Private jet-seller takes Italy’s largest plane-maker to court for second time

One of the UK’s only female private jet sales agents is planning to take Italy’s largest aviation manufacturer, Piaggio Aerospace, to court for the second time in four years over a multimillion-pound contract dispute.

Gabriella Somerville was the exclusive agent in the UK for more than six years, selling the Piaggio Avanti Evo to large corporations, billionaire businessmen and celebrities across the country through her company, ConnectJets.

However, when she secured a buyer for eight aircraft, worth 62.4 million US dollars (£48 million) in 2014, Piaggio Aerospace cut her out of negotiations, brokering a deal with her client directly instead.

Gabriella Somerville
Gabriella Somerville

Piaggio Aerospace terminated ConnectJets’ agency agreement in February 2015 and then announced the deal at the Paris Air Show in July the same year.

Ms Somerville served a writ on the company on October 12 2015 in Genoa but the dispute was settled several months later when she called a face-to-face meeting with then-chief executive Carlo Logli.

The boss settled the claim financially and also invited ConnectJets to return as the UK’s exclusive sales representative, which was agreed on the premise that the contract would be governed under UK law and Ms Somerville’s commission was enhanced.

ConnectJets then went on to sell a further Avanti Evo around nine months later, which was publicly announced by Piaggio Aerospace in February 2018.

However, despite Ms Somerville securing the sale, Piaggio declined to renew her two-year contract and only extended it by six months until November 2018.

During this period, ConnectJets introduced two prospects, with potential sales totalling 85 million dollars (£66 million) to Piaggio Aerospace but in May this year the company decided to exclude Ms Somerville’s business from any further communication with a client looking to secure six of the 11 aircraft.

ConnectJets, along with the client and Piaggio Aerospace, worked collectively in the research and development of a new Corporate Shuttle variant, which was unveiled in Las Vegas this year.

But by April 2019 Piaggio Aerospace only offered to give ConnectJets a non-exclusive agreement with revised commission, which was different from that agreed with the company previously.

Emails seen by the PA news agency show that Ms Somerville was told the board of directors of Piaggio Aerospace had approved the new contract extension, but the company subsequently said it was only ever a draft.

To make matters worse, Piaggio collapsed into “administration extraordinaire” last December and was propped up by the Italian government. A sale was given the green light by ministers late in November this year.

A Piaggio Avanti Evo
A Piaggio Avanti Evo

Ms Somerville said: “This problem is widespread in our sector, where some of the manufacturers and larger brokers prey on smaller companies to make key introductions in various jurisdictions around the globe – but when a large fleet deal is placed on to the table, then the turbulence starts.”

A number of small companies have suffered huge financial losses due to the non-payment of such commissions and the costs of going to court can be prohibitive.

But one high-profile case is that of Daad Sharab over her part in the sale of a 120 million dollar (£92.8 million) aircraft. The court heard from a Saudi prince, who was grilled over his role in the deal, and the case ended with her being paid 10 million dollars (£7.7 million) she was owed.

Ms Somerville added: “Big businesses know that a typical case like this can take three to four years even to get to court and costs incurred are a sure deterrent for any small broker to pursue, hence why so few cases even make it to court.”

But despite all the issues, the businesswoman is still keen to continue working with Piaggio because of her passion for the Avanti Evo aircraft, which has one of the lowest emissions of any small aircraft on the market.

Interior of a Piaggio Avanti Evo
Interior of a Piaggio Avanti Evo

Ms Somerville, whose career in aviation spans more than 25 years, started as cabin crew for Virgin Atlantic in 1989, including being part of Virgin’s promo team looking after VIPs for inaugural flights.

She founded ConnectJets in 2009 during the aftermath of the financial crisis, but the entrepreneur saw it as an opportunity to broker secondary deals and lease aircraft to companies which were looking to scale down their fleet.

Within the first two years, turnover reached £4 million, although current and former disputes are thought to be costing the business up to 6 million dollars (£4.6 million).

Piaggio Aerospace declined to comment.