Andy Christie has been working flat out for the past 18 months. He is group private jets director at Air Charter Services, arranging travel for people on private jets.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it seemed as though the market for private jets would be an early casualty. In previous shocks to the aviation industry, such as the 2008 global financial crisis, the private jet market quickly ground to a halt and was one of the last sectors to recover.
But this crisis has, in some ways, played to the flexibility of those who can afford to fly private jets, as well as provided a new source of customers for companies like ACS.
“One of the things that flipped on its head is we had the shortest window of inactivity versus what would normally happen in a global crisis,” Christie tells AeroTime.
“We were doing flights up until hours, if not minutes, before lockdowns came into place around the world. We were able to make those last-minute adjustments, unlike commercial flights. And then as things have eased, we’ve had customers ready to go to the airport and taking off within an hour or so of restrictions easing.”
Christie says that his company also noticed a new group of customers – ones who had the money to fly on private jets but who instead typically used first class commercial flights.
“It’s brought a lot of people into the market who really want to get somewhere, but can’t because there are no commercial services. And then also people who don’t want to travel commercially for health reasons,” Christie explains.
These wealthy customers are typically older, and so more vulnerable to COVID-19. Flying commercially means going to an airport several hours ahead of time, traveling up and down a lot of escalators and being in close proximity to other people. For private jet travel, passengers can turn up 15 minutes before the flight, sometimes even driving on to the apron and boarding the aircraft from there.
“You’re looking at something in the region of 200 to 700 interactions with other people and surfaces for a commercial flight. For travel on a private jet, it’s probably a maximum of 10 to 12 interactions over the whole trip,” Christie says.
To ensure hygiene levels remain high, ACS has worked with operators on issues like cleaning and other items, such as removing bowls of fruit, flowers or cushions, to keep everything as clean as possible,
“Everybody’s being as careful as possible to minimize any risk of infection. That’s continued, and probably will be a way of life for several years.”
LAST MINUTE CHANGES
As with commercial airlines, the time between booking and traveling has become much shorter due to people not wanting to risk last-minute restrictions being imposed.
“Typically for the summer, we would normally expect about a three, four-week lead time, particularly in July and August. What we have seen the last two summers is very, very last-minute confirmations, so we’ve been looking at lead times of three days or less,” Christie says.
Flying on a private jet also means that customers can change their destination at the eleventh hour. For example, when Italy announced new travel restrictions, ACS was able to switch customers to the French Riviera or Croatia.
Demand has been outstripping supply in the business aviation market, Christie says. “Aircraft are running into maintenance schedules because they’re been flying so much, crew are working flat out.”
The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) in the United States has also noted that business is booming. In an October 27, 2021 press release, it stated that the pandemic has provided an opportunity for people and organisations to learn the value of business aviation.
“Our business aviation community is seeing a new, fresh customer base that has come to find out that flying a business aircraft is productive, efficient and provides a quality of life and safety of flight that our commercial aviation colleagues do not or are not very likely to offer in the future,” David Salvador, aftermarket channel vice president of Gogo Business Aviation, said in the release.
The NBAA cited statistics from Argus International that business jet flights exceeded 300,000 in July, the busiest month ever.
KEEPING HOLD OF THE NEW CUSTOMERS
Having gained new customers during the pandemic, ACS is now working out how many of them will stay private jet customers or whether they will return to British Airways first class.
“When you try a charter and compare it to a commercial flight, it’s quite hard to go back,” Christie points out.
“Our feeling is that a fair percentage will stay,” Christie predicts. “What we’re seeing is perhaps people not flying as regularly as maybe they used to. But when they do fly, they’re doing slightly larger, bigger trips. And they’re booking a yacht or a villa, to stay relatively private and away from other people. So they’re spending more money on those trips, it may not be as often but they are spending a bit more and having a bit more privacy.”
Certainly, Christie isn’t the only one seeing a trend for people willing to spend more and secure more space when they book air travel.
Lufthansa (LHAB) (LHA) chief executive Carsten Spohr said on November 3, 2021 that the airline group was seeing a shift towards premium class bookings, especially on flights across the Atlantic. Spohr said while economy class bookings were 24% below pre-crisis levels, business class bookings were 12% down and first class bookings were even 8% above pre-pandemic levels,
“It’s a nice shift to premium traffic,” Spohr commented.
RETURN OF THE CORPORATE TRAVELERS
Christie says that ACS has had a record September in terms of bookings, which are up 145% on pre-pandemic levels, and October was also shaping up well. “It’s really quite intense.”
Like commercial travel, bookings have been driven by leisure travelers. But corporates, such as in the financial and manufacturing industries, are starting to return, mainly since the end of August.
“Corporate customers are saying ‘I haven’t seen any of my customers, we haven’t seen any of our factories or any of our plants, we need to go and see these people, check how they’re doing.’ Even for their own mental health, it’s key to get out.”
Private jet travel also allows companies to keep their staff safe by reducing interaction at airports or on larger aircraft, Christie notes.
“They’re looking at it as being a safer way for the board to travel, they don’t want them getting sick.”
With commercial frequencies still restricted, chartering a jet can be a more time-efficient way to travel to several sites in one multi-stop trip.
“Private jets really are a time machine in a way,” Christie laughs.