Presented by Wheels Up
In the past year, the private jet industry has been one of the few bright spots in an unprecedented travel downturn. The reason: an influx of new patrons, who have turned to private planes—which come with more flexibility over scheduling and the ability to choose your fellow passengers—in times of uncertainty.
“Last year, a large number of people were introduced to the benefits of business aviation,” a sector that covers both chartered flights and privately owned planes, says Ed Bolen, head of the National Business Aviation Association. “They now understand that it is a remarkably flexible and safe way to reach places, especially those that don’t have frequent airline service.”
The statistics bear that out. As of early 2021, scheduled air travel was still down by about 65 percent from pre-pandemic numbers; for chartered flights, after a dip last spring, demand is almost back to pre-COVID-19 levels, and analysts estimate that flight activity for the first half of 2021 will grow by 25 percent.
Some see this as part of the “democratization” of private flying that was under way even before the pandemic, as new apps and ride-sharing options made private air travel more accessible. “Those who previously considered private flying a luxury now see it as a necessary means of travel,” says Lee Applbaum, chief marketing officer at Wheels Up, one of the largest private aviation operators in the country. “They’re using our services to reunite with friends and family after periods of quarantine, safely transport elderly family members throughout the course of the pandemic, conduct critical business trips, and much more,” he says.
Private aviation company Wheels Up operates several air craft, including the Beechcraft King Air 350i
In fact, 96 percent of private jet newbies said they plan to continue to take charter flights, at least occasionally, even after the pandemic eases, according to a survey by website Private Jet Card Comparisons. The poll also revealed that 41 percent of these converts will fly privately on a regular basis from now on, according to Doug Gollan, founder of the site.
Beyond that, there’s a significant untapped market for private aviation, Applbaum says. A recent study by consulting giant McKinsey showed that 93 percent of people who could afford to fly private currently do not. One way Wheels Up hopes to attract first-time private flyers is through an app that allows members and non-members to book private aircraft easily.
Another major advantage for private air travel is that the customer sets their own itineraries. Most flights, therefore, are point-to-point, and you determine when you depart. On-demand charter operators have access to around 5,000 public-use airports in the U.S., putting any destination, no matter how remote, within reach.
And then there’s the fact that on a private trip you’re likely traveling with a small group of people whom you know well—be it a family pod or business colleagues. The industry likes to measure trips in terms of “touchpoints,” Gollan says, or in other words, all the places and people you encounter on your journey. The average private aviation trip has fewer than 20 touchpoints in all, he says; in terms of exposure, that’s probably less than what you’d experience in a typical trip to the supermarket. Private airport terminals (where passenger wait times are minimal) are also rolling out new touch-free technology to further reduce these points of contact.
Ultimately, it’s likely that some private jet operators will become more like multi-service travel companies, says Applbaum. That could include partner benefits at hotels and resorts or regular shuttle flights from bigger cities to vacation destinations like Nantucket or the Hamptons. These longer-term changes will make private travel much more accessible—and have a major impact on the air travel industry as a whole.
This is part of a series on rethinking private travel, which explores how the pandemic has changed our approach to private travel and made it more accessible to all.
Condé Nast Traveler does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published by Condé Nast Traveler is not intended as a substitute for medical advice, and you should not take any action before consulting with a healthcare professional.