Although the provincial government of Hainan is a shareholder in HNA, the group is largely private.
Hongkong Jet could set up a fifth operation, in mainland China, Buchholz says. If it does, the company will surely have to play corporate politics with care, since the mainland is Deerjet's territory. Hongkong Jet says that if it moves into mainland China it will offer a service different from Deerjet's.
HNA does eventually want the new company to help Deerjet reach international service standards, but Buchholz says that for the moment Hongkong Jet is too busy with expansion. He confirms that achieving exceptional service quality was a key reason for setting up his new company.
And it is quite a new company, having received its air operator's certificate in November 2011. By August it had 11 aircraft under management, meaning it maintains them and provides pilots and cabin attendants. Those 11 range from a Hawker 4000 to an Airbus A330. One more aircraft, owned by the company, is used for charters. The managed fleet is growing at about 10 aircraft a year.
One might have thought such growth would unnerve Hong Kong's Civil Aviation Department, but Hongkong Jet was designed to expand rapidly—another sign of its role as the kernel of a larger business. “It is a new company but it is not a new team,” says Buchholz. Many of the top managers had worked for a similar Hong Kong company, Metrojet, earlier in their careers. The CEO, chief operating officer and maintenance boss are among them. In its early stages the company is deliberately overstaffed, with 73 people, including 23 maintainers. It helps, too, that some of the aircraft Hongkong Jet now manages, transferred from other operators, have come with the crews and maintainers who were already operating them.
As a subsidiary of a Chinese mainland company, Hongkong Jet is remarkable in having no mainland Chinese employees. Buchholz is Norwegian; the rest of the staff come mainly from various Western countries, Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.
Establishing subsidiaries that are managed by well-paid foreigners is hardly something that Chinese companies instinctively do, even if it is now not unusual for them to buy mature foreign businesses and leave all or most of the managers and workers in place. But the simple truth, which HNA seems to have recognized, is that attention to detail is not a common habit of managers and workers in China; it is, after all, still a developing country.
Some Chinese businesses produce excellent goods or services, but the management effort in getting to that level is usually greater than in most developed countries. Also, a company must know what counts as a good service if it is to provide one; that is not so easy when one is moving into a new business activity and when the social background of managers and workers gives them little ability to judge.
In business aviation, this is showing up not just in the imperfect cabin service typical of Chinese bizjet operators. The aircraft can also be less than spotlessly clean. After a few years of service, their costly wooden cabin fittings might look ill-treated and overdue for new upholstery. The pilot may not bother with the courtesy of telling passengers about the flight plan.