Special Achievement Award: Brian Johnson and the launch team of the Isle of Man Aircraft Registry
When Brian Johnson joined the Isle of Man Registry in March 2006 there was not a lot there apart from a business plan that had been approved by the UK Government, as Contracting State to ICAO. “The Isle of Man really wanted to do it and clearly was looking for a small, bald director of civil aviation,” says Johnson. “Everyone else they interviewed must have been tall.”
Johnson joined after 13 years at the UK Civil Aviation Authority. In his last role he had been head of the flight operations inspectorate. This experience at the regulator gave him specialist knowledge and understanding but, just as importantly for the Isle of Man, he had also had a commercial aviation career as a flying instructor, chief pilot, training captain and aircraft type rating examiner.
The Isle of Man government was keen that the registry would provide good customer service and not be run by bureaucrats. It already had a successful ship registry and wanted an aircraft registry to help diversify its economy by increasing business opportunities for the corporate service providers and lawyers on the island rather than making money for the Government.
Johnson’s theory was that, as all registries were bound by ICAO rules standards, the only way the Isle of Man could differentiate itself was by offering better service and charging less for it. For example, rather than charging a percentage of an aircraft’s value when registering a mortgage, the Isle of Man charges £200 ($300) regardless of size -the activity is seen as an administrative task.
“I was told whatever you do, do not make any profits. So we could be the cheapest registry,” says Johnson, “and then a bit like the low-cost airlines we did start to make a profit.”
Amazingly, Johnson launched the registry on his own. He started marketing the Isle of Man’s benefits to lawyers, banks and manufacturers and he was helped both by both the Isle of Man government and by many private sector companies on the island that wanted the registry to be a success.
One of the attractions of the register for owners is the M prefix that the Isle of Man offers. Owners like the idea of aircraft with registrations like M-AGIC, M-ONEY, M-ICRO. (Before the registry signed up its first aircraft, Johnson sat in the pub with some friends and worked out which five letter registrations would not be allowed, including a certain French word ending in ERDE.)
Before the launch the government hoped that the new registry would list 12 aircraft in its first 12 months. Johnson (and, later, his team) smashed these targets.
On May 1, 2007, the day the register opened for business, he added the first two aircraft. On the second day he added a third. After just 48 hours 25% of the first year’s target had been achieved. By the end of April 2008, the Isle of Man had registered 51 aircraft. At the end of the second year it had added a further 73 and, after three year, had registered 243 aircraft.
It quickly became clear that demand was stronger than Johnson had expected. “When I was on my own I rarely disagreed with any decision I made. Although they were not always the right decisions,” says Johnson. The registry needed more people.
Mark Manton, now operations manager, was the second employee and quickly set about registering aircraft. “Mark arrived at absolutely the right time and charged in and started registering aircraft with one folder for each aircraft,” says Johnson. “We then took on Jane Lee as a temp and she revolutionised everything by putting the folders into alphabetical order. All I did was point everyone in the right direction and they did all the work. Wendy Turner joined next, then Gary Raby, Sherilyn Kelly and Hayley Rourke”
Apart from Johnson the entire team is still on board (Lee was quickly made permanent).
Hartley Elder joined in 2008 to be Chief Surveyor and to manage a forthcoming ICAO audit which the Isle of Man registry needed to pass. As he came from ICAO in Montreal where he was technical officer – airworthiness, he was uniquely qualified for this, and the registry passed. “Jane, revolutionized the registry’s organization by putting the aircraft folders in alphabetical order,” says Elder. “I came along and made sure the inside of the folders were all in order.”
Despite being less than five years old the Isle of Man is about to register it 450th aircraft. It is the world’s seventh largest private aircraft registry and is on track to overtake the UK Civil Aviation Authority for the number of private jets on its registry. As well as adding around 10 aircraft a month the registry is now surveying one aircraft every day renewing Certificates of Airworthiness.
It has established the Isle of Man as an important business jet centre – despite the state of the wider business aviation market.
In August 2011 Johnson chose not to renew his contract, but to move on to Appleby a leading off-shore law firm. “I was tempted to stay but my baby was walking by then,” he says.
Elder replaced Johnson as director of civil aviation in September 2011. As the island’s second director, he faces a different challenge to those that faced Johnson. Johnson had to build a team and convince people that the Isle of Man made sense for their aircraft. His focus was very much on growing the register.
“Brian and Mark built a fantastic team of people that really care about the registry and our customers,” says Elder. “As you get bigger it is more difficult to offer a bespoke experience and that is our challenge now.”