Gurinder Dhillon: Jet detective
Gurinder Dhillon of Aircraft Recovery International talks us through the process of recovering a corporate aircraft – from locating it in a distant country, to delivering it safely back to the bank.
“We don’t want tears on the tarmac. A successful solution is one where everyone comes out smiling – where the client is happy, the bank is happy and the owner understands the situation.”
It starts with an e-mail or a casual phone call. Usually it’s from a lawyer representing a bank. Sometimes it’s an individual desperately trying to relocate his most prized possession.
Working out of a small office in Ealing, West London, Gurinder Dhillon then sets about gathering the scope of the situation. He’ll consult his team of colleagues or his associates in Santa Barbara. He’ll often use software tracking systems and will make calls to contacts within the industry.
This is what happens when an aircraft goes missing. A business jet, after all, is an expensive item to maintain. While repossession is rare, there are times when an owner can simply no longer afford to keep their aircraft. Unforeseen circumstances can result in a default of payment or the value of the aircraft to spiral into freefall. In such cases, the financier may wish to recover the aircraft, sell it on or charter it – but first of all, they have to find it. To do this, they call Gurinder Dhillon, a sharply dressed man in his 40s, who grew up with a fascination for aeroplanes, and now specialises in repossessing corporate aircraft.
“The nice thing about a jet is that no matter what size they are, they can be found,” Dhillon says confidently. “What we do is firstly locate it. Then we’ll go back to the bank through the lawyer and tell them the situation.” After the situation has been relayed through a conference call, it then is up to the bank to decide how they would like to proceed. Sometimes they’ll want the aircraft back, but other times, they may just want to open the channels for communication. This is precisely why Dhillon is careful to point out that he’s in the business of recovery rather than repossession.
“Sometimes what they want to do is engage in dialogue,” he says. “The reason for that is fundamentally because banks lend money, and they want the money back. They’re not really interested in the aircraft; they’re interested in the loan.
Given the nature of his profession, it could be tempting to describe Dhillon as a bailiff for corporate aircraft. In truth, he goes about his business in a manner that’s halfway between a modern day detective and a silver-tongued negotiator. In the two years since partnering-up with Ken Hill – who has been repossessing US aircraft for Aircraft Recovery International since the late 1960s – Dhillon says he’s seen a “slow growth” across the industry. “The market varies throughout the year,” he says. “The quietest period of the year is normally the first couple of months, and then it steadily picks up. We had a big peak post-Lehman’s, but after that, it’s been very steady.”
Are there cases where the owner will deliberately hide the plane from the lender?
“Sometimes, yes. We did that recently. We found a helicopter that was hidden in a barn on a friend’s polo estate in Hampshire. The bank had lost it for the best part of 10 months. They’d been writing through lawyers to start a dialogue, but it’d been sent to the SPV address and fundamentally, the bank did not know who the actual owner was. They knew who the directors were, but the director wasn’t the owner.
“Remember these are mobile assets, so they can move around. Unless you’re watching them all the time – and the bank may have quite a few hundred aircraft in its fleet – they can be very hard to find.”
How did you manage to find the helicopter?
“What was interesting in that situation was that it was flying under a group call sign, which made it very hard to trace. We had some contacts in the helicopter field and through that we were able to patch it all together. In some way it was an educated guess, but they lost it for 10 months and we found it in three days.”
Is there an element of detective work involved in a case like that?
“Each situation is different, but some of it requires you to do research.”
How exactly did you track its location?
“Every aircraft or helicopter leaves a trail. Helicopters are no different to people, because it’s a people’s business, and people tend to act in a certain way. We were able to work out – like a chess game – their move several moves ahead. We do it all the time, so we’re used to the trail.”
Once you found the aircraft, how did you go about recovering it?
“In that situation, the owner wasn’t actually aware that there was a problem, and that’s partly because he’s a very wealthy man – this was just one of his assets. What we did for the bank was facilitate communication with the owner to resolve the matter. The bank had instructed lawyers and so forth, but until someone came knocking on his door and he was made aware of the situation, the matter couldn’t be resolved.”
Did you knock on the door yourself?
“With my team, yes. We eventually seized it, we clamped it, and on the back of that, we engaged in communication. We’re now very good friends [laughs]. I’m not saying we go out every Friday night, but he’ll take my call any time I ring him.”
Once recovered, do you help to sell on the aircraft yourself?
“Some people look to do that themselves but I feel our specialisation is recovery. We certainly know good brokers and can advise the bank in that way. Another alternative is to charter the aircraft while it’s being sold.”
How many people make up your team?
“It all depends on the size of the aircraft and what’s involved, but normally you’re going to need engineers, pilots and an administrator. The big difference between our side and other people in the industry is that we manage the project and we bring in the resources. That, I think, is the key aspect. That makes us cost effective, and because we’ve got a wealth of experience, we can facilitate both a tough recovery, and also a solution.”
In the case of the helicopter, did you warn the owner that you were coming?
“In that case, we didn’t know who the guy was when we turned up, but in other times, you might have an MRO that is owed a lot of money, because it’s suddenly been left in their hands, and actually, they’re looking for someone to take care of the situation for them. We don’t want tears on the tarmac. For us, a successful solution is one where everyone comes out smiling, where the client is happy, the bank is happy and the owner understands the situation.”
What is the typical reaction of an owner? It must be quite an embarrassment to have you turn up.
“Generally there are two; one is relief, because this is sometimes part of a much bigger problem, and the other is shock. Usually it’s calm and they offer you a cup of tea – they’re business people after all.”
Have you ever had ‘tears on the tarmac?’
“Occasionally they do come out screaming; sometimes it’s more the wives than anyone else. I think where it comes from is anger. There’s anger because of miscommunication; they’ve tried to speak to the bank, or it’s all gone through lawyers, they haven’t been able to resolve the matter, and they just want to vent it. You emphasise with the situation, but you also know why it’s come to this. You can resolve it by behind humanistic about it, and because you’re a face to the problem. That’s a big issue, because up until then it’s always gone through lawyers and letters and so forth.”
What’s the timeframe for a recovery?
“On the last one we did, which was only a matter of weeks ago, we were given four days. We had four days to save a bank the best part of $4 million. In the end, we got it with four hours to spare.”
Where are you typically going to recover aircraft?
“America is our biggest market by far, but that’s partly because they have the biggest general aviation market. A lot happens in Europe too. The further North you go, you easier it gets, is the general rule.”
Has anyone used violence against you?
Is that ever in the back of your mind?
“No, because we do our homework beforehand. We assess the situation and for us, we want to be a cost effective solution and we want to be a corporate solution. We’re not looking to become this televised image of bounty hunters. That might sound glamorous, but it’s not what the business is about. The business is about retrieving an asset.”
How important is it to maintain a professional attitude?
“It’s very important. It instils confidence in our client, but also, it instils confidence in the team with you. If we’re dealing with pilots, then they’re assured that they’re with a professional organisation. When maintenance organisations are handing over logbooks to you, they feel confident that they’re handing it over to the right person.”
What advice would you give to a financier looking to repossess an aircraft?
“Don’t be hesitant. When a deal’s gone bad, it’s really gone bad; you just need to action it.”
How can a financier make it easier for you to locate their aircraft?
“We’ll always find it, it’s not an issue. It’s all well and good putting a tracker or a transponder on an aircraft, but if someone wants to remove it, they’ll remove it. It might take us a little longer, but we’ll find it. That’s what we do.”
What costs should be taking into consideration?
“There are legal fees, pilot fees, engineer’s fees. There will possibly be maintenance fees. If it’s been left too long, you can have problems. A classic example is you turn up and see the aircraft, and the engines haven’t been run since 2008. So, you turn around and fly back. The thing about an aircraft is it has to be used. They cost more when they’re sitting on the ground than when they’re in the air.
In a case like that, is there’s nothing you can do?
“You can, but it’s just not uneconomic to recover. Then, it’s scrapped. It will effectively be sold for spare parts, because physically moving it is going to cost us more money. We had one recently where we turned up and found that the aircraft had begun a maintenance inspection. The problem was we didn’t know whether they’d just started or just finished, because there were some bits left that hadn’t been put on. The trouble is tracking all the records. The records for an aircraft are worth – and this is a very ballpark figure – 20 to 25% of the value of the actual aircraft.
“You need to know where the paperwork is in order to know the status of the aircraft. If you don’t know the status of your aircraft, its value is hugely reduced. Once you’ve found the aircraft, that’s fine, because the aircraft in unlikely to move. What’s likely to move are the records. You need to make sure you’ve got a handle on those to know the value. And again, time is of the essence.”