‘No One Wants the Hassle of the Airport:’ The Pandemic Is Changing Private Jet Travel’s Popularity

Oct. 7, 2021

On JSX’s recent first flight between Dallas and Austin, one traveler was hoping to make the flight part of his weekly commute. Another group of passengers was visiting the state’s capital city for a birthday trip to stay with friends.

On the way back to Dallas, several groups were coming to see the Monday Night Football game between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles.

Even with 35 commercial flights a day between Austin and the two commercial airports in North Texas — DFW International Airport and Dallas Love Field — everyone on the 30-seat plane decided they wanted to skip the traditional airline experience, skip the security lines, skip the parking garage and skip the recommended two hours early arrival time.

At Signature Flight Services, the private terminal JSX is using while it builds its own at Dallas Love Field, customers can show up 30 minutes early and walk right onto the jet sitting on the taxiway outside.

“People got a taste for flying luxury during the pandemic and they don’t want to go back,” said Alex Wilcox, a former JetBlue executive who is now CEO of Dallas-based JSX, which operates 30-seat flights in Texas and the California region. “It’s really the convenience because no one wants the hassle of the airport.”

While commercial aviation is still ailing from the COVID-19 downturn, the world of private and charter flying has never been hotter.

July was the busiest month in modern history for the business aviation category, a mix of corporate flying, private jets and charter services, according to data from business aviation data firm Argus International. There were 302,317 takeoffs and landings among private business aviation operators in July, bigger than even 2019, which was a banner year for the industry.

At Dallas Love Field, private and charter jet traffic for the first nine months of 2021 was 16.5% higher than it was in 2019.

The private flying sector has rebounded so fast from the COVID-19 downturn that there is a shortage of airplanes for purchase worldwide. NetJets and other major players in the fractional private jet sales space cut off sales because there is too much demand.

What’s even more startling, said Argus vice president of market intelligence Travis Kuhn, is that the business aviation sector surge is occurring amid a major dip in corporate flying.

“A lot of companies were tying the return to office to Labor Day, but with the delta variant it is now looking like 2022 at the earliest,” Kuhn said.

The private aviation world was buoyed last summer by a wealthy class of eager travelers who had been stuck at home for months and decided to rent private jets and turboprop planes to vacation at outdoor destinations and beaches. But there was a flood of commercial traffic to those areas, too.

Overall, business aviation traffic was still down in 2020, although both business and commercial travel saw a major rebound in early 2021.

Commercial air travel’s recovery hasn’t been without hiccups. Airlines worked hard in 2020 to show that sitting in close proximity to other passengers didn’t pose an increased danger of catching COVID-19. And this summer, airlines were rife with weather delays and a record number of unruly passenger complaints that sometimes forced planes to be turned around on taxiways and unboarded.

Meanwhile, a booming stock market and stability among high-paying white-collar jobs have led to considerable wealth growth among the upper class.

“That record wealth gain on the stock market pushed more people into private aircraft,” Kuhn said. “And once you see people step up, you won’t see them step down.”

Dallas is typically the second- or third-largest market in the country for business aviation, behind Teterboro Airport just outside New York and comparable to Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles. Dallas has held onto its position as one of the top business aviation markets as traffic has soared back, Argus’ data shows.

But by all accounts, 2020 was just as tough a year for private flight operators as it was for the rest of the aviation industry. Traffic dropped 20% to 30%, led by a massive halt in corporate flying. But private and business aviation came back aggressively in early spring of this year, just as COVID-19 vaccines began to be distributed to a wide group of Americans and dropping infection rates led more areas of the country to begin reopening.

JSX, formerly known as JetSuite, moved its headquarters from California to Dallas in 2018. In 2020, it launched a hybrid model.

It pulled seats out of a jet normally intended for 65 passengers to accommodate only 30. Carrying 30 passengers also pushes it just up against the limits set by the FAA of selling tickets on scheduled flights without being a full commercial airline like Southwest Airlines, which is also headquartered in Dallas.

JSX is now flying directly from Dallas to Houston, Las Vegas and Austin, along with some charter flights to private resorts and golf courses. It also flies to about a dozen locations within the Southern California area, Arizona and Nevada.

One-way between Dallas and Austin starts at $129 during its initial promotional period and flights for later months between Dallas and Austin and Houston sell for $269. Flights on American Airlines to either of those destinations run as low as $49 for main cabin or about $250 for first class.

On the JSX Embraer 165 and 175 aircraft, passengers never have to sit next to another person.

Wilcox, who started his career at Southwest Airlines as an intern in the communications department, said it gives an experience like first-class on a commercial flight.

“People just value their time and convenience a lot more than they used to,” Wilcox said. “No one wants to spend all day at an airport in security lines and waiting for a plane.”

The company is in the midst of renovating a former Gulfstream hangar at Dallas Love Field to give JSX its own permanent terminal with a hangar for its jets and an area for maintenance, he said.

Other airports in the region have seen an uptick in private flying, too.

At McKinney National Airport, one of the busiest airports in North Texas that doesn’t do heavy commercial or cargo traffic, jet fuel sales have surpassed 2019 levels in three of the last four months, said airport director Kenneth Carly.

“My sense is that you are starting to see a certain segment that was high volume business class or first class user that is transitioning over to charter,” Carly said. “Initially it was with the pandemic, but now they are sticking with it.”

At Dallas-based Business Jet Center, which also has a base at Love Field, the biggest uptick has been in personal and leisure flying.

But this new demand is stretching the industry thin.

“The demand for charter is nearly outpacing the charter aircraft supply,” said Cat Wren, Business Jet Center’s customer experience officer. “Customers are booking months in advance, as opposed to the more traditional lead time of one or two weeks.”

Operators have reported problems finding pilots, maintenance workers and other professionals needed to keep private and charter operations flying. Major airlines have had the same problems in recent months and Southwest Airlines and Fort Worth-based American are on track to hire thousands of employees this year.

“There has just been this explosion in private flying and it just isn’t going to go back to what it was before the pandemic,” said Janine Iannarelli, an aviation consultant in Houston with Par Avion. “Why would you go back when you have to deal with everything happening at the airport and on airlines these days?”

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