By Humphrey Carter
WITH their business heads in the clouds but their feet firmly on the ground, Jemma Meeson is currently working as her father Philip Meeson's co-pilot, helping promote his airline, and its new Manchester to Palma route all over Majorca. is one of Britain's fastest growing low cost airlines, with the former RAF pilot and British aerobatic champion Meeson having hit the market just right when he started operating daily flights to Palma out of Leeds/Bradford, now the airline's main operating base. Meeson is a shrewd businessman, but flying is in his blood, as well as his daughter's.
Meeson, the son of an RAF mechanic, followed his father's footsteps and trained as an RAF pilot before funding and leading the Marlboro aerobatics team all over Europe. He was British aerobatic champion for five years. However, while looping the loop and screaming across the skies, his first forray into business was importing Citroen 2CVs from Belgium and selling them from a plot on the King's Road. That eventually became the main BMW showroom and before long grew into one of West London's biggest dealerships. Then, in 1983, he decided to move into serious business and bought the Channel Express Group, with its two planes, which specialised in flying flowers from the Channel Islands to mainland Britain. That airline is now a scheduled operator based in Bournemouth and their freight planes can be transformed into passenger aircraft in just 45 minutes. He threw all his time and energy into the business and then three years ago set up, “the north's low cost airline”, at Leeds/Bradford and has now moved into Manchester airport with a host of new routes on the horizon, including Palma next summer. Meeson, who was ironically stuck on a stranded train from Manchester to London when he spoke to the Bulletin, is a “hands-on” businessman who now runs the Dart Group, which includes two airlines and four freight companies, as a family set-up. Everybody knows him and he knows absolutely everything about everyone who works for him and everything he owns. He not only flies planes, but has also built them in his time, and he is continually flying his routes, meeting the passengers and making sure the crew are happy. That energy and character filters all the way down from the boardroom, through the cabin and to the passengers.
Jemma has just graduated from university but, after the first year on an RAF bursary, is neither going into the RAF nor the family business, just yet. She says that, since she has been in Majorca, she and her promotional teams are being constantly approached by grateful passengers eager to express their satisfaction with the airline and their services, especially the Leeds/Bradford to Palma operation. Jemma has just graduated in criminology and social policy and is currently waiting for her “security clearance” before starting work as a councillor at Wandsworth category A prison, helping prisoners either on long sentences or with addictions to drugs and alcohol. She will be a “key holder” which means she will have exclusive access to a whole wing of hardened criminals. “It is something I feel very strongly about, helping rehabilitate criminals, anyway, I don't think my father would emply me,” she said. “He's a self made man, very focussed and has very clear ideas. “He works seven days a week, 24 hours a day. He gets up every morning at 4am and goes cycling with his Mickey Mouse bell round Knightsbridge. He lives to work, I would rather work to live,” she said. They do nevertheless live together at the moment and both admit they bounce off each other and are constantly discussing the business and new routes.
However, her very “proud” father said that “she's still young,” hinting that perhaps one day she will eventually follow in his footsteps.
Those footsteps may well be gigantic by the time Jemma decides it is time for change in her professional life.
Meeson admits that he is looking to expand's operations further, “the low cost airline industry is still in its very early days,” he said. “There is still massive growth potential and we're constantly looking at new routes and ways to increase our frequencies. “More and more Britons are cashing in on the long weekend city break trips and the residential tourism industry is a growth sector. “Spain is becoming the Florida or California of Britain with more people buying holiday homes and an ever increasing number of professionals and families relocating and commuting back to the UK,” he explained. Philip Meeson can also see low cost airlines eventually spreading their wings and flying long haul. “We've just taken delivery of two 757s, which was very exciting, and they have a flying time of six hours, which is enough to fly to New York, for example, so yes, I can see low cost, long haul flights in the future,” he said. He did admit that, in the winter, they do reduce flight frequency to some destinations: “we find that to some destinations like Majorca, flight capacity and demand does drop off. I would like to see destinations like Palma do much more to attract winter tourism. “While we realise that we have so much work to do, it would be nice to see some of our destinations do the same. At the end of the day this is one huge retail business which is price and product related like any other retail business, so it's very competitive,” he said. “I have a good team, we've been working together for 20 years now, and we have a great working environment and we want to see that all our clients are happy.” Jemma said that such is her father's dedication to the business, he was in Murcia last week helping the baggage handlers off-load one of their planes.
But, Meeson does admit that he spends so much time either in the hold or in the cabin of his planes, he has little time to get into the cockpits.
He and Jemma both have their helicopter pilot licences and Philip also has his own small private fleet of planes which includes a 1934, eight-seater De Havilland Rapide bi-plane, a Tiger Moth and a Jet Provost which he trained on in the RAF. Once her summer tour of promotional duty is over, Jemma heads back to London to await her security clearance and admits that she feels safer in a helicopter than on the tube in the wake of the London bombings. “The environment in my business, (law and order) I guess is going to be slightly different with the new terror laws etc., but I guess some action has to be done although I still believe in innocent until proven guilty. “In the wake of the bombings my opinion about the war in Iraq has changed, I reckon the two were directly linked and people in London, especially commuters who have no choice but to catch the tube, are still apprehensive. “I'm going to buy a scooter.” Very sensible, just like her father.


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