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The private jet industry is confident of winning new business as corporates seek alternative ways of getting back on the road

The private aviation industry has often been hard to sell to corporates unfamiliar with the sector, but right now it has two particularly strong selling points. Not only can private jets connect destinations where scheduled airlines have not yet returned, but with hygiene in mind, they also present a ‘safer’ environment in which to travel.

In fact, one private jet operator claims the risk of exposure to coronavirus and other contagion is 30 times less for passengers travelling by private jet rather than on commercial flights. According to Austria-based GlobeAir, the average passenger journey with a scheduled airline will generate 700 touchpoints, as opposed to only 20 when travelling by private jet because of the absence of crowds and the use of private terminals.

While the veracity of the figures has been queried by some, there is clearly substance in the theory. “The real benefits of private jets post-Covid are that this is bespoke private travel mostly operated through FBOs (Fixed Base Operators) or private airport terminals,” says Richard Smith, director of charter at ACC Aviation Group. “There are no queues, no crowds and no other passengers. It gives you a lot more control over your environment.”

Paul Baker, sales director at Global Travel Management, also highlights the reduced exposure to contagion, but additionally points to the head start the sector has over commercial airlines that are slowly rebuilding their networks.

A lot of people who use jets don’t want to wait around for the government to endorse travel

The TMC has a private jets offering which “has held up better during the pandemic, relatively speaking,” says Baker. “As soon as you could fly to Germany, for example, we saw far more demand for private jets than for scheduled airlines. A lot of people who use jets don’t want to wait around for the government [to endorse travel]. They need to get out and do things now – they need to travel."

London's Biggin Hill Airport, popular with private jet users, saw traffic levels in the first week of July close to 2019 levels. Andy Patsalides, head of marketing, says: “We’ve seen large numbers of enquires coming from people who, before Covid-19, were happy to fly with commercial airlines, but are now wanting to avoid some of the health risks associated with flying with so many other people. They are turning to private aviation to provide a faster and more personal experience.” 

He continues: “As an example, we recently had six passengers fly to Italy on a Hawker Jet who had never flown privately before. I saw them on their return, and they were sold. It saved them hours of valuable time.”

For many operators and brokers, bespoke business travel bookings are just one facet of their business – corporate shuttles, groups, sports teams, music and entertainment, critical cargo, medical evacuation and high-end luxury travel are all important revenue streams.

A number had enjoyed particular growth in the corporate sector in 2019, which continued into early 2020. Even in the early days of the crisis, many pivoted from their usual business to operate rescue and repatriation flights and transport critical medical supplies and equipment.

Private jet charter company Victor says three-quarters of flight requests in those early weeks were “last minute” as people tried to get home and reduce exposure to the virus. “Our request types clearly changed dramatically to service critical missions only: repatriation, medical evacuation and transporting key workers,” says head of commercial jets, Tom Hill.

Its assignments included the repatriation of a British family from Morocco, the deployment of NHS staff, and flying construction workers to build new temporary hospitals. A lull followed, but private jets were grounded later and resumed sooner than commercial airlines, which suffered tremendously more than the private aviation sector.

As we emerge from the pandemic, Victor says 35 to 40 per cent of bookings have been from new customers and it is expecting more corporate growth due to a lack of scheduled services.

ACC had a similar experience. Its usual business “disappeared overnight” and was replaced with air evacuations and the movement of PPE equipment, explains Smith.

When scheduled services stop there are still people and cargo that needs to keep moving

“We’ve actually been pretty busy during lockdown. When scheduled services stop there are still people and cargo that needs to keep moving. We operated a lot of repatriation flights for people in the oil and gas businesses in Africa, for example.”

Smith continues: “In the short term, health concerns and reduced commercial schedules will create demand for what we do. You can’t put a price on safety.

“We’ve had a strong recent uptick in requests and bookings. Businesses are keen to get going again and they can’t necessarily wait for commercial airlines to start flying. Our niche is feeling pretty confident right now,” adds Smith.

The cost of private jets has historically been a barrier to wider business adoption as it’s difficult to quantify their  principal benefits of flexibility (you can fly to a much wider choice of airports at a time that suits you), privacy, speed and productivity. And in spite of widespread perceptions, they can even be cost effective.

There are also many different use models offered by operators and brokers, including subscriptions, fractional jet ownership, jet cards (purchased in blocks of time), empty leg bookings and ad hoc bookings.

Typically, brokers work with a large network of preferred operators around the world, enabling them to serve all needs – from very light jets for just a few passengers through to long-haul aircraft – and fly in and out of a vast number of small regional airports.

Victor works with more than 200 operators and can arrange flights from more than 150 airports in the UK and nearly 300 in France – two of its biggest European markets. “Our clientbase is immensely diverse in terms of travel objectives and budgets,” says Hill.

For ACC, corporate business accounts for around 40 per cent of its charter division but “we’re anticipating it’ll be a more important part of the business for this year at least,” says Smith.

“We try to offer a proposal within two hours of a request and we can get an aircraft airborne in as little as 90 minutes from the initial enquiry,” Smith explains.

He adds: “Jets can be effective if you’re doing something particularly complex – you can do several trips in a day – or you need to get right into a destination.”

As Lidor Revah points out, commercial flying will have a longer recovery period and the private aviation sector stands to gain. The CEO of Imperium Jets, which positions itself as a GDS for the sector, connecting operators and brokers, says: “Until there is a vaccine [for Covid-19], the commercial industry likely won’t return to pre-Corona revenues. However, private [aviation] has a unique and clear opportunity to convert the market... and to make private jets rather more mainstream.”

GlobeAir argues the case for private jets by citing the example of a journey between Paris and Geneva. Four business class tickets on a commercial airline would cost around €2,200, it says, while a private jet covering the same route would cost around €4,200 – €500 more per passenger. “The difference signifies an investment in safety and efficiency, with about one hour and 45 minutes saved,” it states.
‘Empty leg’ flights, where a jet is repositioning, can represent significant savings on bespoke private jet bookings but, as GTM’s Paul Baker points out, they defy one of the sector’s main USPs – total flexibility.
In June, Victor listed an empty leg flight from London Luton Airport to Dublin Airport as costing €2,788 for up to six passengers. It says the outbound leg booked bespoke would have cost around €8,000.
For regular travel patterns, a shuttle service can be effective. One ACC client has a long-term contract between its bases in Germany and France. It operates five days a week with morning and evening departures in both directions. “This is hugely cost effective when you have those sort of volumes. You can have 30 to 35 passengers on each flight but even with only ten it still works,” says Richard Smith.

Private jet operators and brokers report similar patterns over the course of 2020, with many having started the year on the back of promising growth in 2019. VistaJet recorded 16 per cent year-over-year growth globally for January and February 2020, with Europe up 11 per cent in terms of flights hours. It also increased its members in the market by 23 per cent in 2019. GlobeAir noted 27 per cent yoy growth in bookings during the second half of February and early March, while in February Victor revealed 33 per cent yoy growth in commercial jet charters for 18 passengers or more, with corporate travel accounting for more than a third of that. Once the pandemic struck, the sector operated at 15 per cent capacity in April and 45 per cent in May, according to sector analysts WingX, with enquiries reportedly nearing ‘normal’ levels in the summer.