Private high: An interview with Air Partner CEO Mark Briffa

Words by
Jemima Sissons
Photography by
Kalpesh Lathigra

30th September 2021

Discover how the great British aviation brand has evolved in its proud six decades of flying – today, the sky really is the limit for its HNW clients

For many in the travel and hospitality industry, the pandemic brought exceptional challenges. Yet one British company — which proudly celebrates its 6oth anniversary this year — has not stood still during the crisis. Even though it is known for its well-heeled clientele, and might be flying royalty to the south of France one day and Premier League footballers to Rome the next, Air Partner was one of the first companies to airlift people from Wuhan when Covid-19 struck. It worked throughout lockdown, ferrying government officials around the country and — more recently, and very laudably, working with the British government — was instrumental in getting people out of the Afghan capital, Kabul, via the Middle East.

This is a company with a heart and a proud history. Started 60 years ago as a small helicopter taxi service based in Gatwick, it expanded into turboprop planes and now provides private jet services to HNWIs, governments, royalty and businesses. One of the keys to its success is that it has never owned its assets, instead chartering aircraft based on demand. It can fly anything from 10 to 50 private jets a day, overseen by its highly trained pilots and crew. This could range from a bicoastal flight in the US to a day trip to Monaco for a high-value businessman, or taking heads of state from London to Scotland to a tricky landing in the minuscule Sion airport in Switzerland for some off-piste skiing.   

Business is booming. “Levels are back to pre-Covid,” says chief executive officer Mark Briffa, who held commercial roles at Air 2000 and All Leisure before joining Air Partner as commercial jets broker in 1996, becoming chief operating officer a decade later, and being appointed CEO in 2010.

“It has been a super-busy summer for private jets. A lot more people are going down the private route for comfort and security,” he remarks. The company has also been at the forefront of advising the aviation industry on coronavirus protocol, making sure the crew have undertaken the right testing, which countries they can and can’t go to and what to do if there’s an outbreak.

One of the keys to the company’s success is its JetCard, described by Briffa as a “posh Oyster”. This allows you to buy hours on the plane, so you can simply pick up the phone and order one for the next day. For instance, the JetCard 5 — introduced during the pandemic to offer clients increased flexibility at a time of uncertainty — costs €29,900 for five hours. The scheme has been booming this summer, as the traffic-light system has been in constant flux (2021 has seen a surge in interest in “green list” destinations, such as Reykjavik). If the place a passenger is booked for turns red, with Air Partner on speed dial the holiday can be changed within the hour to an amber or green list country instead. “And these traffic-light systems are here to stay for a while,” Briffa believes.

There are other fundamental changes brought about by recent events. Although the business-travel side stopped, leisure tourism has continued to boom. “Many have been people going down to their second homes in the south of France or Spain, and just not coming back,” says Briffa. Indeed, for some, it’s been one long endless summer.   

The company prides itself on fulfilling its clients’ every whim, from bottles of chilled Cristal and caviar to a simple bacon butty and cup of tea (which is all a lot their clients actually want, adds Briffa). You want to fly your miniature Schnauzer to Nice for the weekend? Done.

“It has always been underpinned by British service,” says Briffa. This means attention to detail: not just finding planes, but making sure you can fit your pets or large bags on board, and catering to all tastes, from fresh sushi to vegan pasta. One of the most popular routes is to Monaco for the Grand Prix, but some of the most fascinating trips have been to out-of-the-way destinations such as Kathmandu.  The planes the airline generally uses range from small, such as the Phenom 300, to a mid-sized Legacy 650 holding up to eight passengers comfortably during flights of up to six hours.

Private high: An interview with Air Partner CEO Mark Briffa

The Air Partner experience starts when you pick up the phone to book your flight. This can be done as soon as the day before. The reason the private jet sector has seen such a boom this year is partly because of the joy of using private terminals, as well as avoiding other people and their germs. Air Partner is well acquainted with them, from Birmingham and Stansted to Luton and Farnborough, and they are all exclusive ones with their own private lounge. So, if your flight is taking off at 10am, what time do you need to turn up? “At 9.30am,” chirps Briffa. “It certainly beats the four-hour wait at Heathrow Terminal 3.”

Another area Air Partner prides itself on is its Environmental Social and Governance credentials. “ESG is massive for us,” explains Briffa. “We have given our clients the opportunity to offset flying and are actively pushing it as an opt-out option rather than opt-in. When they choose to offset carbon emissions from flights, the money goes towards supporting carbon-cutting projects that also help to alleviate poverty and improve lives, such as providing rural communities around the world with clean energy from wind farms. We are also partnering with sustainable development charity Raleigh International on a number of conservation initiatives, including rewilding and tree planting while raising funds to combat climate change,” he says. “On top of that, paperless offices, reduction in waste on flights, using energy-saving materials and looking at the use of more modern planes are just some of the other initiatives we are working on. We need to do the right thing and be more conscious of it.”

Another string to Air Partner’s bow is that it is a UK PLC registered company, so it is highly regulated, where some other companies might be less stringent about who — or what — they transport. “We have to be super-transparent as we have shareholders to answer to,” explains Briffa. So, with Air Partner, you can fly with a clear conscience.

He has seen some good come out of the pandemic. “It has made us more conscious; we offer flexi working, an office-safe environment, and we are far more aware of mental health, which is a great thing.”

When he’s not jetting to exotic locations, Briffa loves to cycle around the leafy lanes near his Surrey home and catch up with a British hero, James Bond — his favourite film is Octopussy and he will be one of the first to see the new movie when it’s released.

The company has had its own fair share of Bond moments. Last year, working with the FCO, it was instrumental in getting ailing passengers off a cruise ship stuck in Yokohama, and has even flown the World Cup trophy around the globe, proving that for Air Partner, the sky really is the limit.