Private jets have long been the domain of celebrities, the uber-wealthy and high-flying execs. But has coronavirus pushed non-commercial flight into the mainstream?, asks Gayatri Bhaumik.
Cruise control - an MJets private plane in action.
In the wake of Covid-19, it’s being reported that demand for private flights has risen sharply.
In recent years, fractional ownership and charter memberships have made flying private somewhat more accessible, but just how likely is a non-commercial future for the average expat family?
“Pre-coronavirus, the demand for private charters in the Asia-Pacific region was mostly from entrepreneurs and c-suite (chief) executives who were travelling for business,” says Keith Tsang, OJets’ vice president sales, Asia-Pacific. “Since the outbreak, we’ve seen a shift in demand towards repatriation and charter cargo of essential supplies. Currently, the demand is largely for essential business trips, with some leisure trips for countries that are starting to open up.”
Ian Moore, chief commercial officer of VistaJet, believes the situation is complex, noting that demand has fluctuated significantly at different stages of the pandemic.
In the first quarter of 2020, VistaJet experienced increased interest in their long-range Global jets as people flitted between the eastern and western hemispheres trying to outrun the pandemic.
“But in the second phrase, from the end of March until the end of April, we saw a significant slowdown in demand as borders were closing very rigidly,” says Moore. “During this time, we mainly performed repatriation flights. We’ve now entered the third phase and we’re now seeing some borders slowly opening up and restrictions being carefully lifted. Since the end of April, we’ve seen a slow but steady increase in traffic around the globe.”
Add to this the fact that private jets beat borders. Put succinctly, if you're flying private, the pandemic world suddenly opens up. When the Maldives first opened in June, it was to private jets and yachts only and many destinations have followed this lead. Kokomo Private Island in Fiji has its own hangar at Nadi Airport and welcomes guests flying private, despite the country as a whole remaining closed to commercial international passengers.
Guests at Kokomo Private Island Fiji transferring to the resort by private seaplane.
Jet companies report that there is still significant demand from business travellers, but many people who normally travel on commercial flights are now flying private due to better availability of flights, a higher level of cleanliness, and less exposure to other travellers.
There is currently much talk in quarantine chat groups about chartering flights in order to repatriate, particularly back to Australia where commercial passenger numbers are capped and passengers frequently find themselves being ‘bumped’ from flights. Private jets have also become an option for Brits scrambling to get home from Europe to beat incoming quarantine requirements.
“We’re seeing people turning to private aviation for the first time because commercial services have been halted,” notes Tsang. “Private charter is a safer choice (there’s minimal contact compared to commercial flights and less time spent in airports) and offers more flexibility to meet their needs.”
“Because the number of touch points significantly decreases when flying private – 20 interactions as opposed to 700 when flying commercial – the travel industry expects to see an increased number of first-time private flyers looking for safer and more reliable alternatives,” adds Moore. “This demand includes essential business travel, families looking for safe, remote holiday destinations, and students heading back to school.”
The Aman Private Jet seats 12 passengers, looked after by the Aman Jet Concierge.
Of course chartering a private jet doesn’t come cheap. That’s because you’re paying for a highly exclusive service that comes with a host of trimmings, from choosing your own take-off time to enjoying exactly the food you want onboard.
“Unlike scheduled commercial services, each charter trip is unique,” says Tsang. “Pricing is subject to factors such as aircraft availability, type of aircraft, repositioning before and after each journey and specific requests such as inflight catering.”
There’s a lot of hype about the growing ‘accessibility’ of chartering a private jet, with many proponents saying it’s comparable to the price of a commercial ticket in first class.
However, the reality is that flying private is a far more exclusive service that you pay a premium for. Most jets are also not filled to capacity - especially now in the era of social distancing – which means that the per-person cost of a private jet can exceed that of flying a premium, commercial class.
OJets is currently quoting prices from US$50,000 Hong Kong to Singapore, or from US$180,000 Hong Kong to London. Singapore to Bangkok starts at around $45,000 and Singapore to Sydney from US$140,000. Remember to check individual country entrance and quarantine requirements at your destination before you book.
“There’s a big difference between the operations of commercial aviation and private aviation,” says Moore. “They can be considered as separate industries… it’s not fair to simply compare this by price.”
“Private charters offer a point-to-point connection based on our customers’ desired time and specific private airports, with minimal waiting time and contact with other passengers,” adds Tsang.
It’s this highly-personalised service that you’re paying for and why flying private will always be significantly more expensive than commercial.
If you’ve done the maths and balanced the budget, how exactly do you charter a private jet? It turns out, the process is pretty similar to booking a commercial flight.
Generally, you can visit the website of a charter company, key in the details of your flight, and request a quote. A company representative will quickly be in touch to hash out the details and finalise the booking. Normally, you should be able to secure a charter within 72 hours of your flight time.
The MJets website offers a hassle-free online quoting and booking process that allows travellers to easily charter one of the company’s Gulfstream or Cessna planes. At the click of a mouse, you could be jetting from Bangkok to Samui, Singapore to the Maldives, or Hong Kong to London.
The company also offers more comprehensive vacation options, such as a five-night retreat that’s currently being offered in collaboration with Anantara. It is available for groups of up to 12 people and features a flight plan that covers Bangkok-Colombo-Malé-Bangkok, with two nights at the Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort in Sri Lanka and three nights at the celebrity-favourite Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villa.
Jet in and relax at Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort in Sri Lanka.
Anantara is far from the only hotel brand to jump on the private jet trend. Four Seasons was the first luxury hotel group to offer private jet adventures for discerning guests. The Four Seasons Private Jet Experience offers a series of curated journeys each year; onboard, guests enjoy the renowned Four Seasons service while on the ground, they embark on high-end adventures while staying at opulent Four Seasons properties.
Uber-luxe hotel brand Aman is offering two private jet experiences for its well-heeled travellers. The Aman Private Jet is a spacious Bombardier Global 5000 that comfortably accommodates up to 12 guests; an Aman Jet Concierge will oversee every aspect of your bespoke journey to Aman destinations.
If you’re looking for a more extensive trip, the multi-destination Aman Jet Expeditions cater to up to 16 guests on journeys from 14 to 21 days. Depending on which trip you choose, you could find yourself venturing from Venice to Utah, flying from Kyoto to Greece, or jetting from Bali to Luang Prabang.
Even commercial airlines are getting in on the private jet game. Doha-based Qatar has just launched the Qatar Executive Diamond Agreement programme, an exclusive membership service. Simply pre-purchase a minimum of 50 hours flight time at fixed hourly rates and you’ll have access to Qatar Executive’s fleet of 18 private jets.
Given the price constraints, it’s unlikely that private jets will become as commonplace as commercial travel. But, amid a pandemic, they’re certainly filling a gap in the market. With greater availability than commercial flights and a thoroughly bespoke service with fewer health concerns, private jets may just be the way forward for stranded travellers looking to get home, families who need to get kids to or from boarding school or university, or jet-setters hoping to sneak in a 2020 holiday (or even a 2021 holiday).