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When Businesses Take Flight

Dreamjet SAS CEO Peter Luethi

Comfort and affordability? It’s something that is hard to come by when traveling by flight. You have to choose the pain of cramped, uncomfortable seats, or take a huge hit in the wallet to upgrade to business or first class. Until Northampton Community College’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence came up with a solution.

Launched in 2014, La Compagnie, an exclusively business-class airline offering regularly scheduled transatlantic flights between Paris and New York, offers competitive fares, as much as 50% lower, than other airlines.

Peter Luethi, former Swiss Air chief operating officer and current co-founder and deputy chief executive officer of Dreamjet SAS, the legal incorporation of La Compagnie, told the story of his rise in the aviation industry to a group of attentive students at NCC’s Monroe Campus.

His visit was part of the College’s Center for Entrepreneurship’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, a program that brings together renowned business experts with students.

Describing himself as “just a little Swiss coming from the mountains,” globetrotting entrepreneur Luethi has lived a life that took him from Switzerland to New York, the Far East, and Africa, before settling in the Pocono Mountains region of Pennsylvania.

“Is entrepreneurship possible in the aviation industry?” Luethi asked students. “It’s a regulated industry but you can be an entrepreneur in any job.”

Luethi’s career in aviation began with an apprenticeship at Swiss Air, one of the biggest companies in Switzerland. Working there he earned a diploma, but he took many more technical courses during his tenure with the company.

“Learning should never stop,” he said. “That’s the way life is if you want to move ahead.”

One of his first entrepreneurial challenges was when he was sent to New York City, tasked with filling 2,000 seats on the brand new jumbo jets, the 747.

Luethi jumped at the challenge, and Swiss Air helped develop programs for educational business travel between the United States and Europe, making the now tax deductible trip half priced.

His decades in the airline industry exposed him to many different scenarios. In Canada, he helped expand Swiss Air. In Afghanistan, he dealt with political turmoil at the height of the Iranian hostage crisis. During his stint in Japan and South Korea, he realized that his cultural competency had to be as on point as his professional knowledge.

In Africa, Luethi had to navigate 54 countries, each with very different governments. Returning to New York City right after the airline industry was deregulated posed new challenges. In his home country, he had to contend with Switzerland not joining the European Union, which meant that Swiss Air could not enter the European airline market. The tragic events of 9/11 were the ultimate undoing of Swiss Air, which is now owned by Lufthansa.

Luethi landed as CEO of Jett Airways in India, running one of the biggest domestic airlines in a foreign country. All his previous experience came into play, plus learning that “you can find people to do just about anything if you give them the right guidance, respect and nurture their knowledge.”

After living and working all over the world, Luethi and his wife decided to settle in the “pristine Poconos.” When a friend approached him about starting an airline industry in the highly competitive field, Luethi’s reply was “that is crazy.”

But after a week together hammering out a business plan, conducting research and analyzing every airline that came before and why they failed, it became clear that “we need to be a disrupter. We can’t do the same as others.”

In order to succeed with their model of lower-cost, comfortable business class flights, they had to stay small and leave out all things that were not essential.

By having only two to four aircrafts, outsourcing everything to quality vendors, and focusing on Google search advertising only, they were able to bring the company forward without having to wait a year to see profits.

The goal of La Compagnie is to make the flight as pleasant as possible. With only 74 seats on each aircraft, boarding and disembarking are a breeze. The fare is all inclusive and includes amenities, two bags, access to the lounge, and chef-designed meals and wine. “If you bring your surf board, it’s free. Not much surfing in Paris but it’s a good marketing ploy,” Luethi jokes about the airline, whose only route is from Newark to France.

In its fifth year, the business is going strong, thanks to sticking to the original plan. “Whenever we wanted to add something in, we would go back to our original business plan. That reminded us it was essential to keep our costs down. That’s why we don’t do connecting flights with other airlines.”

The aviation entrepreneur offered these tips to students:

  • Research your project well
  • Analyze the competition if there is any
  • Fix your business principle
  • Hire the right people
  • Execute the plans and stick to them
  • Keep focus on your clients’ needs and changing expectations
  • Adjust if required by market forces
  • Review your team, inspire them to keep an open mind to their job and the effects they have for the business
  • Don’t go crazy in the sense of “I can add this as well.”
  • Stick to a highly professional approach and stay HUMBLE

For more information about NCC’s Follett Family Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, visit the web page.