Air Finance Journal - Analysis: Odyssey aims for transatlantic success

3 September 2014

It is a business model that has failed three times over. Silverjet, MAXJet Airways and Eos Airlines have all tried it - and failed, going bust in the late 2000s with less than a decade of operations between them.

But, sipping a cup of tea in a café metres from his office in London's Borough High Street, former Goldman Sachs senior associ­ate Adam Scott seems unfazed by this dis­couraging legacy. The Canadian founder and chief executive officer of start-up Odyssey Airlines believes his carrier can establish itself as a profitable business-class-only service be­tween the world's two most important global financial centres.

From 2016 Scott hopes to shuttle bank­ers, lawyers and other well-heeled executives between London City Airport and New York City in Bombardier CS100s kitted out with only 40 seats, which can recline into lie-flat beds.

Odyssey has 10 CS100s on order, with purchase rights for an additional five aircraft. It expects to take delivery of its first three in mid-2016 and receive the remaining seven between then and 2019, with the idea of bringing deliveries forward if business is good and delaying them if it is slower.

Besides flying to New York, Odyssey also plans to offer flights to Toronto, as well as other undisclosed Middle East and North American destinations.

The aircraft on order benefit from export credit agency support from Export Devel­opment Canada. Scott says Odyssey may finance the rest of the aircraft on a balance sheet, depending on "the appetite" of institu­tional investors.

Avoiding past mistakes

In Scott's view previous start-up carriers on this route have failed because of a combina­tion of poor business decisions and market conditions beyond their control.

"If you look back at those that came before us, they all launched almost simultane­ously - towards the end of one of the greatest bull runs and just before oil peaked at $147 a barrel," he says.

"When you're flying gas-guzzling equip­ment across the Atlantic, that's less than ideal, so for us we're talking about operating the most efficient, most cost-effective aircraft in the all-business products, transatlantic."

Besides, he adds, these three airlines had different business models altogether, and to compare them would be like comparing ap­ples and oranges.

"Silverjet [and] MAXJet [were] operating 767s out of less-than-ideal airports: Stan­sted and Luton," he says. "They were really targeting discretionary spenders who would otherwise fly economy or premium economy and were willing to trade up, and so they were really discount business products.

"Eos was fundamentally a full business-class product, but again they were operating 757s out of Stansted. They had a very high overhead base. I think that critically for us the CSeries being the first aircraft that's really been developed with airports like London City in mind, the economic and operating advantages that it provides versus incumbent aircraft - I think that's the real game changer for us."

Choosing the perfect airport

Scott is adamant London City Airport pre­sents significant timesaving advantages to the busy executives his airline is targeting. 

He claims that even if a customer's office were based in Paddington - the departure point of the Heathrow Express train - he or she would still save at least 90 minutes by fly­ing from London City instead.

Despite constantly singing the praises of London City, Scott is keeping tight-lipped on where Odyssey plans to land on the other side of the pond. Unlike London, New York does not have an airport located particularly close to its financial district in Manhattan, but rather only in the surrounding borough of Queens (LaGuardia and John F Ken­nedy International) and the neighbouring New Jersey city of Newark (Newark Liberty International).

"Unless we wanted to land in Central Park, there's no way to land in Manhattan itself," jokes Scott.

In terms of miles, LaGuardia is almost the same distance from Manhattan as London City is from the City of London, suggesting this could be Odyssey's choice, but Scott is giving little away. All he will say is that he has a "very specific target" in mind, and that it is "highly unlikely" Odyssey is going to fly into JFK, which is British Airways territory. 

"We're not going head to head with the incumbents," he says. "Of course, we're going to be flying from London City, but our plan is not to compete on a like-for-like basis - that's surely not our story. Part of what will come into that decision making is whether or not we launch with a partner, and what the views are and the intentions of that partner in terms of what that destination airport will be."

Can you crowdfund an airline?

Much of the media coverage on Odyssey has focused on the carrier's use of equity crowd­funding. Scott is more than ready to admit that it is a publicity stunt - or, rather, "more of a clever marketing strategy rather than a financial necessity".

He says: "It's not make-or-break invest­ment monies that we're trying to raise here. What we're really doing is we're raising our profile and we're using this as that market­ing tool… to give investors who typically wouldn't have the opportunity to participate in something like this."

Scott laughs at the suggestion that he could attempt to buy an aircraft through crowdfunding. The advantage, he argues, is less about the money and more about engaging a "captive audience" made up of those investing money in the airline, and who therefore will, theoretically, remain loyal to the business and make the transition from investor to customer.

Odyssey is offering 5% equity for £1 million, which may not seem like the most generous offer, but Scott says he's "very com­fortable" with the figure.

The carrier has already raised more than £5 million in seed capital, including hav­ing engaged Freedman & Partners to raise £2.185 million via the ThinCats platform in 2013, and the company will be targeting a raise of £60 million via a round of tradi­tional institutional fundraising in the first half of 2015. On August 28 Odyssey passed its $1 million target on CrowdCube.

"There is the opportunity for investors to come back and to actually suggest a different valuation," he says. "Nobody has done that yet.

"If you talk about crowdfunding to individuals, most individuals will think you're giving money away - you're pledging money away to something and you're going to get a gift or something in return. We've been very different. We're not talking about traditional crowdfunding; we're talking about equity crowdfunding, so it's more or less the same thing as raising money on AIM."

Private jet experience

Nothing can beat the luxury of flying in your own private jet, but Scott believes he can convince wealthy customers to trade down and use Odyssey instead without having to compromise on comfort.

"When you look at the economics of fly­ing a private jet, of course it makes sense on shorter-haul jumps around Europe and North America," he says. "People do it largely for convenience factor, and a lot of people obvi­ously own their jets.

"[But] there are a lot of jets that cannot do non-stop transatlantic and there are a lot of individuals that fly with different private jet firms where actually transiting the Atlantic becomes exorbitantly expensive - to the point that even several billionaires that I've come across will actually convert to commercial service to transit the Atlantic, simply because it's just such a colossal cost."

Odyssey is looking to cover the section of the business travel market that is not already covered by corporate contracts.

"We're not going after the giant corporate deals with Goldman Sachs and everyone else," says Scott.

"Those corporate contracts would be nice, but I think a lot of people don't realize that the vast majority of the market is not covered by [them]."

Adapt or die

According to a Wall Street Journal article published in July, the failure rate of airlines is so high that of 400 carriers authorized to operate in the US since 1978, only 68 are still flying. In order to succeed, Odyssey will need a strong business plan and rigorous leader­ship.

Scott's team is stacked with people with years of experience in the airline industry. The firm's executive director David Tait worked closely with Richard Branson on Virgin Atlantic; its chief financial officer John Bavisteris co-founded SilverJet; while execu­tive director Stephen Miller founded both DragonAir and Oasis Hong Kong.

Scott has a bold vision and a talented group of backers, but with so many fail­ures marring the recent history of start-up business-class carriers, can Odyssey succeed where others have failed?