Adapt to Survive – Private Jet Charter and Business Survival in the COVID-19 Aviation Landscape

Nov. 19, 2020
While we are frequently advised to prepare for, and adapt to, the ‘new normal’ on a personal day-to-day level, it is not yet clear what that new normal might be for aviation.

‘Adapt to survive’ is a phrase that has seen frequent use recently, both in terms of business and the economy in general[1], and within the aviation sector specifically[2]Though at risk of becoming a cliché, it is a phrase that perhaps best describes where we find ourselves presently as an industry. The aviation sector has been among the hardest hit by the fallout of the global Coronavirus pandemic, rocking consumer confidence and forcing businesses of all kinds to embrace the changes it is rapidly forcing on us, resulting in these businesses working in new and unexpected ways.

The private aviation and air charter sector has seen companies working with great adaptability to ensure business survival and continued levels of client servicing in a changed world, both during the main period of lockdown and as travel restrictions have started to ease. They have adapted their services to either meet demands from new clients, or to meet new demands from existing clients.

These demands have ranged from time-critical emergency scenarios to changing private and business requirements. The former has included evacuation and repatriation, both of private individuals and corporate personnel, and stepping into disrupted freight supply lines to ensure essential goods are delivered. The latter has seen, since lockdown measures have begun to ease, providing High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) with a means to fly for leisure where commercial flights have been unavailable, or the changes to airport experience has proved a potential concern.

These services have required new levels of synergy, either from several service providers working together to deliver different steps in the process, or by service providers who are able to integrate each step ‘in house’.

Luxury Becomes Necessity

Flying via private jet is seen by many as a luxury – HNWIs have historically invested in luxury travel for many reasons; ease of travel, status, experience and circumventing of the delays and security procedures attached to flying commercially. Over the last few months, we have seen what was once considered luxury quickly become a necessity in some scenarios.

June alone saw a 321% increase in inquiries for private jet flights vs the same month in the previous year[3]. A growing number of travelers, including many who have never previously used private jet services, are exploring the option of private travel due to safety concerns around the use of commercial flights and airports, as well as the increasing limited availability of commercial flights in Europe at that time.

Private jet charters give clients guaranteed peace of mind that flights will be available as and when they need them, which will have increased appeal at a time when commercial flights and routes are only just beginning to be re-established in the wake of travel restrictions and are liable to changes or cancellations at short notice.

Charter services also give passengers much more control over their end-to-end travel environment. The idea of a crowded airport (even at much reduced levels than those seen pre-COVID) will seem daunting to many, exposing them to a sharp rise in potential exposure risk. Travelling privately allows much more control over the travel experience, with private charter operators able to provide facilities like testing of flight crew, socially distanced seating and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and enhanced hygiene measures to travelers that can include masks,  gloves and personal hand sanitizer. As an addition to the intensive interior cleaning measures such as disinfecting the cabin, these extra steps provide a level of peace of mind, perhaps as yet unavailable on commercial flights (not to mention the most obvious factor; drastically reduced interactions with and proximity to other fliers and airline staff).

As lockdown measures continue to be eased worldwide and air travel begins to return, we expect to see HNWIs strongly considering using private charter as a means to travel for leisure to destinations where commercial routes are unavailable or flight schedules are limited. Individuals who have had positive experiences with private charter during the last year will begin to see private charter as a more viable regular flight option, which may contribute to the ongoing and well-noted decline of first class air travel.[4]

The Death of First Class

We are already seeing clients using private jet services in place of first or business-class scheduled flights. Large corporations had begun to shy away from flying entire management or C-suite teams on the same first class service before the COVID-19 pandemic was a consideration, seen as ‘sensible business practice’ to avoid delays to agendas or possible illness outbreaks (during a time period where a flu or gastrointestinal upset was the unthinkable).

During the early stages of the outbreak period, HNWIs and their families made use of private jet charter services in order to return to their respective homes, repatriating to destinations including Italy, France, Morocco, Spain, Russia, Cyprus and the United States. Commercial flights during this period were in huge demand, and as such, clients turned to private services at short notice, often with a highly competitive turnaround time of one to three days from initial inquiry to arrival at their destination, to guarantee availability. This responsiveness, with some private jet charter services available for bookings and inquires 24/7, will no doubt prove of continuing interest to potential clients going forward, giving them a last-minute flight access and flexibility traditional first-class travel lacks.

Disruption, Repatriation and Evacuation

It is not only in repatriating individuals and their families that we have seen private charter services utilized outside of its normal remit during the pandemic, we have also seen them used by corporate clients for personnel repatriation, substation for supply line disruption and employed by governmental bodies for emergency evacuation. Inarguably, it is within these areas that we have seen businesses using their expertise and experience to provide service synergy most effectively.

Evacuation of personnel is a critical, time-sensitive and logistically complex undertaking, requiring great skill, planning and experience to successfully complete. The evacuation and repatriation of passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship is a key example of this. Thirty-two UK and Irish nationals on board the ship were returned to the UK from Yokohama[5]. This necessitated a multifaceted holistic solution, not only comprising of flight organization, but also providing security and scanning technology and personnel (and requisite PPE to ensure their safety).

Undertakings such as these involve several business divisions working in synergy, from freight teams working to fly necessary equipment to security teams ensuring seamless throughput of passengers and their baggage. This requires teams mobilizing quickly (in this instance, within two hours of the project being given the green light), and with all necessary permissions and accreditations across governmental departments, international borders and time zones. Feats like this emphasize not only the importance of synergy, but also the high levels of adaptability possible within the air charter industry.

We have also seen charter flights used to ‘plug the gaps’ in freight and commercial services where these have either been heavily reduced or entirely unavailable. Large increases in urgent requests for freight have meant that companies seeking to transport different commodities to different locations have turned to charter flights to meet the demands of disrupted supply chains. These requests have not only included the seemingly obvious given the current climate, including delivering medical kits from Italy to cruise ships in Spain and hand sanitizer and hygiene supplies from the U.S. to China, but also the replacement of ‘normal’ business freight deliveries unrelated to COVID-19 supplies, including 70 tons of automotive parts from Germany to the U.S.

Businesses have not only had to consider utilizing charter flight services to move cargo, but personnel, too. Those working in high-pressure industries with small work crews, including the medical and energy sectors, need frequent crew rotations to take place and to continue taking place. We have seen requests to assist not only in repatriating crew members when their rotation is complete, from environments such as oil and gas platforms or cargo ships in countries including Saudi Arabia, Angola, Qatar and Iraq, but also to fly teams out to work on projects.

Both repatriation and relocation of crew has required Charter providers to work alongside safety and security teams to provide the extra level of hygiene and safety now expected, in order to keep businesses moving and employees safe. Temperature checking, social distancing and bypassing arrival airport terminals have all been employed in order to reduce possible risk – measures that are stand out examples of why corporates will consider charter flying as a viable option for ease of business continuation while COVID-19 is an ongoing concern. 

Continued Survival

While we have seen impressive reactivity and adaptability from the private and charter aviation sector, it is at present impossible to tell how long the current COVID-19 ‘status quo’ will last, and the repercussions it will continue to have on our industry. While we are frequently advised to prepare for, and adapt to, the ‘new normal’ on a personal day-to-day level, it is not yet clear what that new normal might be for aviation.

About the Author

Mark Briffa | Chief Executive Officer, Air Partner