From most trafficked airports to favored private jets, the mix of charter and fractional flights compared to owned jets, the industry’s V-shaped recovery, its recent plateau, and even the key players, 2020 saw big changes across private aviation, according to data from Argus TRAQPak’s Annual Business Aviation Review. What does it mean? How does it foreshadow what’s next?
Private aviation flights in the U.S. were down 22.5% last year compared to 2019. It was a bumpy ride. After an 11.5% drop in the first quarter as COVID-19 spread, flight activity plummeted 48.9% in Q2. While airline passenger counts languished, private flights recovered to better than 80% of pre-pandemic levels for the third quarter and saw traffic just 15.2% under 2019 in the final quarter.
However, the top line numbers only tell part of the story. Argus divides operators into three categories – Part 135 – think charter operators like Wheels Up and XOJET; Part 91k is fractional share operators like NetJets and Flexjet, and Part 91, non-commercial operators, typically corporate flight departments.
Why own when you can rent? Jet sharing through fractional ownership, jet cards and charter accounted … [+]
While charter operators finished the year down just 15% from 2019 in flight hours, fractional operators were off 18.6%. Part 91 numbers were down 28.5%. The latter was naturally impacted as companies shut offices, conferences were canceled, and meetings went virtual, says Travis Kuhn, Argus’ vice president of market intelligence.
The result was that for the first time since Argus has been tracking data, the share of fractional and charter flights made up the majority of the industry, accounting for 52.5% of flight hours, up from 43.7% in 2012 and 48.5% in 2019. In other words, renting and sharing are beating full ownership.
There aren’t any indications that jet owners are selling their parked planes. The net when they take off again should be a larger industry, Kuhn says. Still, he thinks renting, either through time-sharing, jet cards and charter, will make up the majority of flying in the future.
In terms of the recovery, Argus analysts expect double-digit deficits in flight hours through at least June and don’t expect the industry to get back into the black until September at the earliest. Charter flights, he says, could reach 2019 levels as early as July.
Where folks were flying in private jets was impacted by COVID too. Florida moved into the top spot from third, trading places with California despite seeing departures fall to 257,625 from 276,602, a 7% decline. The Golden State saw activity drop 25%, putting it behind Texas, down 23%. The three states account for 31.7% of all U.S. private flights.
Florida traded placed with California moving from third place to the top spot as busiest U.S. state … [+]
The hardest hit was New Jersey, dropping from 4th to 9th on a 45% decline as Teterboro Airport, the major private aviation airport serving Manhattan, saw flights fall 50.1%. Still, the northern New Jersey hub for private flights stayed as the country’s busiest business aviation airport with 36,508 departures. Love Field in Dallas was second (-15.4%), followed by Palm Beach International (-1.1%), Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles (-19.2%), and Denver’s Centennial Airport (-10.2%).
Only three of the 25 busiest airports saw increases: Seventh-ranked Scottsdale was up 4%, Naples Municipal Airport (10th) saw flights increase 10%, and Aspen’s Pitkin Field (22nd) saw a 12.3% bump as more executives worked from second homes instead of big cities.
When it came to states, biggest movers were Colorado, which was 4th busiest last year, up two spots, Arizona climbing from 12th to 8th, and Utah, the only state which saw activity increase, jumping from 35th to 26th.
Kuhn says to track the industry’s fortunes this year, Argus will be watching the pace of recovery in California, New York and New Jersey, and performance in Florida, Colorado, Arizona, and Texas.
If size matters, small was beautiful last year when it came to jet type. Light jet hours were down 13.9%. At the other end of the spectrum, large airplanes, typically flown by global companies and UHNWs heading to their yachts in the Med or African safaris, hampered by international travel restrictions, were down 36%.
Textron Aviation had the top private aircraft based on flight hours across three categories: Midsize … [+]
In terms of most popular private jet types, Gulfstream Aerospace aircraft clocked the most hours among large cabin and super long-range operators. Textron Aviation’s Cessna Citation Excel/XLS was tops in midsize jets. Its Mustang was the most flown very light jet, and its Beechcraft King Air 200 was the top twin-engine turboprop. Embraer’s Phenom 300 maintained its dominance with light jets.
NetJets, Inc., the Berkshire Hathaway unit including NetJets and its charter and management arm, Executive Jet Management, remained solidly in the top spot looking at charter and fractional operators. That’s despite a 27% dip from 2019.
Wheels Up moved from 11th to 3rd place on the list of biggest fractional and charter private … [+]
With 336,252 flight hours, it is still bigger than the next three players combined. However, that gap is closing. Directional Aviation’s Flexjet saw a 3% increase while Wheels Up Partners, powered by the acquisitions of Delta Private Jets and Gama Aviation Signature, moved from the 11th spot into third place. Its acquisition last month of 7th place Mountain Aviation puts it neck and neck with Flexjet for the second spot. Dubai-based Vista Global, which holds a minority stake in XOJET Aviation, fortified its spot in the 4th position with a 9% increase in flight hours, driven in part by its acquisition of Red Wing Aviation.
Jet Linx Aviation jumped from 7th to 5th with its acquisition of Meridian Aviation’s charter business, just ahead of fractional operator PlaneSense, which kept its sixth spot. Also moving up was FlyExclusive, which last year launched its first jet card program. It moved from 10th to 8th with a 25% increase in flight hours, helped by the acquisition of Sky Night, another operator.
Jet Edge stayed in the 9th spot and saw its flight hours up 13%, driven by the acquisition of Jet Select, while Solairus Aviation slipped from 8th to 10th.
Despite all the M&A activity, business aviation remains a fragmented market. The 10 largest charter and fractional operators accounted for 44.3% of Part 91k/135 activity and 23.2% of total business aviation flight hours. By contrast, the 10 biggest U.S. airlines control 90% of the market.
Kuhn expects more deals. There are over 2,000 charter operators in the U.S. M&A may not be restricted to private jets. Last week, Directional announced it was acquiring helicopter operator Associated Aircraft Group, which offers shares and memberships in the Northeast.
With so many small, local operators, Kuhn says, unlike the airlines, which can raise prices at fortress hubs, charter operators will still feel continued price pressure, something good for consumers.
Perhaps most importantly, he says while the recovery is treading water, if it can maintain the current status quo until vaccinations become more widespread and more places open, he doesn’t expect any insolvencies. Last year, members of JetSuite’s SuiteKey membership program lost $50 million in flight credits when the charter operator grounded its fleet and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
I’m Editor-in-Chief of DG Amazing Experiences, a weekly e-newsletter for private jet owners and Private Jet Card Comparisons, a buyer’s guide comparing over 250 jet card programs from major players like Flexjet, Jet Linx, NetJets, Sentient Jet, Wheels Up, VistaJet, and XO to newcomers like FlyExclusive and boutique brokers. You’ll also find performance profiles of popular private jets, from turboprops King Air 350, Pilatus PC-12 and HondaJet to the Phenom 300, Challenger 300 and 350, Gulfstream G450, G550, G650, G700, Bombardier’s popular Global Express family, the iconic Learjet and S-76 helicopter used by both Queen Elizabeth and Donald Trump. There’s a free guide explaining various options and even a guide for first-timers and specifically what you need to know before chartering. And before you fly, find out what’s an FBO. You’ll also find a Deal Book, cataloging M&A activity and launches by key players. I’ve spent my working career in travel and luxury media, for 14 years at Travel Agent magazine, where I began as a reporter, then covered the airline industry as Aviation Editor and ended up rising to Group Publisher. In 2000 I started Elite Traveler, a consumer lifestyle magazine distributed globally aboard private jets, where I was President and Editor-in-Chief until 2014. In 2007, I co-authored of “The Sky’s the Limit: Marketing to the New Jet Set.” In 2014 I wrote “23 Ways to Create More Sales Opportunities 25 Minutes,” and in 2016 I co-authored “Secrets of Selling to the Super Rich.” Verb named me as one of the Top 25 Digital Luxury Experts to follow. For more private aviation and news on jet cards, private aviation memberships, and fractional ownership, visit Private Jet Card Comparisons’ news updates.