As International Travel Withers, Business Aviation Shifts Gears to Domestic Flights

J. George Gorant

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After an unprecedented surge in bookings during March, the charter and private jet industry returned to earth in April—although bookings are still coming in because private planes have an important role to play as the world battles coronavirus.

Last month, flights were up after virus fears and travel restrictions put a clamp on commercial flights just as people around the world were scrambling to return home to escape the virus. During the month, Paramount Business Jets in Leesburg, Va., for example, saw a 317 percent increase in travel requests from Europe compared to the same period last year, a 356 percent increase from Macau and Hong Kong and a 104 percent surge within the US.

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For many private jet companies, the sharp international demand has since eased and moved into the domestic arena.

“A small portion of our bookings are evacuation flights, moving healthy people out of hot zones, but those are dwindling,” Todd Weeber, COO of Magellan Jets told Robb Report. “Most of our current bookings are related to business; either business-continuity related or related to future travel that would normally be booked in business class.”

At other companies, the new normal, at least for now, is centered more on getting and staying together. “When the federal government began to tighten restrictions on travel from the European continent, then the UK and Ireland, we were very busy returning owners back to the states,” a Flexjet representative said in an email to Robb Report. “We are now beyond that point and almost all of our travel is domestic and made up of people moving to locations where families can stay in place together.”

Richard Zaher, president and CEO of Paramount, echoed that observation: “People are also flying between their homes, and even if a commercial flight is still available, they prefer for health reasons to choose the private option instead.”

Even as these companies struggle to keep up with quickly changing conditions and regulations, they are working to ensure the safety of the passengers and crews who are still taking to the air.

Flexjet has begun transporting its crews to work locations on its own planes, instead of on commercial airlines, to ensure their health and abide by social distancing guidelines. It completed treating the interiors of its fleet with MicroShield 360, an FDA-approved antimicrobial coating system that kills 99.99 percent of bacteria.

Instead of swapping crews upon arrival, Paramount has started flying with two crews onboard when going into a hot zone. This way a fresh crew can handle the return flight without anyone getting on or off the aircraft.

NetJets, the world’s largest fractional provider, is also undertaking daily disinfectings in both post-flight and pre-flight cleanings, with “deep-cabin” cleanings every night by its maintenance teams. “All aircraft interiors, from the cockpit to the baggage hold (including carpets), are also being treated with an antimicrobial barrier that kills bacteria, fungi, germs, and enveloped viruses like COVID-19. This barrier is effective for 90 days and will be reapplied before its expiration, said its website.

The company is going even farther with international flights. “Any NetJets aircraft that returns from a region identified by the CDC as high risk are immediately quarantined and disinfected,” said the website.

NetJets continues to prohibit travel to mainland China, South Korea, and Italy. The company said that “nonessential travel” should be avoided to Hong Kong, Singapore and 28 countries in Western Europe.

The National Business Aviation Association and a dozen other private-aviation groups sent a letter on April 1, according to the association, to FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Ali Bahrami requesting exemptions and other accommodations to ensure that business and general aviation are not disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Business aviation plays an important role as the nation continues its work to contain COVID-19, mitigate the devastation the virus might cause and— eventually—begin nationwide recovery,” wrote Brian Koester, NBAA’s director of flight operations and regulations.

Elsewhere in business aviation, the need for equipment, medical supplies and goods has created an area of growth for business jets.

“The Freight division has seen a pick-up in demand for the movement of goods to keep global supply chains operating during the pandemic,” Mark Briffa, CEO of Air Partner, told Robb Report. “We have, for example, arranged the transportation of vital medical supplies into the United States and are receiving enquires for further logistical support at this critical time.”

Analysts worry that the combination of essential business travel, future bookings, increased freight carriage and humanitarian missions will not save the industry from a down year.

Magellan estimates that demand for the rest of 2020 will be less than 50 percent than the same period in 2019. “We just attended a worldwide Business Aviation town hall with over 450 leaders,” Weeber said. “The group was polled on two questions: 52 percent believed six months will pass before recovery begins. And 48 percent are fairly pessimistic on the results for 2020 as a whole. We agree.”

 

 

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