‘We have passed the tipping point’

Vista Group started 2022 with two major acquisitions. But you can expect more. Thomas Flohr, its founder and chairman, is growing the company to meet what he thinks is a new market. And this is why he does not want to go public. Words: Alasdair Whyte

Thomas Flohr: “Demand has bounced back faster than anyone thought it could…”


‘We have passed the tipping point’

Vista Group started 2022 with two major acquisitions. But you can expect more. Thomas Flohr, its founder and chairman, is growing the company to meet what he thinks is a new market. And this is why he does not want to go public. Words: Alasdair Whyte

Thomas Flohr: “Demand has bounced back faster than anyone thought it could…”

LONDON, DECEMBER 2021: It is dark and cold in the street. Inside, in a T-shirt and jeans, Thomas Flohr is gesticulating to a meeting room filled with sales executives. Many of the dozen or so new recruits are meeting him for the first time.

You can feel his energy despite the closed windows. He is explaining what he thinks are Vista’s unique strengths compared with its competitors.

But he is not telling them everything. As always, Flohr is holding back some surprises. Only a few people at Vista know that he has just started working on two landmark acquisitions – Europe’s Air Hamburg and US’ Jet Edge International – which will close in the next few months.

The Air Hamburg acquisition adds 44 aircraft, including Lineage 1000E, Dassault Falcon 7X, and Embraer Legacy models. Jet Edge brings another 125 jets – the world’s largest dedicated Gulfstream and Bombardier Challenger charter fleets. When the deals close, Vista’s fleet will reach 350 aircraft.

“Demand has bounced back faster than anyone thought it could and we have passed the tipping point when demand has accelerated,” says Flohr. “Ultimately the business model we have talked about has been proved. It has come through and now we are just at the beginning of a new market.”

Air Hamburg and Jet Edge also both fit with Vista’s business model where aircraft do not return to bases. “Jet Edge has a similar floating fleet model to us including a large fleet of Challengers. They have also invested in the aircraft, if you change the carpet, you have an interior identical to a VistaJet aircraft. It is a very similar business model to Vista,” says Flohr. “Air Hamburg has extremely impressive people, a solid operation and culture. It is run with precision and the same values as Vista. It also has an identical floating-fleet business model.”

In April 2022 Vista Global issued a $500m five-year unsecured bond to finance the Air Hamburg acquisition. The bond offers a 7.875% coupon. Vista had originally aimed to raise $440m but upsized it due to investor demand. The entire selling process took just five hours. This followed on from a $1bn unsecured eight-year bond in January that was five times oversubscribed.

“Thomas had a very specific vision and has built a company around it. He has taken risks to follow this vision, but they have played out,” said Nick Fazioli, MD and head of Commercial Aerospace and Aviation at Jefferies, the investment bank that has worked with Vista and led multiple bonds. “In this market, supply is key and Vista has supply.”

One big difference between the two acquisitions is that with Jet Edge, Vista has bought around 40 aircraft – with the rest managed. With Air Hamburg, he has only bought the operating company. Air Hamburg’s owner Simon Ebert and other investors will lease the aircraft to Vista.

“There is so much demand in the US for people who want to join Vista’s programmes and we do not believe in saying no to people who want to fly with us like some do,” said Flohr, digging at rivals who paused sales. “These acquisitions let us meet that demand.”

The deal is significant. At the start of 2022 there were 23,266 business jets worldwide, according to data from WINGX, the data and analysis company. But of these, just 6,532 business jets were operated under Commercial Air Transport certification – so legally available for charter.

However, many of these 6,532 aircraft are owned by fractional companies (899 aircraft), individuals and corporates that rarely or never make them available for charter. When they do, a significant number of owners also want to have the ability to approve any request.

WINGX says that there are 2,682 branded charter aircraft – effectively dedicated to charter – available worldwide. With its latest two acquisitions, WINGX says Vista now controls 16.8% of the total branded charter aircraft fleet.

Vista acquired XOJET in 2018, online broker and membership company JetSmarter in 2019, Red Wing in 2020 and charter broker Apollo Jets in 2021. Apollo was also the major investor in operator Talon Air which had 35 managed aircraft. Apart from JetSmarter, which it acquired to build its technology platform, the rest have all traded under their own brands using Vista systems. This is also the plan with Air Hamburg. Jet Edge, however, could be merged into the VistaJet brand. Bill Papariella, CEO and co-founder of Jet Edge, will become chief business officer of Vista.

“When large operator groups buy operators – like Vista with Redwing or Talon – brokers say they are quickly losing access to fleets that they used to rely on for on demand charter or jet card flights,” says Doug Gollan, founder of Private Jet Card Comparisons, which helps buyers choose between different jet cards. “Vista is keeping the aircraft for its customers and taking them out of the market. This is having a big impact on charter rates.”

In 2020 Flohr said that the integration of Red Wing, Apollo and Talon Air was helped by Covid as everyone realised how serious the situation was. He also feels that Air Hamburg and Jet Edge have similar cultures.

“Air Hamburg is a world-class operator with great people,” says Flohr. “We want the team to stay and for Air Hamburg to keep growing. We all speak the same language – both literally and in dealing with customers.”

Air Hamburg’s founders Floris Helmers and Alexander Lipsky launched a flying school in 2001 called Flugschule Hamburg. They kept receiving charter requests and in 2005 launched Air Hamburg, initially focused on single engine aircraft. They also founded a café at the airport which grew into a private lounge, handling and catering business. Vista customers can now use this lounge. The flight school is not included in the sale.

Jet Edge and Vista look more different. Vista Global is European, Jet Edge is very much from Los Angeles and Hollywood – but both share a laser focus on selling charter. “The cultures are very similar. Bill is a truly gifted entrepreneur who has built a great business and we want him and his team to stay with us,” says Flohr. "I want Bill next to me."

Papariella, a former film producer who also worked at Sentient Jet and Marquis Jet, launched Jet Edge in 2011. In 2019 he raised $60m in private equity from Solace Capital and used this to grow quickly – including launching Jet Edge Partners, an in-house aircraft brokerage led by Kevin White. It used some of this cash to buy Ohio operator Jet Select in January 2020. Jet Select had the largest floating fleet of Bombardier Challenger aircraft. Jet Edge’s management team also replicated Jet Select’s way of sharing charter revenues with owners.

Floating assets: Vista’s acquisition of Air Hamburg and Jet Edge earlier this year both fit with the company’s floating fleet model.

At the same time Jet Edge also grew fast organically. Despite few aircraft for sale, White consistently found Gulfstream and Bombardier Challenger aircraft to add to the fleet – both owned and managed. These were used to fill demand created by Jonah Adler, Jet Edge’s chief commercial officer, who built strong relationships with brokers and launched direct programmes and increased demand for charter generally.

KKR saw this growth and lent the operator $150m in June 2021 – which Jet Edge used to buy more aircraft. In September 2021 it then invested $40m in equity and bought a further $75m stake in January 2022. Vista Global is buying out all of Jet Edge's investors.

Vista will acquire Jet Edge’s maintenance facilities and lounges at Van Nuys and Teterboro Airport. XOJET Aviation will acquire a majority stake of the Part 135 certificates of Jet Select and Western Air Charter (the Jet Edge Air Operator Certificate) to meet US foreign ownership rules.

“We have stayed true to our model,” says Flohr. “If people want to fly on-demand they can go to XO, but we also want to be able to serve people who want guaranteed availability and price. Jet Edge allows us to add aircraft for customers on our programme. We are also continuing to look at other opportunities for acquisitions.”

Flohr is looking for more acquisitions because he believes demand for business aviation has fundamentally shifted. He thinks that now individuals and corporates have discovered the advantages they will not leave the market.

On track to win: Thomas Flohr at the Le Mans 24 hour race.

St Moritz, May 2021: The tipping point for business aviation

Like everyone, Flohr took time to understand the enormity of Covid-19. In fact, when cases first hit Europe, he moved to the US thinking it might not be hit as badly, before later returning to his unique house near St Moritz in Switzerland.

During lockdowns, Flohr followed a strict routine: getting up at the same time, eating breakfast and then walking up the steps to his office next to his house. He would come down again for lunch. After eating he went back to work and then returned for a Zoom workout with his personal trainer in his home gym – keeping fit for his favourite sport of motor racing. It was the first time in more than 30 years that he had spent a month in the same country.

VistaJet kept flying – including offering empty legs to governments – but demand was hit by closed borders. He and Ian Moore, VistaJet’s chief commercial officer (CCO), decided to use the time to call as many customers as possible. “We eventually spoke to more than 100 clients early into lockdown. They were very relaxed chats – we were not trying to sell anything. But very quickly we knew that huge demand was coming. They were saying ‘I cannot wait to travel’ or ‘I know there are problems or opportunities abroad that I need to get to,’” says Flohr. “We also knew that airlines were not coming back quickly. An airline needs load factors and a network, and this takes time to build. Business aviation is the opposite.”

But even with this insight, the speed of the rebound surprised them. In 2021 Flohr says that global flight hours were up 57% compared with 2019. VistaJet sold over 22,000 annual subscription hours in 2021 – up 90% compared with 2020 figures. Sales of all memberships were up 59% compared with 2019 (although it is worth noting that the company’s fleet also grew significantly in this time).

Flohr started buying aircraft early. “Competitors laughed when I ordered Challenger 350s in 2020 [Vista Global was the buyer in a 20 Challenger 350 order that was announced as being to an undisclosed customer in September 2020],” says Flohr. “But now you cannot get new aircraft.”

As well as the order, Vista Global bought 30 pre-owned aircraft in 2021. At the start of the 2021, Flohr created what he calls an internal ‘growth centre’ with a financial analyst, a market analyst, legal counsel and a salesperson. Their sole task is to find aircraft and buy them.

Vista ended 2021 with more than 200 aircraft. And its new deliveries kept coming.

“As soon as you think you are part of the establishment, it is the beginning of the end.”

Farnborough Airport, November 2021: Going Global

Moore is clearly enjoying showing one of VistaJet’s first Global 7500s to a group of journalists for the first time. Later that day he will be doing the same thing in Frankfurt. The next day he will be in Paris before flying to the Dubai Airshow. The Global 7500 started service in April but has been in such demand that this is the first time they have had the time to display it.

Moore, who joined VistaJet in 2010, is having fun. “As a CCO, your biggest thing when a new aircraft comes on board is to sell it as soon as possible,” he says. “The Global 7500 has been incredibly popular. Customers truly understand the aircraft when they see the cabin, they love the range and they love the very low cabin noise. They are also booking a lot of hours on it.”

To manage peak days – which both Flohr and Moore say are getting harder to predict – VistaJet does not sell between 25% and 30% of each G7500. When this is not being used it sells this capacity into the spot charter market. Which is also getting higher rates due to the shortage of supply.

In March 2022, Bombardier celebrated its 100th Global 7500 delivery by delivering VistaJet’s 10th Global 7500. Vista plans to have 17 Global 7500s operating by the end of the year. “It may have been delayed, but what Bombardier delivered is way above our expectations when we signed for it,” says Flohr. “We are flying it 17 hours and 7,700 nm range, which is what large corporates want. They want to fly Abu Dhabi to Sydney.”

He says the first four Global 7500s have averaged 1,400 hours in the first year.

By ordering back in 2012, Flohr also got an attractive launch price. “When customers ask if they can have a discount because of this, I say, ‘Yes, I bought them at launch price and I can give you that price as long as you also sell me the apartment you bought in New York in 2012 at that price as well.”

Moore also credits the rest of the team for how they have managed the Covid crisis. “Vista has entrepreneurial DNA throughout the company,” says Moore. “You can often have conflicts between sales and ops [operations] but we don’t have that. Our ops team is always looking to solve problems and make flights happen and they show that every day.”

Why Flohr is still fighting the establishment

To understand what motivates Thomas Flohr, you need to look back before he launched the company.

IF YOU WANT TO annoy Thomas Flohr, tell him he is part of the business aviation establishment. It goes against everything he believes in. “As soon as you think you are the establishment, it is the beginning of the end,” he says. “And then it’s the end.”

From its launch in 2004, with two aircraft, Flohr has always seen himself as a challenger.

First as an outsider looking to change charter. As a start-up offering programmes against Berkshire Hathaway’s NetJets fractional product. As a fully-owned, floating fleet operator competing against European aircraft management companies using the client’s aircraft. As a European daring to enter the dominant US business jet market.

Flohr, whose passion is motor racing, thrives on competition. There is nothing that motivates him more than a competitor dismissing his company or a sceptic telling him his business model will not work. Which many have. It gives him energy. It has also worked for his entire career – well before he launched VistaJet.

After being rejected for pilot training at Lufthansa, Flohr’s first job was at Comdisco; a US computer and technology leasing company. Comdisco was launched by Ken Pontikes, a former IBM salesperson in 1969 with a $5,000 loan. It listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1971. Flohr joined in 1985 when the business was growing fast and companies were desperate for new technology. But Comdisco had to compete against two dominant players: IBM Credit and GE Capital. “IBM had 98% market share of computers then, but we still competed with them on every deal,” says Flohr. “It taught me how vulnerable ‘perceived market leaders’ are to new entrants.”

Flohr was named global president of Comdisco Finance in 1997. Comdisco bought computers directly from manufacturers and then leased them to customers. It also often took older technology from customers. One of its favourite strategies was to buy older IBM assets just after the computer company announced a new model. Not only did it get discounts, but it was also betting on new launches being delayed and increased demand until shipments to customers started. New product delays are not unique to aviation.

Pontikes died in 1994 at the age of 54. In 1999 the board picked his son Nicholas Pontikes as CEO. Nicholas, who had been an investment banker, switched the focus to investing in web start-ups and tried to create a high-speed internet provider. Flohr disagreed with this strategy and left in 2000. He also sold his stock options before the meltdown. Comdisco filed for Chapter 11 in 2001.

After the restructuring Flohr bought the Swiss and German subsidiaries creating a company called Comprendium Finance (Hewlett Packard bought the US assets). He sold Comprendium in 2011 to focus on VistaJet – becoming CEO rather than chair.

Pontikes had a reputation for watching costs. And so does Flohr. He may have a lifestyle familiar to many of his Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals clients: collecting art; finishing second in his class at the Le Mans 24 hour race; the silver grey, red-striped 44m (140ft) Baglietto superyacht named after his daughter Nina (now Princess Nina of Greece and Denmark) and a famous house in Switzerland. But underneath, Flohr has as much in common with his corporate customers – especially chief finance officers.

He spends much more time understanding and negotiating the liquidity facility on VistaJet’s latest aircraft securitisation than he does choosing wine. He may sign billion-dollar aircraft deals, but he cares about every wasted cent.

“I regularly get calls from him questioning tiny details,” says one supplier. “Obviously I take it seriously, but I do sometimes think why are you calling about this when you have hundreds of employees? Surely this is too small for you to get involved in? But it isn’t.”

Flohr was introduced to the benefits of business aviation when at Comdisco. He continued to use aircraft after he left the company but found it a frustrating experience. In 2003 he decided to buy his own Learjet. Jahid Fazal-Karim, then senior vice president of sales at Bombardier, sold him the aircraft starting a long relationship with the Canadian manufacturer.

He painted the aircraft silver with a red stripe. When he was not using the aircraft, he made it available for charter. Rather than returning the aircraft to its base every night, he paid for the crew to stay in hotels. Demand was strong, so he bought a second aircraft. In 2004 he launched VistaJet by buying the small operator, convinced that this floating fleet idea worked.

Launching VistaJet

Flohr says he did not launch VistaJet in 2004 because he just wanted to build a company. He wanted to change business aviation. After flying as a charter customer and then buying a Learjet for his own use, Flohr thought most people were getting a bad experience.

He believed that ownership did not make sense to most customers; that fractional ownership was too complicated and too expensive; and that many charter flights used tatty aircraft with poor customer service. His solution was selling guaranteed availability rather than aircraft. VistaJet sold programmes where customers bought hours in advance.

VistaJet aims to keep back around 25%-30% of the flying hours on each aircraft so they ensure availability for programme members. When the aircraft was not being used by programme clients, they were available for on-demand charter.

Joining a programme was easy – they had simple three-page contracts – and VistaJet was also prepared to be flexible.

Not everyone agreed with his plan. Many people questioned how he could compete with managed aircraft, where owners use charter to contribute to operating costs. Flohr, with his experience of depreciating information technology assets, was convinced it could work.

Going Global

There were even more sceptics when he switched VistaJet’s fleet from smaller Learjets to large Bombardier Challengers and Global aircraft.

In 2012 when he placed the world’s largest order – a deal for 56 new Globals – many doubted that VistaJet would take delivery of all of them. But it has taken more.

At the time, VistaJet was extremely reliant on Europe and what Flohr called ‘frontier economies’ – Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States, Africa and the Middle East. VistaJet specialised in flying oil executives between Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Lagos, Nigeria – a trip that would take days using airlines.

It was basing aircraft in the US. Before this he had often dismissed the US market as being “commoditised” and not of interest. This was not true in 2013 because it based five aircraft, operated by Jet Aviation, in the US. “Do you think I’d go out and tell everybody my plans? Why would I tell everybody what I want to do, I’d rather go and do it first!”, said Flohr in a 2017 Corporate Jet Investor interview.

Between 2013 and 2016, VistaJet grew fast going from 27 aircraft to 72 jets as Flohr tried to build a global network. “We were very, very profitable in 2012 but we needed to build the global network,” says Flohr. “We also did not have the tech at that time.”

The backbone of Vista Global’s technology came from its acquisition of JetSmarter in 2019.

Tailwinds for VistaJet: “We are happy to be private …”, says Thomas Flohr.


2004 – Launches with two Learjets.

2007 – VistaJet launches hourly subscription, now has seven aircraft. Places order for 11 Challenger 605s, 13 Learjet 60XRs and 11 Learjet 85s. – It also buys Bombardier’s SkyJet International business.

2008 – Bases two aircraft in Asia.

2010 – At the Farnborough Air Show VistaJet orders four Global-Express XRS and two Challenger 605s.

2012 – Places order for 25 Global 5000s, 25 Global 6000s and six Global 8000s (later converted to G7500s). With options for 40 Global 5000s, 40 Global 6000s and six Global 8000s. At list prices (which VistaJet did certainly not pay), it was worth up to $7.8bn.

2013 – Reaches 45 aircraft. Bases first aircraft in the US. Commits to 20 firm Challenger 350 orders with 20 options.

2017 – Rhone Capital invests $200m for a minority stake. – Issues $300m bond to fund aircraft.

2018 – Acquires XOJET adding 43 aircraft.

2019 – Buys online broker and membership programme JetSmarter.

2020 – Bombardier announces order of 10 new Challenger 350 aircraft – VistaJet revealed as customer in April 2021. – Acquires Red Wing Aviation, a light jet jet operator with 15 Citation Jets.

2021 – Acquires charter broker Apollo Jets and its stake in management company Talon Air, adding 35 aircraft. – Orders 20 Challenger 3500 aircraft (VistaJet revealed as customer in May 2022). – Commits to being carbon neutral by 2025.

2022 – Agrees to buy Air Hamburg and Jet Edge International. When closed, it will give Vista Global 350 aircraft.

When Sergey Petrossov launched JetSmarter he said he wanted to revolutionise business aviation. He may only have been 23 but he attracted strong investment and launched an app that eventually allowed 15,000 annual members to fly for free on short flights.

JetSmarter attracted huge amounts of publicity, but was also attacked heavily by many people in the industry. “I would say it is because we are the most disruptive. People are terrified about customers learning about it,” said Petrossov in a Corporate Jet Investor interview in 2018. “If a fractional owner or jet card customer really learns how the custom-shuttle product works, that is dangerous. What the competition is telling everybody is false.”

Many were surprised when Vista acquired the company. Flohr says it was logical. “JetSmarter’s technology was much better than anything out there,” says Flohr. And Petrossov, who still works for Vista, was also fighting against the status quo.

Flohr has taken huge personal risks to launch and grow Vista. He has personally guaranteed loans and signed billion-dollar orders without customers. But they were all calculated. And in 2021 they paid off.

As the business continues to grow, it is hard to see how the company cannot be seen as a mature market leader. Flohr dismisses this. “I am not the establishment. If you are not humble you do not get to see the next opportunity,” he says. “I am going to re-invent the concept of the establishment.”

Alasdair Whyte, Editor-in-chief, Corporate Jet Investor