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Private Flying Vrooms into 2021

COVID concerns continue to boost interest in upgrading to private jet travel

January 8, 2021

2020 was a banner year for private jet travel. And given the unabating proliferation of new virus outbreaks and mutations, it is likely that 2021 will not see those statistics moving backwards. While airlines see passenger counts off by more than half, private flights are running at 90 percent of normal – or what they were in what is now tabbed as “pre-pandemic times.”

VistaJet in October was reporting a surge of 49 percent in corporate interest globally since the start of the pandemic, with the US driving that corporate demand and accounting for over 41 percent of the interest. The company went on to report:

• Corporates are increasingly flying entire teams to multiple locations around the world to ensure business continuity citing industry research from Private Jet Card Comparisons showing that 31 percent of US companies are expanding their use of private aviation for business trips.

• Business aviation is flying at 86 percent levels against 2019.

• Technology companies are driving corporate bookings, given the industry’s growth and positive outlook for future growth.

• A rapid growth in demand for long-haul routes – the percentage of flights over five hours – increased 44 percent YOY during the first seven months of the COVID outbreak in the US. Some 11 percent of VistaJet flights at that time were at least eight hours long, with popular international destination pairs running between the UK and France, the US and China, and the UK and Italy.

And while not all private jet options are international – indeed many are short hops between two points – the idea of flying privately is taking off in markets not previously considered viable for these services and in ways that make this form of transport accessible and even sensible as costs, advantages, benefits, safety and convenience are rolled into smart and effective purchasing packages.

AP Images for Flexjet

A New Type of Private Flier

“We are seeing record interest from those completely new to travel by private jet. Recent statistics released by McKinsey show that over 90 percent of people who can afford to fly privately do not, so we believe private air travel is well positioned for a continued rebound and growth,” Megan Wolf, COO of Cleveland, Ohio-based Flexjet, told Barron’s recently.

“Our primary demographic remains the ultra-high-net-worth individuals from all walks of life. They are trying to avoid crowds to reduce their potential exposure to the coronavirus on top of all the other benefits to flying private, like time savings and the ability to reach more airports directly. During past 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.”

Whether it is about upgrading from a commercial airline seat in business or first, or chartering a four to 12-passenger aircraft for a company meeting, private aviation companies are hearing from a host of new sectors seeking safer travels.

“Those who normally travel in first class commercially are elevating their experience with personal well-being in mind, especially for older clients who have more health concerns. Half of our calls are from new customers,” said Richard Thompson, president of Air Charter Service’s Americas division, also speaking to Barron’s, noting his company saw a 75 percent year over year increase in inquiries during May and June 2020 alone.

The United States is, by far, the largest market in the world for private aviation companies, with some 21,900 business aircraft (defined as aircraft designed for transporting small groups of business people for commercial reasons at a time convenient to their needs) in inventory in 2019. By contrast, there were 4,159 business aircraft in all of Europe.

Making sense of what is a newfangled form of flying for many is an art and a science and one that veteran media executive and journalist Doug Gollan has been studying for years, now as a contributor to Forbes and editor-in-chief and founder of Private Jet Card Comparisons a site that provides consumers an unbiased and comprehensive view of private aviation trends and drills down in comparing private travel options.

The Jet Card Approach

“Jet card” is a rising term heard in business travel circles referring to membership options and privileges offered by private jet companies to attract and keep travelers by managing cost-effective pricing and perks for their memberships or subscriptions. They may run from fixed hourly rates to mileage-based pricing to frequent travel discounts – easily dozens and dozens of variables to consider when choosing private jet companies for joining or partnering.

Cost is one consideration, but not the only consideration when looking into flying privately. Overall, however, cost will be the first line of entry – or the bar into this rarefied club. A per hour breakout of cost offered by one US charter service produced these at-a-glance tiers with rates per aircraft, not per seat:

• Light jet (4 to 6 passengers): $4,000 to $5,500

• Medium jet (6 to 9 passengers): $5,500 to $9,500

• Heavy jet (16 to 19 passengers): $11,000 to $20,000

Booking by the seat, however, is what many travelers are required to do and on a small commuter plane this can be a simpler, easier, more convenient option than booking an upgraded seat on a commercial flight — and can cost as little as $100 for short hops and close to $2,000 for a three-hour flight. Plus, commercial airlines these days may not service the points travelers want to fly.

“Companies that are doing well but haven’t been spending on airline tickets and hotel rooms are increasingly looking towards private aviation for critical trips,” said Gollan. “In many cases, teams can take care of business, returning the same day. They also avoid connections at airline hubs and longer travel times because of reduced schedules. I’m definitely hearing now from subscribers who will be using private aviation for business trips for the first time.”

For travelers who have set routes or continuing travel requirements that are not satisfied through Zoom calls, buying a jet card may be the way to go. A jet card is a low-commitment way to engage private jet travel and may require little in the way of prepayment to get onboard.

“Cards are typically sold increments of dollars or hours, for example, 25 hours or $150,000, although we have seen deposit amount range from $15,000 to $1,000,000. Pay-as-you-go programs entail paying a joining fee, and then paying on a trip-by-trip basis,” said Gollan.

Some cards are sold directly by the aviation companies or operators, others by brokers who match fliers with appropriate flight options. Some operate locally or regionally, others domestically and others offer international routes to private fliers.

Gollan notes that some companies operate flights with turboprops to very light jets and others offer long-range, large-cabin jets such as the Bombardier Global Express and Gulfstream G650. But because there are so many companies, operators and variables to consider in this tier of aviation, the growing demand has also required services that parse though the options and differences and give travelers a transparent look at what is available to them.

Gollan’s company, Private Jet Card Comparisons, publishes a continually updated online directory of private aviation programs for $250 enabling subscribers to compare programs by more than 65 variables from safety standards to available aircraft, pricing and other policies which impact best choice in an easy-to-use spreadsheet format.

“Because every flier is different with different needs, different destinations, different budgets, different space needs and varying flexibility requirements, we help travelers move through all that,” Gollan explained.

“Some companies may roll in taxes and fees into quoted rates while others charge additionally for these. There are daily minimum charges, peak day surcharges, long-flight discounts, refund policies, pet policies, fuel surcharges … this is a serious financial purchase and by no means a cookie cutter product or service. The devil is in the details, and that’s here we help buyers sort through the options,” said Gollan.

Jet Linx

In an unprecedented trend, some private jet companies, such as Jet Linx and Private Jetaway package private flights with private villas – especially in Mexico. Mexico has remained the number one destination for private jets leaving the US.

“Private aviation flights have less than 20 touchpoints, meaning less interaction with people you don’t know. When you buy a jet card or charter an entire aircraft and even for shared flights, you are not navigating through massive, crowded airports. Private aviation is the best way to travel,” added Gollan.

“For those who can’t stay home and wait out the virus, or for those who simply want to go and go now, flying privately is clearly the option of this precarious time.”