by Matt Thurber
When it comes to running an aviation business, the challenges facing South African general aviation companies are enormous, and National Airways Corporation (NAC), headquartered at Lanseria Airport near Johannesburg, is an example of long-term survival in an extremely tough market.
NAC, now with 700 employees around the world, has been in business for 72 years, said CEO Martin Banner, “and we’ve never made a loss.” That said, the company’s typically most profitable business, aircraft sales, is no longer the revenue leader, although it comes in second place, after its FlyAwesome international charter and aircraft leasing operations.
NAC is a new aircraft distributor for One Aviation (Eclipse) and Piper Aircraft and is a sales partner for Daher and Dassault. The company was a Beechcraft dealer for 42 years before the factory took over all new-airplane sales activity.
The operations-based activities include fixed-wing charter, aircraft leasing, flight training, and NAC’s helicopter business. The company operates more than 150 aircraft in Africa and elsewhere, including two Afghanistan-based Embraer EMB-120s equipped with Saab anti-missile defense systems. The fleet also includes seven Beech 1900s, which are an NAC specialty. “We sold and refurbished more than 270 Beech 1900s,” said J.P. Fourie, executive director of NAC’s aircraft division, education, and training. “We really understand them.”
While NAC’s maintenance department focuses on supporting the company’s own fleet and managed aircraft and no longer provides third-party fixed-wing maintenance, the helicopter division does serve Bell and Robinson helicopter operators. NAC is a Robinson dealer and independent representative for Bell in 13 countries in Africa, and it is also an authorized maintenance facility for both brands. NAC is the sole Bell customer support facility in sub-Saharan Africa and the only Rolls Royce Model 250 authorized maintenance center in Africa.
Another important business for NAC is its Awesome Air Evac air-ambulance service, which operates three jets—two Learjet 35s and a Falcon 10—fitted with medical equipment. The company used to work with a big medevac provider, but now NAC’s operation is independent, with its own medical staff, flight crew, and Lanseria-based 24/7 call center. “We fly missions every day,” said Banner. Trips have ranged as far as Europe as well as Malta, Mauritius, and Nigeria. Earlier this year, NAC based a jet in Malta to enhance the service in that region.
Helicopter operations are a key business for NAC, which bases six machines in Cape Town primarily for tourism flights. These include the R44 and Bell 206 and 407. In the Johannesburg area near Lanseria, NAC flies helicopters, primarily R44s, under contract with the police for tracking stolen cars. New cars sold in South Africa are required to have tracking devices installed, according to Banner. The NAC Flight School at Rand Airport provides advanced helicopter flight training, and it is one of the only non-Bell-owned, factory-approved pilot training schools in the world.
Flight training is handled by NAC’s 43 Air School, which also offers training for air traffic controllers and aircraft technicians. At Lanseria, the school’s Advanced Training unit does type conversions on the EMB-120, King Air 200, and Beech 1900. Ab initio pilots learn to fly at 43 Air School’s base in Port Alfred, where the company has a fleet of 60 aircraft, 14 training devices, student housing, and 50 full-time instructors. Training is offered through to the integrated airline transport pilot license, and then the jet pilot program for airline first officers using 737NG and A320 simulators.
The FBO business at Lanseria is not NAC’s primary revenue generator. “There is so little heavy-metal traffic,” Banner explained. “On a typical day, no business jets [show up].” The company sold its FBO in Cape Town to Signature Flight Support years ago. As it is in many countries outside the U.S., the business model for FBOs in South Africa is challenging, because they do not get to participate in fuel revenues; and they compete with airlines for prioritization of aircraft needing fuel. “Most airports in South Africa are the exclusive fuel supplier,” he said, “and we have no fuel service.”
On the other hand, South Africa is an easy country to fly into, and NAC is able to provide handling services there and for other African countries. International visitors must first taxi to the Lanseria Airport terminal for customs and immigration, then they can be towed to the NAC ramp.
NAC’s Lanseria facility consists of five hangars, including a large hangar for displaying aircraft for sale, four conference rooms, classroom space for employee training, a fully stocked parts department, and administrative offices. The FBO has a large, elegantly appointed VIP passenger lounge, trip-planning work stations for pilots, and it can arrange catering, fuel, hangar storage, hotel reservations, landing and parking slots, passenger assistance, and ground support services such as ground power, towing, lavatory service, aircraft cleaning, and valet services.