQ. 'As soon as it goes over three, I come home. And I must say, it's not unhelpful working in two major currencies at the same time.'

Moreover, a new West Indian opportunity has recently presented itself to the soi-disant opportunist: medical evacuation flights. These are currently non-existent in the Caribbean but, as it is the playground of the elderly rich people, there is a huge demand for such flights. What's more, medevac flights would tie in well with an existing LFC European business, UK Transplant, which also uses extant LFC planes. If you are a Devonian who has a stroke in Montserrat, one of Harris's air ambulances will fly you to Antigua for a flight to Heathrow. From there another Harris flyer will deliver you to Exeter.

It is tempting to see Harris as a walking, flying synergy of Biggles inventor Captain W E Johns. Gaze mistily at Love Air's advertisments in London Underground, and you will, unwittingly, be admiring Harris's marketing handiwork. Take yourself over for an amorous weekend at Le Touquet via Love and you will, as likely as not, find yourself being flown by the airline's MD as well (who needs Richard Branson with such service?). Harris is himself a fitting emblem for the pluralism that lies at the heart of his firm's success.

Synergies? Don't talk to Harris about synergies. 'Five or six years ago, there was an acute world shortage of airline pilots,' he recalls. To remedy this, LFC opened up a flying school in Carcassonne to train British students. It used the money the company earned from this to buy its fleet - all 28 of LFC's aeroplanes are now owned rather than leased. Another outcome of starting up the school, Harris says, is that, 'the majority of our pilots are ex-students of ours.'

Nor is this the only example of Harris's propensity for having his cake and eating it. Love Air's Chieftain aeroplanes become LFC Charter during their off-season months, a dual role that has proved useful in the recession as, while spending on romantic holidays has fallen ('Love goes up and down, up and down,' says Harris), Eurotunnel now charters an average of three flights a day, a nice little earner. 'The recession has been terrible for us,' says Harris, 'but we survived because we'd dug deep enough foundations in the first place.'

If there is any cloud on Harris's celestial horizon, it is that efficient shoals of corporate minnows have a disquieting way of eventually mutating into single commercial big fish. Love of one's business does not feature as a desideratum in most business school manuals, but one does sense that Harris's fondness for the gung-ho Bigglesness of his Stansted Nissen hut is part of the secret of his company's success. Nevertheless, he bemoans the fact that he spends six days sitting behind a desk instead of being up in the air: 'That', remarks Harris, morosely, 'is not how it was meant to be at all.'

Does the prospect of ending up as a reincarnated Lord King please him? Harris's face becomes a rictus of horror 'Lord King? Absolutely not,' he says. 'King didn't own his own airline. He was just an employee.'

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