Thursday, 7 February 2019

Interview: Paulo Mirpuri, Hi Fly CEO

Hi Fly finds new customer for 'Save The Coral Reefs' A380

The world’s most recognizable Airbus A380 has been allocated to a new customer for the coming summer season.

The coral reef-themed jet is operated by Hi Fly, a wet-lease company that provides aircraft and crew to airlines on short-term contracts. Hi Fly acquired the double-decker plane from Singapore Airlines last year in the first transaction of its kind in the secondary market.

Having undergone maintenance work this winter the aircraft is now ready for commercial service and will be placed with a single customer during the IATA summer season, which runs from late March to late October.

“We wanted to do it [maintenance work] before our peak season,” Hi Fly chief executive Paulo Mirpuri told me last week in a telephone interview. He said the work included compliance with a mandatory Airworthiness Directive issued by Airbus that relates to the A380’s structure and that took about two months to complete.

“Now it’s done, and the aircraft is contracted for the summer period to fly intensively, and then until the end [of the year] it’s available for ad hoc charters and ad hoc ACMI (Aircraft, Crew, Maintenance and Insurance) contracts.

“It’s one customer for the whole summer.”

Mirpuri would not be swayed by repeated attempts to elicit information about the customer, insisting that Hi Fly “don’t want to interfere” with clients' communications strategies.

However, he confirmed that the aircraft will be deployed in the same "Save The Coral Reefs" livery as last year – adopted in support of the Mirpuri Foundation’s environmental work – and with the same seating configuration, which accommodates 12 passengers in First Class, 60 in Business Class, and 399 in Economy Class. He also said the customer was not Air Austral, the French airline that hired the jet for its Paris-Réunion service last year.

“This aircraft is a long-haul aircraft. Typically the common sectors where this aircraft is placed are long-haul flights, high-density routes, and airports that can accommodate the A380,” Mirpuri continued. “The market is mainly Europe to the U.S., Europe to the Indic [Indian Ocean], Europe to Asia, Europe to South America.”

Thomas Cook Airlines Scandinavia and Norwegian Air UK were among the other carriers that briefly rented the double-decker last year.

Asked about the performance of Hi Fly’s A380 investment to date, Mirpuri said the aircraft had a “very strong start” but it will be another “two or three years” before the business case is proven financially.

“We would love [for demand] to be like this all the time. But we don’t know what will be,” he said. “It seems that 2019 will be great, so for the moment we are happy with our investment. We are happy with the decision to put the first A380 on the wet-lease market.

“The most significant investment for such a large aircraft is with the induction of the first aircraft. We had to do a lot of training and infrastructure investment: crew training, spare parts, engine contracts, components contracts … The second [A380] will be a lot easier, so we will be driven by market demand. And we will need to have one full year of operation before we decide about the next one, and the third one, and the fourth one.”

Hi Fly originally expressed interest in taking a pair of A380s, throwing a lifeline to Airbus after years of disappointing sales and concerns about the aircraft's viability in the secondary market. Another leasing company, Amedeo, which has an outstanding order for twenty A380s, is also considering operating the type on a wet-lease basis.

However, two other ex-Singapore Airlines A380s are in the process of being scrapped after Dr Peters, a German investment firm, failed to find new homes for the airframes.

Hi Fly brings forward A330neo delivery, confirms 10 plane order

Hi Fly will take delivery of the first of two leased Airbus A330-900neos in the coming days as it finalizes plans to order ten of the aircraft direct from Airbus.

The Portuguese company, which specializes in wet-leasing crewed planes to other airlines, previously said its first A330neo will arrive in June. Air Lease Corporation (ALC), a U.S. lessor, identified itself as the supplier of that jet.

However, Hi Fly chief executive Paulo Mirpuri now says the plane is due by the end of this month.

“We are in the process of renewing the classic A330 fleet with the A330neos. We are getting the first neo actually in two weeks from now approximately,” he told me in an interview on January 29. “Then the second neo is … planned to be phased in in June or July.”

Mirpuri said the first neo will be placed with Hi Fly’s subsidiary in Malta, while the second one is due to join the company’s fleet in Portugal.

Both aircraft have secured contracts with unnamed customers for 2019 and 2020.

Hi Fly’s existing fleet in Malta comprises four A340s, one A330-300 and one A380. Its Portuguese fleet consists of two A340s, two A330-200s and one A321. The company wants to halve its average aircraft age to about ten years in order to maintain a diverse range of customers.

“We serve a very large number of airlines. There are airlines that are not so sensitive to the age of the aircraft, but there are other airlines – or even certain legislations in certain countries – that are age-sensitive,” Mirpuri explained. “That’s why we need to continue to pump brand new metal into the fleet once in a while.”

He noted that customers who utilize an A330neo for 4,000 hours a year will save “a couple of million dollars on fuel” when compared with deploying an A330 classic – more than offsetting the former’s higher lease rate.

“But we also have contracts where the utilization is a lot lower – like 2,000 or even 1,500 hours a year – and for that it’s very difficult to justify a brand new aircraft.”

Last year, Hi Fly disclosed its intention to acquire ten new A330-900neos but stopped short of signing a purchase agreement with Airbus.

Mirpuri said the companies are now “very close” to unveiling a contract for all ten units. “The first two are through leasing but the future ones will probably be direct orders,” he affirmed. “We are finalizing that with Airbus. The idea is to introduce an average of two per year until we get the ten new aircraft in the fleet.”

Hi Fly will not reduce its order by two units in light of this year’s leased jets, as the latter will have been returned to lessors by the time Airbus fulfils its contract.

However, Mirpuri did not rule out leasing structures for some other units “if the negotiation with Airbus takes long”. It is also common for airlines to convert their direct purchases into operating leases as delivery dates approach, often through sale-and-leaseback contracts that free up cash and unlock tax benefits.

In addition to the Maltese and Portuguese fleets, Hi Fly took delivery of two new A330-200s from Airbus last year.

Those aircraft were acquired by another subsidiary, Hi Fly X Ireland, which in turn placed them with Nepal Airlines. Hi Fly X Ireland is a Special Purpose Vehicle and does not have an Air Operator’s Certificate.