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Private flight is on the increase - but can it last?

22 February 2021 • Written by Gabriel Leigh

In today’s Covid-19 world, private flight is on the increase. But can the private jet trend last? Gabriel Leigh investigates…

When the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the globe in March, much of the aviation industry ground to a near halt – as anyone who’d been planning to take a commercial flight this year can attest. At the same time, there were still plenty of people who needed to move, whether for emergencies such as medical evacuations and repatriations from countries closing their borders, or for essential work that needed to go on regardless. With commercial aviation all but grounded, and with fears rampant around being in a confined space with even a handful of strangers, private aviation was suddenly in demand in new ways, and by a whole new segment of travellers.

The practicality of private flight, not just luxury, has a chance to shine now.
Image Credits: VistaJet

The result has been that while commercial traffic has been running at around 15 per cent of its normal levels, private flights have seen upwards of 70 per cent of their typical activity. That’s not to say that private aviation hasn’t suffered, and many operators made it clear that although new opportunities and interest had emerged during the pandemic, prices were down alongside demand from some mainstay segments. Many corporate trips, for example, were cancelled. Discretionary flying for things like holidays were also largely cut during the spring, more because of travel restrictions and border closures than anything else. But private aviation was able to make up for some of those cancellations because of a new segment of people – many of whom may have flown commercial in the past – who in some cases have begun to consider private flight for the first time.

VistaJet, a private jet operator with more than 70 aircraft and a global operation, says only 10 per cent of people who can afford to fly private actually do, but some of the remaining 90 per cent have begun to come forward. “What we’ve seen across the board is new entries to the sector. People who had the means to fly privately but chose not to in the past, and who were now looking for an opportunity to fly privately,” says Ian Moore, chief commercial officer at VistaJet. “They want to have access to an aircraft where they can control the touch-points. Commercial airlines are suffering horrifically during this time, but people still had to move around. Those are the conditions that have resulted in an uptick in new entries.

Private jets have a huge advantage when it comes to addressing biosecurity concerns.
Image Credits: VistaJet

“We’re seeing a difference in the type of customer coming to the industry, and we’ve seen a huge increase in requests for flying privately. We’re probably looking at a 300 to 350 per cent increase in the number of incoming requests compared to last year at this time. And we’ve been around for 16 years, so that shows you the interest.”

Charging based on hours flown, VistaJet’s planes are available at a moment’s notice anywhere in the world – a fact the company says has helped it excel during this period. As the coronavirus has flared up in different places in the world at different times, it’s been important to be able to respond to rapidly changing market conditions – something else that commercial airlines have a difficult time with.

“We have a global fleet and we’re the only operator that has that – North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East,” says Moore. “So we’re able to move aircraft around to where demand is. That business model has been working very well during this time, because the virus has moved around. It hasn’t hit everywhere at once, and we’ve been able to move our aircraft all around too.”

Private jet operators have seen a surge in demand for their services during the pandemic.
Image Credits: Globeair

The question is whether many of these new customers will continue to fly private when and if the world returns to normal. Another concern is if the pandemic stretches on for months more, whether the economic fallout will lead to even more tightening of belts. But VistaJet is optimistic.

“I don’t think we’re back at pre-coronavirus levels when it comes to the yield, or price per hour,” Moore says. “But we’re having amazing conversations with people that should be flying with us, and we’re determined to ensure that they become VistaJet clients.”

Private-jet travel provider Flexjet has seen a similar effect, wherein business has dropped compared to normal, but the industry has clearly offered unique advantages that have helped preserve and even create new demand. “Private jet travel fell less far during the lockdown than commercial airline travel, and is recovering faster,” says Megan Wolf, chief operating officer at Flexjet. “During other economic downturns and adverse world events, spending on private aviation by individuals and businesses was usually one of the first expenses cut and the last to resume. Because of the inherent safety afforded by private aviation in a Covid-19 world, this time around has been different. Existing users realised how valuable it is.”

VistaJet’s world fleet has been able to adapt to today’s ever-changing climate.
Image Credits: VistaJet

And the types of trips they’re taking has changed. It makes sense that private jet operators are uniquely poised to respond to a fundamental change in demand like that.

“Social distancing means people are spending their leisure time in very remote locations that in many cases are only accessible directly via a private jet,” Wolf says. “So far this summer, we are seeing unprecedented demand for more remote and mountainous locations, which allows travellers to continue to maintain social distancing.” In the US those destinations have included places like Aspen, Vail, Bozeman, Missoula, Jackson Hole, Napa and Sonoma. It’s clear for now that among many, the city break is out and the nature retreat is very much in.

Travel to remote locations isn’t the only way that private jets have proven to have unique advantages. “Parents with adult children who traditionally have them and the grandchildren join them on a summer vacation are now sharing their flight hours with them in order to still get the family together but with as little exposure to crowds as possible,” Wolf says.

Older clients are sharing their flight hours with their children and grandchildren in order to get the family together safely, Flexjet’s COO points out.
Image Credits: Globeair

Bernhard Fragner, CEO and founder of the Austrian private jet charter company GlobeAir, had much the same to say about customer patterns throughout the pandemic. “Demand for private jet charters saw a remarkable spike in March 2020, mostly due to the unprecedentedly high demand of repatriation, medical and cargo flights,” Fragner says. He points out that demand flagged again through mid-May because of lockdowns and closed borders, but that since then, new possibilities have popped up and his company has sought to cater to that demand.

“Since May we’ve been offering travel packages, including private jet charters, five-star hotels and luxury travel experiences. We’re currently offering our all-inclusive travel packages in Sardinia, Austria, Croatia and the Balearic Islands,” Fragner says. “As soon as the travel bans were lifted, our most popular route was Geneva to Paris and back. Also, we’ve been flying yacht owners to some of the most famous spots in the south of Croatia and Sardinia.”

VistaJet says that 90 percent of people who can afford to fly private weren’t doing so pre-Covid.
Image Credits: VistaJet

Fragner says sign-ups from new customers have been flowing in. “We’ve registered a higher number of new customers who have never been on a private jet before. We believe that the fear of the many touchpoints when travelling with any other means of transport might have triggered the shift. Additionally, we leveraged our great expertise when it comes to biosecurity to explain to the public the reasons why travelling by private jet is the safest way of getting from A to B. Around 67 per cent of our new clients are former frequent business class travellers who ask for a private jet now to go on holiday to avoid the almost 700 touchpoints that might occur on a commercial flight.”

For VistaJet, this is a moment to really prove the utility of private flight and set things in motion for a healthy future. That goes well beyond the luxury of it all. “If I really do want to get from A to B, this is the quickest way to do it,” Moore says. “It’s less about the champagne and the caviar, it’s a time machine getting people to their families or the next business meeting as quickly as possible. And it’s not just for the chairman and CEO now, it’s for anyone that the company cares about because it’s the safest way to fly.”

With fears running rampant of being in a space with strangers, private aviation offers peace of mind.
Image Credits: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

So, what’s ahead for the industry? Even as new clients come on board and growth seems to be picking up, the future, as in so many industries these days, is far from certain. Most private jet operators are optimistic though, and the headline seems to be that those who can offer a quality product can expect to continue to thrive in the uncertain times ahead.

“Flexjet has a reputation for its premium innovation among fractional jet providers and our Red Label by Flexjet programme is highly sought after by prospective clients,” Wolf says. “We define Red Label with three focus areas: the youngest fleet in the industry, flight crews dedicated to a single, specific aircraft and our custom LXi cabin interiors. The number of qualified individuals reaching out to us has been growing significantly over the last few months.”

Some also see this as a chance to pursue further innovations in the industry, and to use that in order to emerge stronger than ever. That, they hope, will usher in a new era of efficiency and quality in the years ahead.

The G650, part of Flexjet’s fleet, which the company says is the youngest in the industry.
Image Credits: Flexjet

“What I think Covid-19 has done is fast-track consolidation in the industry,” Moore says. “It’s fragmented and regional, and ripe for change. There’s very little digital technology that underpins it. We are at the forefront of that. It’s ready for industrialisation so to speak, to make a giant leap towards being more efficient.

“Above all else, though, there needs to be a knowledge base around what you’re paying for. That’s come through more and more in the last three months. What am I paying for and what is this operation doing to make sure it’s safe? What training do people have? The last thing you need is any questions of safety at 40,000 feet. You want to make sure that the price you’ve paid has all the value attached to it. I call it the open kitchen policy. We need to be very transparent as to where the money is going when you’re paying for a private jet. And I think the industry will move more and more to that as questions of wellness grow more and more in the consciousness.”

This feature is taken from the November 2020 issue of BOAT International US. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.