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Locals Can, Says Our New Big ‘Copter Service

Locals Can, Says Our New Big ‘Copter Service
One of Elite Aviation’s Bell 212 helicopters. Photo: Charles Chambers
April 14
11:00 2018

All it took was one flooding event for Al­aena Hill and her Corporate Advisor and husband Mathew Hill, to set up Elite Aviation.

The company is the first local commercial avia­tion operator.

Fiji is expected to see the dawn of a new age of helicopter service with much bigger air­crafts that can carry up to 13 passengers and more cargo, and with more winch power.

Elite Aviation has also placed itself to become the cheapest air service provider in the coun­try without compromising safety for its travel­ling passengers.

The company that would be based out of De­narau Island is a newly-established that is a wholly owned and operated Fijian business that has grown into one of the Pacific’s leading helicopter companies and is the largest opera­tor of medium helicopters in Fiji.

It has a strategic alliance with Wildcat Heli­copter out of Canada, creating a powerful al­liance with a world-renowned operator of me­dium fleet rotary aircraft capable of servicing major onshore and offshore clients around the globe.

To date they have already invested $2 million into setting up the business which would be launched once the aircrafts are ready and they plan to spend a further $2 to $4 million.

The couple spoke to Sun Biz in an exclusive interview.

First of all can you please introduce yourselves?

I am Alaena, the chief executive officer and founder of Elite Aviation and Matthew who is my husband and my corporate advisor, and works for Asia Pacific Capital.

Are you from Fiji?

Yes, born and bred, raised in Suva. I went to St Anne’s Primary School, then later to Saint Joseph’s Secondary School.

I then attended the Fiji National University (FNU), trained dogs for a little bit, have been through two floods myself, when I was living in Waqadra in Nadi and Raviravi in Ba.

So I can sympathise with the flood victims that have lost everything because I did once as well.

My dad is from Laucala, Rewa, and my mum is from Makulei, Solevu, Bua.

Mathew can you tell us a little bit about yourself please?

I am from Australia and have been working on and off in Fiji since 1998 and my company is traditionally an investment bank. We are a corporate advisor company which essentially advise multi-national companies specifically starting their business.

When did you decide on the business concept?

Alaena – The concept came up six years ago during the 2011-2012 floods that happened in Ba, where we were caught in that flood. We tried calling the local operators to evacuate us and they had a set-price but then because it was a disaster, the price had spiked up quadruple.

So that is where the idea started from and we have been working on it for the last six to seven years, and it was only in the last three years when we pushed full steam ahead.

Matthew – I guess just to summarise we saw an opportunity in the country for an operator to come in and provide affordable, efficient and safe helicopter services for both tourism op­erations and for medical and assistance types services.

So our job at Asia Pacific Capital was to go out and source the teams specifically for lead avia­tion and its endeavors of what it wanted to do.

That is why our captain, our co-pilot, our pilot chief pilot John Wells and our Chief Engineer Gordon Hamilton which we have chosen for their specific specialisation in this aircraft.

How much did you invest in the business?

Matthew – Initially we spent nearly $2 million to date in consulting and other costs attribut­able to setting up just to get us to where we are today and that is pre-launch.

A further $2m – $4m will be spent in the next 18 months, setting up the framework of the helicopter site. The heliport itself on Denarau will be another investment more than $1 mil­lion and that is probably where we are at this stage. We are looking at our business being reg­istered with the South Pacific Stock Exchange in the future.

What are some of the heliport features?

Matthew – In terms of a heliport we looked around at various landing spots around the country with an internationally recognised ISO standard heliport that does not exist in Fiji.

We then said look if we are going to do that for just our flying operations because safety is key, let us make sure that our heliports have all of the various features like fire suppressant capa­bilities and hangar capabilities.

Everything we need on Denarau is close to where we want to operate and then we will likely have a landing pad not far from there.

The helipad will be used for certain things to allow essentially not just us but others to land somewhere where it is safe and it has got all the key features that you would expect from an in­ternationally accredited heliport. That is what we are working on.

Is this the first internationally accredited heliport in Fiji?

Alaena – Yes absolutely, we do have the moth­er helicopter like the Bell 212 currently, so in order to cater for that we needed to build a heli­port to match up with the helicopter.

Matthew – There is a fleet of eight helicopters that which includes Bell 212 aircraft. And, as Alaena suggested, the heliport is going to be a significant configuration.

What are some of the main features of these helicopters?

Alaena – The Bell 212 can cater up to 13 pas­sengers with a pilot and a co-pilot, so 15 people in all, that can be configured if get a call in the next 15 to 20 minutes.

In disaster relief, four stretchers could fit in and in medical evacuations it has weighting capabilities to up to four or five tonnes. It could also carry fire buckets and a flat pack platform which is often used in the military.

Matthew– Essentially from our side is the commercial side and medical side if needed; the AW-139 is a different aircraft by a different company.

The Aircraft carries 15 passengers plus two others and has got a faster speed and a longer range than the bell so essentially we can get further faster and we can lift more, because the lifting capacity of the Bell 212 which Alaena and her team essentially developed can carry one and a half tonnes, while the AW-139 has slightly more than that and there is no other aircraft in Fiji or in the Fiji register that can carry that kind of lifting capabilities currently.

What are some of your missions?

Alaena – The first mission is to come in and cater transfers for locals and tourists but this disaster came up.

I have told my team, put that aside throw everything you can to help in the current situ­ations and we will work on tourists after the disaster relief.

Matthew – So essentially the team and I have been working very closely with Civil Aviation Authority of Fiji as well as National Disaster Management Office and their team in trying to work very quickly and working through the processes needed in order to provide those type of thing that we are in closer contact and today.

What has the response from the Govern­ment been?

Alaena – The response from the Government have been overwhelming.

At first there were in talks about us being here, they did not really know for a fact that we were sitting in Nadi.

I guess the noise just spiraled from there and their support has been overwhelming. They have been in constant contact for disaster re­lief purposes.

Matthew – Special mention has to go to Civil Aviation Authority of Fiji as they have worked really closely with our chief pilot and chief en­gineer.

They dotted all I’s and crossed all the T’s in or­der to ensure that we get to a position to get to where we are right now and still working close­ly with us up until and I guess still going now.

We have not officially launched.

How do you see your fees with tourist in comparison to other operators?

Alaena – We will probably be cheap or cheap­er than most cruise companies to travel, but the only difference is that we will get there quicker and we can travel with volume.

The current operators if they have a full air-craft, their passengers have to wait for their luggage in the next available boat, as for us we can fit 11 passengers, take all their luggage with them and their holiday starts as soon as they get off our air-craft.

Matthew – One of the main things here from our point of view is we do not see ourselves competing with any specific areas so we do not compete with the current operators.

They are more for the high-flying rockstars or celebrities, I guess you can fly with those guys.

We are trying the capability where the average person and their family can get from Point A to Point B quickly, efficiently and get their feet in the sand from when they arrive from foreign des­tinations, or if they are a local, they can get out and take their friends and families out for a trip.

What would be your greatest motivation for this success story?

Alaena – Life has been a great teacher; the struggles, being in floods, I must credit my hus­band for pushing me off the cliff when I first ap­proached him with the idea.

He has motivated and pushed me further than I thought I could go.

It is a competitive market, let alone a female to come in to a male dominated field and face sex­ism and ageism. It was a tough role and he told me do not give up so I got to credit him for back­ing me 100 per cent.

Why choose Port Denarau as the location?

Matthew – We are working closely with the owners of South Denarau and we have been part­nering up with them for a long while.

We are really quite grateful and thankful for their support.

I guess their assistance and partnership with us has been helpful as we certainly would not have been able to build such a great thing on Denarau.

The key to it has been configuring it in such a way where it has a minimal type of noise and effect on any current operators but at the same time providing those same operators with the ability to jump on a very affordable fleet and get out to where ever they want to go very quickly.

What are your company goals?

Alaena – We are cautiously optimistic to ex­panding and getting better aircrafts in quicker if possible, if it turns out to be lucrative for the business, then we will get better equipment and train up the locals to be able to do what we have been able to source out of the country and hope­fully maybe one day in the near future start up a helicopter school.

The possibilities are great but we are cautiously optimistic.

Matthew – We believe that it is a time for transi­tion in the aviation industry here in Fiji.

It has waited too long and I think we have seen a huge amount of support even before our entry and now.

It has got to a level where people are saying great we want you here.

Our aims and goals for the business is to pro­vide a business of helicopter services that has the reach of all of Fiji.

I guess the vision for Alaena and the specific aircraft that we have chosen can give us a reach from Ono-i-Lau to Rotuma and that is a really great opportunity.

We may have to do a few stops on the way to get there, but for now it has got that capability so I guess the total goal vision from the business plan would be to have eight helicopters spread out giv­ing total coverage.

How many employees are looking for at the

moment?

Alaena – At the moment there are only six of us, so it is just the skeleton crew, some off-shore and some on-shore.

Matthew – Each helicopter will have an engi­neer, a pilot, a local co-pilot, a local trainee engi­neer on each helicopter, training under the guid­ance of our chief engineer and our chief pilot.

So with eight helicopters that is at least 32 to 40 staff in just the flight operations.

Our board we expect to be somewhere in be­tween four and six before we go in to the public listings stock market and that is when we start talking about administration, operations, tick­eting, bookings, marketing and those types of things.

They are all additional direct and in-direct em­ployees to come off this business.

Is there anything else unique about this

business?

Alaena – Yes, it is a female locally owned helicop­ter company and is definitely unique. It is some­thing every Fijian can be proud of.

We finally have the capability within the coun­try and it is owned by one of its own.

When disaster happens, people do not have to wait for Australian and New Zealand aid.

We can be pro-active as we have the capability in the country and it is run by someone who was born and raised in the country. It should be a proud day for every Fijian.

Some key responsibilities of being a business owner?

Matthew – I guess the key responsibilities from Alaena’s point of view and where we advise as the corporate advisors.

Safety is key to the aviation industry as a whole and the way we have set the structuring for Al­aena on behalf of the company is to have the cor­porate headquarters cut off from the chief pilot and chief engineers with regards to our fleet.

So if they say if it isn’t safe and we are not fly­ing, they have got control of the fleet and not the money end of the business.

So to make that abundantly clear, if we have 100 passengers and we are pushing from the board or management side that we want to go and the chief engineer says that we are not going then we are not flying today and it is really that simple, because we feel that is really important particu­larly when you cannot get it wrong at all.

I am coming from a mining background and mining in itself is something that we have to be really careful in.

Aviation just adds on even more because up in the sky it is a lot of work and these guys are be­hind putting the processes in place.

 

You know they have done a lot of work behind the scenes to get this right, thousands of hours behind it and we only take the very best.

Do you have a message for the locals?

Alaena – Do not let your circumstances or situations determine your future.

I did not grow up with money and we struggled all our lives, but that did not stop me from chasing my dreams.

This was not in my dreams as my dreams were more on hospitality and it just so happened that I stumbled upon aviation and I ran with it.

So do not give up it is simple as that.

You will not always going to be welcomed with open arms.

There will be people who will be trying to push you down every now and then, just grow a thick skin and keep pushing forward because the other side is sweet.

And thank you to everyone as the support we got on our social media pages have been overwhelming.

We have not even started yet, but the support has been overwhelming.

So I just wanted to thank everyone who had supported us and those who wished us well and tell them to send passengers our way once we launch.

Matthew – In terms of our company we are a corporate advisory company we are behind it all the way, we are working very hard to make this in to a success.

I think planning is the key and there has been a lot of planning so we are quite comfortable in where we are at the moment and we are looking forward to the journey ahead.

To all the local companies as well, who has really come behind us, from Samuel Shankar and his company Web Communications Limited who have stepped in and assisted in web development and some of the design stuff we were talking about today.

You are seeing today you know, that is a lot of work behind the scenes as well and we are quite lucky to have these kinds of companies to come to us and say: we would love to come behind what you guys are doing and it is pretty great.

Have you set a launch date?

Alaena – After the relief efforts, then we will have a sit down and decide. We are waiting for Civil Aviation Authority of Fiji and our pilots to do their checks and until they have given us the all clear then we will get up and help.

Matthew – Initially it was May 1 2018 but the circumstances have overtaken it and I think even today (April 11) we have been told that there is another tropical depression forming at the moment.

May we get the next few days out of the road and then back on to the plan.

This aircraft we have here arrived last Thursday, and we towed it up from Suva to Nadi and we put it together on Saturday.

There are no corners that you can cut in aviation so whatever the process is, all hats off to them because they are pushing very hard in providing assistance everywhere, without taking one step of short cover on safety

charles.chambers@fijisun.com.fj

 

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