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Following the almost total shutdown of air travel due to the worldwide coronavirus threat, airlines are left grappling with how to move forward. Flyers are more so now than ever focused on their health and wellbeing, making for significant changes in the way people travel. And private aviation companies are uniquely positioned to offer customized experiences to travelers who may be a bit weary of hitting the skies in the near future.
We spoke with multiple experts in the field about forthcoming trends, how private aviation can bounce back from the impact of coronavirus, and why flyers might start choosing private options over commercial flights in the coming months, even years.
“We believe that general aviation will continue to thrive in the face of the pandemic and, especially, as it subsides,” said Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association President and CEO Mark Baker. “Private and business aviation have been resilient through previous hardships and will bounce back stronger than before.” That optimism is pervasive throughout the industry, and the data cautiously backs it up. Germany’s WingX, which tracks market trends in business aviation, follows flight activity on a day-to-day basis. Managing Director Richard Koe noted that starting in mid-April, they have seen a gradual but steady increase in business aviation activity as lockdown measures have been lifted.
Koe explained what he sees for the near future of private aviation, dependent on region: First, from now until mid-June, Koe expects continued modest improvement in flight levels as travel restrictions are eased. Then from mid-June, he expects a surge in business aviation demand through the summer, although still below past years’ levels. Finally, from the fall of 2020, he explained that he anticipates some slowdown in the recovery, as public health restrictions are raised to meet winter-flu/virus return and some businesses cut corporate travel accounts due to the overall economic downturn.
Koe continued, “Into 2021, assuming the virus is under control and effective treatment in sight, we see an opportunity for business aviation to play a bigger role.” With commercial aviation options rebounding on a slower schedule due to the amount of time it takes to implement mass changes, there will be something of a connectivity gap. And as the economy starts to rebound, so will the need for business travel. According to a WingX press release from earlier this month, "The moving 7-day average activity has steadily improved on a global basis since mid-April, from a low point of 3,600 flights per day to 5,200 flights a day in May, more than 40% improvement. This recovery in business aviation activity is far more perceptible than in scheduled airlines.”
Doug Golan, former aviation journalist and now owner of Private Jet Card Comparisons, thinks that most people in private aviation are optimistic for a few keys reasons. He explained that there are many people who could afford to fly private but have shied away from doing so due to the expenditure. Those people are now looking to the future using private transportation methods because they want to minimize contact. “The only thing you can’t buy is health,” Golan said. Golan also noted that in past eras of economic downturn, on the business aviation side, private aviation was often first on the chopping block, but due to the heightened focus on health, that’s not an option. And finally, Golan shared that some private flyers who used to just focus on short hops then do longer ones using commercial options have changed their habits. Now, these customers, who fly both privately and commercially are more interested in private aviation options.
Golan also noted that airline CEO’s have said it could take at least three years to fully restore their networks. “So, for businesses that have customers or facilities in secondary cities, flying privately will become more critical”.
In terms of accessibility and price, Golan also noted that if commercial airlines have to keep open seats between passengers to slow COVID-19 transmissions, their prices will likely rise, which will tighten the gap between public and private aviation. He said, “that could bring fares closer to the private sharing options.” He anticipates that private sharing options, already available at Jet Linx, Wheels Up, and XO, will grow. “For folks who can’t afford the entire plane, another family of four is still much better than being on a [commercial] airplane with 150 people”. Plus, with private flying, the busy airport terminals can be avoided since the lower volume FBOs or private terminals are used instead.
Shawn Hall, Chief Commercial Officer of Signature Flight Support, the world’s largest FBO (fixed base operator) management company, is also feeling optimistic. “I would bet on private aviation coming back stronger,” Hall stated. He shared that the limited exposure and frictionless travel of private aviation is a tailwind, or boon, for the industry. With complete flexibility in terms of timing and destinations, private aviation offers a convenience factor that commercial just can’t touch. Plus, Hall continued to explain, Signature has seen that as states and locations open up, even on the first day, the flying picks up immediately.
Matt Carroll, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Signature Flight Support, also stated that “private aviation is much more accessible than it’s ever been, and in a post COVID-19 environment, that will continue.” Carroll elaborated, “today’s travelers have access to a much wider variety of private flight options. Much of the recent growth in private aviation can be attributed to the rise of on-demand chartering, membership programs, and fractional ownership. We believe these options will be especially attractive to first time private aviation customers in a post COVID-19 environment.” And companies have already started to see significant shifts in how people fly. From March to April, Fly XO saw a 378% increase in their RISE membership—their beginners membership program—from people who have never flown private before.
The private aviation space is also quick to adapt. While launch plans were already in motion before the coronavirus, post pandemic, Signature plans to extend its Elite Service in the United States. Already available for some UK and Caribbean destinations, this option allows for commercial passengers to check in and out through the Signature fixed-base operator—FBOs are organizations that are granted permission to operate at an airport and provide aeronautical services. This removes the friction points of waiting in the security line, finding the gate, etc, and allows for less person-to-person contact and a more specialized flying experience. Carroll thinks it will be an even more compelling need now. The company will also focus more on cleanliness and specifically, aim to by far exceed cleanliness standards in a post COVID-19 world. Specifically, Carroll noted, “we will be introducing electrostatic sprayers at our busiest locations with plans to roll-out across the network as soon as possible. In addition, all locations will have ‘pulse oximeters’ for employee testing to aid in the detection of COVID-19.”
Additionally, Signature Flight Support is already looking ahead to expanding into urban air taxis as customers look for different options for ever short-haul travel. With an exclusive partnership with Uber, the company hopes to increase short term mobility on a scale that hasn’t been seen before. Hall added that technological advances help to expand mobility beyond a luxury space and into the urban air mobility space, which takes frictionless travel to a whole new level.
Jamie Walker, President and CEO of Jet Linx, the world’s 2nd largest private jet management company, shared that as customers have an increased focus on health and wellness post COVID-19, private aviation seems like a viable option to future travel solutions. Jet Linx was an early pivoter in the wake of the pandemic, with their March debut of the Affiliate Jet Card Membership, a 90-day private jet travel solution. For the first time, this option gives the guaranteed availability of a private jet for a short term basis, in response to customers raised awareness and prioritizing of their own health and wellness, in terms of both business and leisure travel. This new membership choice was designed “in support of both individuals and companies searching for peace of mind in the case they need to travel during this time of uncertainty,” according to the company’s website. Walker added that this program is especially attractive for people who haven’t flown privately historically; the Affiliate Membership augments a temporary solution to the COVID-19 crisis, and already accounts for 22% of Jet Linx’s Jet Card sales.
Another quickly implemented Jet Linx pivot was their adoption of the BIOPROECTUs System by ViaClean Technologies. This approach disinfects and protects the fleet of 112 aircraft, private terminals, and facilities across the US. Jet Linx is the first and only operator in the worldwide aviation industry to utilize BIOPROTECTUs. Additionally, the company has installed BIOPROTECT hand purifier dispensers in each of their 18 private terminals and on the actual jets themselves.
As we get closer to understanding what the future holds for travel, both for business and pleasure, it’s clear that travelers are focused on their wellness—and private aviation companies are taking note.