Private Travel In The Time Of COVID – Part 1: Private Air
Lynn Elmhirst, Open Jaw Trends Editor

Eclipse Air Charter’s Managing Director Yasmin Alam (right)
and Director of Charter Sales Lily Karapetyan (left).

This week, when Canadian business aviation company Skyservice announced ‘record’ sales of business jets, it was just the latest evidence that private air travel has been one of the winners of the COVID era.

The company has sold seven light jet and turboprop aircraft in the last 12 weeks. Skyservice VP Lyne Barbeau credits the surge in sales to COVID, saying private flight, “Provides a safer, more convenient means of transportation — attributes that are highly sought after in today’s pandemic environment”.

“Flying commercial, passengers encounter 700
‘contamination touchpoints’,
whereas private flight involves less than 30.”

It’s not just purchases of private aircraft by businesses that are booming. 

Eclipse Air Charter launched in Toronto in 2016, offering an on-demand, private aircraft charter service.  This fall, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, it’s added a new international headquarters in London,  after what it says has been a “rise in demand for private jet travel amid COVID-19”. 

“Many people who were on the fence about chartering before the COVID-19 pandemic struck are now actually booking private travel,” adds Lily Karapetyan, Director of Charter Sales. She cites the safety advantages for pax who can avoid public airports and limit contact. 

Eclipse is not alone.

For private jet booking platform Neojets, COVID has been driving an increase in private aviation inquiries that the company’s Toronto-based founder and CMO, Bruno Santiago, tells OpenJaw is “off the charts”. 

Neojets’ FLL-based founder and CEO Asad Rahman says demand has grown, “exponentially”, with a 264% increase in inquiries since the start of the pandemic. 

And he provided OpenJaw with more astonishing statistics that reveal why. “Flying commercial, passengers encounter 700 ‘contamination touchpoints’, whereas private flight involves less than 30.”

He agrees private air is powering a return to travel as commercial flights remain grounded. “For private aviation, COVID has been a good thing.” 

Where To, Ma’am?

“As COVID continues accelerating,” Rahman reveals, Neojets is seeing a focus on flights about an hour long, which are, “more affordable.”

His Toronto-based colleague agrees. “Regional travel is really losing commercial air service,” Santiago points out, “So smaller destinations are increasingly relying on private” air for both business and leisure travel.

Yasmin Alam, founder and Managing Director of Eclipse, agrees. “A lot of countries are still on lockdown or restricting tourism travellers, but it’s actually led to a boom in internal tourism,” says Alam. 

“Canadians are not going down to Miami or Vegas as much anymore, but what they are doing is going to Vancouver, Halifax or Banff.” 

Millionaires, Not Billionaires

The private jet companies are seeing that private air may no longer be uber-exclusive.

Neojets CEO Rahman declares, “It’s blending into mainstream” travel. 

And many luxury travel agencies and tour operators agree.

Andrew Newman, President of Black Tie Travel, says private air is increasingly for, “millionaires, not billionaires.”

His agency surveyed their clients about private air. He tells OpenJaw client interest, “absolutely surpassed their hopes and expectations” with 76 inquiries about private air within 3 hours of their e-blast going out.

Kensington Tours’ president Alison Hickey tells OpenJaw, “This segment of the business historically catered solely to the luxury client, but with Covid-19, we can see some widening of the audience for private jet travel, specifically as clients consider booking travel for their social bubbles of up to 10 people.”

And Director Advisor Services for Travel Edge, Mary Kleen, sees the same trend. We have seen an increased level of request for quotes for private jet travel for family vacations travel especially to destinations that require at least one connection,” she says.

Black Tie’s Newman says work-cation /school-cation and multi-gen family travel trends are underpinning the logic in private air.  When you want to bring distant family members together and can stay longer, he says, “the increased expense makes sense.”

Another factor Newman sees is the family pet. While most private air inquiries are for warm weather destinations, pax are avoiding the US “unless they have a second home there.” Then, they are “looking to bring their pets, too. They’re not driving, and they don’t want their pets to fly commercially.”

The Future of Private Aviation

Newman does warn the travel agency community that private air is “hard to do well”,  with pitfalls including a lack of consistent standards.  Newman has developed a hybrid service “chartering planes for popular routes and selling pairs of seats for scheduled flights,” to his own clients, and making the service available to other agencies for their clients.

Newman believes, post-COVID, “some may return to commercial but many will stay, having realized the value” of saving airport time and hassle and having increased flexibility. 

Travel Edge’s Kleen, agrees, “Once you fly private, you do not want to return to commercial aviation.” 

Kensington Tours’ Hickey may be less optimistic about the long-term trend of flying private.

We don’t 100% believe that this “democratization” trend will continue past the wide availability of a vaccine. However, private jet and private accommodations have always been a part of our offering and will continue to be in the future.”

But in the meantime, travel advisors may see more innovations, like the launch of Air Canada Vacations’ Jetz Experience, with its all-Business Class seats, airport lounge access, curated onboard dining and private luxury transfers, that harness many of the benefits of private air travel for a wider range of Canadian travellers.  

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