One of the biggest business casualties of COVID-19 has been the commercial airline industry. Over the last few weeks, mass flight cancellations in Europe and a fear of infection in the US have slowed commercial air travel. German carrier Lufthansa, for instance, says it could cancel up to half of its flights and ground all its Airbus A380 superjumbo jets because of the decline in bookings.
Private air charter firms on both sides of the Atlantic, by contrast, have seen sizable spikes in business. The majority of those increases are the result of coronavirus evacuations from impacted areas like Italy. In the US, most family and corporate travelers are seeing charter as a way to avoid the commercial airlines.
Quintessentially, a London-based luxury lifestyle management firm, has seen requests for private jets quadruple in the past few weeks. The majority of inquiries are “from members wanting to fly their families out of infected areas, with most traveling within 24 hours of booking, if not the same day,” Annastasia Seebohm, CEO, told the UK’s Times.
Clive Jackson, CEO of Victor, an on-demand jet charter platform, added that private jet operators are “optimizing their schedules to reduce ground times in higher-risk regions.” Switzerland, which has no confirmed cases of coronavirus, has become a favored destination for those seeking a vacation alternative to Italy.
“We’ve tripled our flight-support staff and began shifting employees around to assist in flight planning, aircraft sourcing and flight coordination,” Justin Crabbe, CEO of New York-based charter firm Jettly, told Robb Report. “For areas like Milan, within hours of the coronavirus being detected, we received 1,000 new flight requests for evacuation. The big difference in this situation is that a typical charter request is usually a few weeks out, whereas these are looking for immediate evacuation. We’ve never been this busy.”
With commercial flights being cancelled and carriers changing policies, charter aircraft and private aircraft facilities remain a viable way to avoid large airports. “Some clients are grouping together with people they don’t know to charter an aircraft,” Crabbe says. “We’re now having to coordinate passports and clearances for large groups of travelers.”
While high-net-worth individuals are primary clients, Crabbe says corporate executives have also seen the benefits of flying privately. “They see chartering a private aircraft as a necessary precaution for keeping far away from the risk of exposure through commercial airports and aircraft,” he says. “We’re seeing more medical groups, law firms and executives signing on to charter flights.”
Kenny Dichter, founder and CEO of jet charter company Wheels Up, says that his operation has experienced an “uptick in individual and corporate member flying” over the last two weeks as well as more inquiries into the company’s membership model. “We’re having a lot of conversations with folks who are interested in our programs,” Dichter says.
Fort Lauderdale-based Monarch Air Group has also seen an increase in demand for charter aircraft, but that has been offset by many cancellations. CEO David Gitman told Robb Report that charter bookings for evacuations in Europe increased, but that many charters in the US have been canceled in the last week.
“A lot of that is because of events being canceled in Europe and now in the US,” Gitman says. “Most people, if they don’t need to travel, are just staying at home. Those who need to travel for business are opting for charter flights over commercial.”
Operators are also taking greater measures for sanitizing the aircraft. “We implemented the highest level of sanitizing,” Jerod Davis, owner of Southern Jet, told Slate. That means “disinfecting the airplanes, even though that may not be necessary yet. We’re taking an extra half-hour to an hour [after each flight] just to really clean down the airplane. Then we’re going to also detail the airplane on a regular basis, just to be ahead of the game.”
Davis expects his charter fleet to be busy for the foreseeable future. “Every plane’s going to be booked up almost every day,” he said. “Today, I’m in Boston. I land in Florida tonight. And I go back out tomorrow and come back again… Then I may have another guy cover me so I may get some days off.”
It will take time to see if the coronavirus—and its impact on the private charter—will be a temporary event or a long-term reality. “The best-case scenario is that it’s a scare,” Davis says. We don’t want this to get worse…But it’s a weird situation. We never foresaw something like this.”
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