For hostess turned executive, sky's the limit for business jet business

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 February, 2011, 12:00am

Jackie Wu Wing-sze, an air hostess turned business jet executive, has quickly climbed the corporate ladder even in a male-dominated industry.

In January, Wu, 34, was appointed the chief operating officer of Hong Kong Jet, a newly established business jet operator backed by HNA Group, the fourth-largest airline company on the mainland.

It has been a rapid advancement for someone who began her aviation career as a flight attendant for Cathay Pacific Airways 11 years ago.

'I wanted to be a doctor when I was young, but my scores in chemistry were not high enough to allow me to enrol in medical school,' Wu said.

Instead, she studied biomedical science at the University of Liverpool. Pharmacy was a logical choice but she rejected that.

'I am a people person and cannot stand spending most of my time in the laboratory,' she said. 'That's why I became a flight attendant.'

Wu rose through the ranks to purser at Cathay, before Tag Aviation UK in 2006 selected her to become a VIP flight attendant on its business aircraft. A year later, Tag promoted her to manager of cabin services with Tag Aviation Asia, a new Asia-Pacific head office for the Geneva-based company.

In helping set up the office, Wu was involved in preparing the complex air operator's certificate application, which is required of any new commercial jet company. She compiled a 327-page cabin safety manual within three weeks.

'She is definitely a career woman - a perfectionist who always ranks work as her top priority,' said Doris Ho, a manager of cabin safety services for Hong Kong Jet. 'When I check my e-mails every morning, it is not uncommon to see that Jackie was sending out e-mails at two or three o'clock in the morning.'

Wu said she learned about aircraft acquisitions and delivery by hard work and constantly asking questions. But it came at a price - with only about four hours' sleep a night and not much social life.

'There are some advantages to being a woman when it comes to getting help and advice from some industry veterans or someone who is senior,' Wu said. 'However, at the same time, some suppliers or industry counterparts have looked down on me because of my age and sex.'

But discrimination and the cold shoulder have not cooled her enthusiasm for the business.

Wu is known for getting mainland flight-plan approvals within hours, when it can take days for other operators. And because of her connections with private jet manufacturers, she can speed up aircraft delivery schedules.

Wu said she could also get deals on pre-owned aircraft, which can help her clients save US$2 million to US$3 million per acquisition on private jets that can cost US$10 million to US$60 million, depending on whether they are used or new.

Wu left Tag Aviation in 2009 when a group of former passenger clients asked her to help them take delivery of several private jets including a used Dassault Falcon 2000 and a new Dassault Falcon 7X in February.

Getting the 14-year-old Falcon 2000 was challenging. For three weeks, Wu pored through technical log books for telling details, such as all the maintenance that had been done on the plane.

'I agreed to take up the post as [chief operating officer] of Hong Kong Jet as HNA Group shared the same vision as I had about the tremendous outlook for business aviation in Asia,' she said.

HNA had long contemplated setting up an overseas business jet company to complement Deer Jet, its well-established business jet business on the mainland, in a bid to expand its footprint in Asia.

Hong Kong Jet has submitted its air operator application to the Civil Aviation Department and expects to get approval by August, Wu said.

The first of the four Gulfstream 550s, priced at US$50 million each, for chartering will arrive by May, with the rest to be delivered by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the firm will start an aircraft management service for private jet owners, providing crew training and maintenance service and aircraft acquisition consultancy service.

'We are confident we can take 50 per cent of the market share in Hong Kong in the next two to three years,' Wu said. She predicted that there will be about 80 business jets operating in the city by then, compared with fewer than 50 now.

But at least one competitor thinks that may be overly ambitious.

'The infrastructure in the Business Aviation Centre (BAC) at Chek Lap Kok cannot handle such dramatic growth of a single company,' said an executive from a business jet firm who asked not to be named. 'There is a lack of parking spaces, taxiways and hangar facilities for corporate jets, which will limit growth.'

However, that limitation will be somewhat relieved when the third hangar at the BAC is completed next year.

Although now an executive, Wu said she valued her early experience as an air hostess, especially on private jets. 'Passengers can easily get obsessed with private jet service, once they have experienced it, because it is even better than first class but with similar prices,' she said.

But being an air hostess on a private jet is more demanding. Wu had to take care of everything on board, apart from flying the plane. 'The air hostess literally can be called the butler in mid-air as she is solely responsible for everything on board,' she said.

Before an important client gets on the plane, the air hostess may have to locate and arrange supply of specific foods, regardless of whether the plane is in Angola, Kiev or Beijing.

Wu once was told to restore order on a flight from Beijing on which an unhappy Russian ended up screaming at an air hostess because he did not get the drink he had ordered. Although intimidated, Wu took over the flight on short notice.

The Russian had requested Calvados, a strong apple brandy from Normandy in France, sushi and some Korean cold dishes for the next leg of the flight. Since Calvados is rarely consumed in Asia, especially in Beijing, Wu had to search 12 hotels before finding some. She eventually discovered an already opened bottle of Calvados at a six-star hotel.

The unhappy Russian quickly became a contented client once Wu arrived with the half bottle.

'I am proud of my background as an air hostess, although some people tease me about it,' Wu said. 'It made me understand the needs of my clients and helped me put myself in their shoes.'