Charter operator SaxonAir is spearheading an ‘eastern wind of change’ to propel UK aviation into a zero emissions future. East Anglia in Business speaks to CEO Alex Durand about his hopes for a new golden age in air travel.

SaxonAir is a long-term champion of sustainability in UK aviation.

Earlier this year, the Norwich-based company linked up with electric aviation innovators NEBOAir to highlight the glaring gap between existing technology — which is racing ahead — and the accompanying infrastructure, which sadly lags far behind. It’s a dichotomy which is keenly felt across multiple industries, from automotive through to energy itself.

Thus, SaxonAir and NEBOAir intend to collaborate with a major 100% renewable energy provider on an industry-first: a sustainably powered aircraft charging network; yet again demonstrating how the East of England – far from being a sleeping economic backwater — leads the field in national renewables innovation and industry.

The early days

Alex joined SaxonAir in 2013, having run a similar business in Oxfordshire, and worked as an aviation consultant in the UK and abroad. He joined SaxonAir with the primary objective of making the business more efficient, moving away from an aircraft ownership model to management.

Alex explains: “I started my career originally intending to become a pilot, but having obtained my private pilot’s licence, I became more interested in the business aspects and eventually let my licence lapse. It is an immensely challenging industry, but filled with opportunities, and no day is ever the same.”

When the chance came to become CEO at SaxonAir, Alex was more than happy to accept the move to Norfolk. “The opportunity to take an established respected aviation organisation forward was compelling, and with owners who have shared values and principles. I’ve spent time in Norfolk over the years, and always liked the region. The business culture is refreshingly collaborative, and there’s a quiet dynamism that underpins a range of different industry sectors.”

Alex is keen to emphasise that SaxonAir is more than just an aircraft operator, “although that is a significant part of what we do, currently with six jets and six helicopters under our direct control. My role includes the wider group of companies under common ownership (Klyne Aviation), with other aviation businesses, including aircraft charter broking, non-scheduled aircraft and passenger handling, offshore helicopter support, and aviation training. We also own our facility at Norwich Airport, which includes three floors of offices and three hangars which are mainly let out to third parties.”

Green vision

Turning to SaxonAir’s stance on sustainability, Alex says, “We believe we’re in a good position to bridge the gap between what’s possible now and what’s likely to happen in the future.

“There’s a technological revolution going on with new concepts in development, but it will need to operate in an infrastructure that’s in many ways unchanged since the middle of the last century. The zero emissions aircraft we must bring into service will only succeed if they have an infrastructure that matches their capabilities.

“Our objective is to focus on what we can expect to see coming into service, and adapt our facilities and services to match. This involves a wide degree of collaboration, and collectively we can hopefully get to see some of these exciting developments enter service around us.”

The future’s electric

In a bid to kickstart a new era of green aviation infrastructure, SaxonAir has collaborated with NEBOAir, whose innovative small aircraft, the Pipistrel Velis Electro, is the world’s only certified electric aircraft.

Alex adds, “We’ve been surprised at how much innovation is already going on in the region, and NEBOAir are just one of a number of East Anglian aviation organisations working with electric aircraft. NEBOAir are making things happen, and their ambitions for transformative change are infectious.

“The Velis is still the world’s only certified electric aircraft, so the opportunity to work with it is a privilege. As an aircraft operator and service provider we can provide a perspective on how to meet the early challenges of its use in the UK.”

Opportunities and challenges

As with all sectors of industry, aviation faces considerable barriers on the road back to long-term stability, but Alex is very optimistic about the future: “We’re still building back from Covid and Brexit, but our part of the aviation industry has more demand and is better understood by many than it was before the pandemic. Secure, bespoke aircraft travel has an appeal that has seen a significant increase in interest.

“The sustainability challenge is a big one, as aviation seems to be increasingly seen as a villain for a climate crime everyone is guilty of. We must in no way ignore our responsibilities but if this trend isn’t reversed, the industry will decline and only then will there be a realisation of its importance. If we can get to near zero emissions aviation in the next few years, then we can focus back on it as the great enabler that is.”

The skills gap is another challenge that SaxonAir is working on proactively. Earlier this year, it helped offer young people aged 16-25 the chance to build the world’s first collaborative electric aircraft at a free aviation summer school, in partnership with NUNCATS, the International Aviation Academy Norwich, Action Community Enterprises, East Coast College and Vattenfall.

Reflecting on skills solutions, Alex says, “There’s no short-term fix…if we don’t train for the future we will always be reactive. This was inevitable with Brexit, but also the lack of a long-term plan for what we want to be as a country.

“There is so much potential in people that I don’t believe our education system directs or encourages. Closer links with the schools and the workplace would help inspire and direct future careers, as well as shape better training pathways.

“Apprenticeships in particular help focus on the capability and engagement of an individual who will then be receptive to the right kind of applied training; however, they require a commitment and patience that’s hard for under-pressure businesses to sustain.”

Managing change

So how does Alex ‘lead from the front?’ He says, “I aim to work with people with similar values, hard but smart working, and driven to make a difference. I’ve found the best way to manage change is to always look to make the change yourself and to do it on your own terms, otherwise change will happen to you.

“It’s essential to believe in yourself but based on an objective understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses. Treat people with respect, and aim to make a positive difference, and create opportunities for others.

“Business must be representative of its community, and we need to bring everyone with us. It has the power to positively change so much, and we should prioritise this over short-term gains.”