With flight activity nearing 90% of pre-COVID levels, private aviation is one of the few bits of good news across the decimated travel and hospitality industry. Charter operators and brokers have reported triple-figure increases in call volume and, more importantly, record numbers of new customers.
According to the advocacy group No Plane No Gain, in the U.S. alone the industry supports over 1.1 million jobs and generates $219 million in economic benefits.
With corner office level business travel often still on hold, the recovery has been primarily driven by high net worth families. They are seeking to minimize exposure to COVID-19 or fill the gap from reduced airline schedules. Most of the trips are between homes they own. In some cases, they are renting villas or chartering yachts, sometimes for months at a time.
VBACE Report: VistaJet says 80% of its program customers have signed up for its carbon offset … [+]
Data from McKinsey estimates only about 100,000 from as many as 1.5 million affluent domestic households that have the means to charter a private jet were doing so before the pandemic. In other words, there’s plenty of room for growth.
Last month, IATA said it expects the world’s airlines to lose at least $118 billion this year, an upwards revision of $34 billion than was expected in June.
At the same time, executives of the largest fractional, charter, and jet card providers were offering a bullish outlook for private travel. The CEO of Wheels Up with the second largest fleet of for-hire aircraft said flight volume at his company is exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Thanksgiving flights were off only 7.6% for private jets compared to a 60% drop in travelers who passed through TSA checkpoints.
However, business aviation, as the industry mainly calls itself, may rightly be considering the thorns lurking beneath the rose petals.
The industry’s never-ending pressure to thread the needle of how it’s seen by the outside world was on display last week during VBACE, a virtual rendition of its annual convention. The normal NBAA BACE originally set for Orlando in October was canceled due to the pandemic.
During a panel moderated by aviation journalist Christine Negroni, best known for her reporting on air crash investigations, Ed Bolen, CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, was asked if he was concerned about the increased press of high-net-worth families taking off on private jets during a severe economic downturn.
Bolen countered, “(Business aviation is) a big, broad, diverse industry. Sometimes, it gets characterized by a segment rather than reflecting overall.”
While leisure flying has been grabbing the headlines, he told listeners, “The vast majority of business aviation is the use of an aircraft for a business purpose,” continuing, “Most of the flying that takes place is about a company that is doing a business event somewhere, either moving their employees to visit a customer, taking a product that won’t fit in an overhead bin or too sensitive to go into a cargo hold, doing multiple cities in a single day, or going half-way across the world and having to arrive fresh and go to work…The backbone of our industry continues to be companies that have a business reason for travel…A lot of times business aviation is the best mode of transportation. Sometimes, it’s the only mode of transportation.”
Still, the industry is smart to be alert that the multitude of positive stories of how private aircraft have bridged the gap left by airlines can shift quickly.
Reports about Austin, Texas Mayor Steve Adler, admonishing citizens to stay home over Thanksgiving from a condo in Mexico, gratuitously mentioned he flew there by private jet. From Prince Harry to Elon Musk, the rich and famous have long been an easy lightning rod to strike the industry.
Those same super rich and corporate elite may also be a powerful force in helping the industry achieve its carbon reduction goals.
Matteo Atti, executive vice president of global charter operator VistaJet, said since launching a carbon offset program this year during Davos, 80% of members have signed on. Those customers commit to flying at least 50 hours per year, with many tallying hundreds of flight hours. The company has also been educating them that by booking earlier, they can reduce repositioning flights. Flight planning technology providing improved routings has cut CO2 output by six to eight percent.
Mark Masluch, director of public affairs at Bombardier, said, “The disproportionate amount of criticism (business aviation gets) is something we take to heart and gives us even more resolve to tackle these issues.” While the manufacturer has been working to decrease the carbon output of its jets for more than a dozen years, he said sustainable aviation fuels offer the best near-term solution.
SAFs cut carbon emissions by up to 80% and can be used on new and old jets. However, access is still limited. When NetJets launched an umbrella for its sustainability initiatives in October, it was notable there was only one location in the U.S. where it said there was SAF availability. By making a large commitment the goal is to spur more supply via the demand side.
Dan Hubbard, senior vice president for NBAA, said big companies are helping that push. CEO-level sustainability commitments filter down through various departments, including travel and aviation.
It’s not clear how strong the message is – either from the wealthy or corner office. A JetNet IQ quarterly survey released during VBACE of private jet operators, including companies that manage aircraft for UHNWs, charter fleets, and corporate flight departments, found only two-tenths of one percent said “using sustainable fuel” ranked among the top concerns of passengers. Over 60% listed COVID-19 related cleaning and health protocols, while 22% pointed to the cost of a flight. WiFi availability scored 15 times more important than SAF.
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.