Private jet travel is synonymous with luxury, but the pandemic has meant that some of its other qualities – less crowds, convenience, efficiency – have been put into sharp relief.
One of the unforeseen side effects of the pandemic is that while it has wreaked havoc on commercial aviation, private jet travel has soared. By July this year, aviation research firm WingX was reporting business jet and turboprop activity up 43 per cent on 2020 and 11 per cent beyond pre-pandemic volumes.
Activity was highest in North America, which is where more than 70 per cent of the global activity of business jet flights took place this year – the US has seen its busiest July in the past ten years, with flights up 30 per cent compared with July 2019.
Private aviation companies are also seeing an increase in the number of first-time private flyers, who have been lured in by the safe and seamless nature of such travel amid the ongoing chaos of the pandemic. But will the trend to fly private continue, and should it be allowed to with the pressing issue of sustainability?
BUY, PART-OWNERSHIP OR CHARTER?
There are various types of private aviation catering to different flying demands. At one end of the scale is full ownership, which is only really advisable if you fly constantly as it involves a long list of responsibilities, such as aircraft maintenance, crew hiring and scheduling, parking and insurance.
“It’s difficult to have your own aircraft, as privileged as it sounds,” says Marine Eugène, European managing director at Flexjet, which along with several other well-known companies, such as Netjets, offers fractional (or shared) ownership to those who fly 50 hours or more per year, with a minimum commitment of 30 and 36 months respectively. What you get in return is a share in an aircraft, promising guaranteed availability, fixed costs and access to multiple bases of operation among other hassle-free features.
Flexjet has a fleet of more than 160 aircraft, while its competitor, Netjets, has more than 700, and both allow owners to jump on board with as little as ten hours’ notice. The two operators also offer leasing programmes, which are aimed at the same cohort, but involve a different payment structure to avoid a large upfront investment. Flexjet describes the cost of this as falling “between that associated with fractional ownership and a jet card”.
Chartering, meanwhile, caters to those who fly fewer hours and allows you to book a jet much like you order an Uber, with a pay-as-you-fly concept. Victor, a charter broker, has access to 7,000 aircraft worldwide and its app provides pricing options and aircraft specifics, allowing clients to determine the best value before booking flights.
Other options for those who travel less include prepaid jet cards – buying a block of typically 25 flight hours – or a series of membership programmes. Vistajet, for instance, has its Program membership, which offers guaranteed availability at a fixed hourly rate on its fleet of over 70 aircraft with as little as 24 hours’ notice.
Alternatively, travellers can book a single seat on a jet. Aero, the semi-private jet company from Uber’s co-founder Garrett Camp, offers a shared-charter model, meaning travellers can book a seat on bespoke 16-seater aircraft (or charter the entire jet) and fly to private terminals in locations such as Ibiza, Mykonos and Los Angeles – routes from London to Nice and Ibiza are forthcoming.
Clients may choose not to be exclusive to one programme or operator, and might start with chartering and migrate upwards to fractional or full ownership, as they discover its business appeal.
THE BUSINESS CASE
The USP of private jet travel is convenience. It’s often said that for the very rich (or busy), the ultimate luxury is time, and flying privately lets you save lots of it, and make the most of the precious time you have. The pandemic has acted as the deciding factor for many frequent flyers who formerly sat on the fence, because flying with a scheduled airline during the pandemic era has been burdened by limited and erratic flight schedules, the possibility of long queues at immigration and last-minute cancellations. Flying private allows travellers to arrive at the terminal 30 minutes before take-off and land at an airport possibly closer to their final destination.
“Forget the luxury element of it, just the time saved by being in a private jet is significant,” says Ian Moore, chief commercial officer at Vistajet, which had a record-breaking year in 2020, with a rise in bookings of 15 per cent and a 29 per cent increase in new subscription memberships – the fastest rate since the company’s foundation.
“There were a lot of people with the means to fly private who perhaps viewed it as a luxury that they didn’t need. That changed with the severe reduction in commercial flights and the prioritisation of Covid-19 precautions,” says Patrick Gallagher, president of sales, marketing and service at Netjets. At the time of writing, the European arm of the company had seen an increase of more than 300 per cent in new owners (as part of its shared ownership programme) compared with last year.
Private jets also allow for minimal touchpoints, with customers able to travel with their safety bubble. Travellers are no longer faced with bottleneck airport terminals, where they might be mixing with arrivals from countries with high incidences of Covid-19. Much like commercial airlines, private aviation companies have made strides in their cleanliness protocols, sanitising cabins, monitoring the health of the crew and ensuring that the cabin gets fresh air during the trip. Several operators can also organise Covid-19 testing for customers.
Meanwhile, chartering is a great way to introduce people to the industry. Victor’s co-CEO, Toby Edwards, explains that the company has not only seen an increase in new clients but also more bookings per customer. Those that formerly saw private travel as a rarity are now flying half a dozen times per year.
With business travel largely still on hold, this surge in bookings is driven by leisure trips. In some cases, general demand is larger than before the crisis. Netjets, for instance, is currently averaging 541 flights per day compared with 380 per day in 2019.
Victor has seen record-breaking levels in the US, with domestic American flights at an all-time high, while Vistajet has also seen an increase in traffic from North America to the Caribbean over the past six to nine months. “We’re probably seeing the same kind of routes but with more regularity and at different times of the year,” Moore says.
Private aviation in Europe is expected to take longer to recover because of continuing border restrictions, but it is certainly on the upswing. Flexjet’s European business, for instance, is performing strongly month-on-month, with a 132 per cent increase in flights from May to June 2021, followed by a 57 per cent increase from June to July. At the time of writing in early August, the company says it is already booked at over July levels in Europe.
There is high traffic around the Mediterranean in locations such as the Balearic Islands, Southern France, and the Greek islands, although the UK and Ireland still trail behind owing to travel restrictions. “While the top locations remain unchanged, not all have fully recovered – for example, London and Paris are still behind the rest of the market,” Gallagher says. What’s new, however, is the rise in intra-UK/British Islands travel. Flexjet noticed that people who otherwise would have gone overseas are now flocking to the Channel Islands.
Europe is a prime market for future expansion, with companies focusing on growing their operations on the continent. Flexjet has seen its fleet in Europe increase by 40 per cent in 2021. Netjets has added nine aircraft in Europe this year, with an additional four to be delivered before the end of 2021, and plans to reach a milestone of 100 aircraft there in the first half of next year. “This will add tremendous capabilities to our existing network of more than 760 aircraft worldwide,” Gallagher asserts. Meanwhile, Europe accounted for 43 per cent of new members at Vistajet last year.
For high-net individuals who are used to a certain level of service, the pandemic has further legitimised their decision to fly private. The few remaining first-class airline cabins have lost their lustre, with disposable packaging replacing porcelain and silverware, limited dining experiences, and the closure of lounges worldwide. Private jet travel, however, has dodged such a fall from grace, and service on board is akin to five-star hospitality.
During my flight with Flexjet (see box), we were looked after by two highly experienced pilots who made us feel like a million dollars. Both had been test pilots for Embraer, while an attentive cabin server hailed from the luxury Villa d’Este hotel on Lake Como. Cabin crew at Flexjet are tied to a specific tail number, allowing them to cherish the aircraft, and limiting maintenance as a result.
Excellent service extends to pre-flight operations, too, with companies providing dedicated account managers or concierge services which handle clients’ demands and introduce unfamiliar flyers to the market. Guests receive a personalised service and can build a good rapport with their manager, something that is lacking in the call centres of commercial flying.
Then there are the ground facilities, which are worlds away from the stressful atmosphere during peak travel times at airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick. Many arrange luxury chauffeur transit to the airport, and passengers can often drive straight on to the taxiway, affording them a high level of privacy.
It would be a shame, however, not to take advantage of the private terminals. State-of-the-art Farnborough airport, located only 60 minutes from London’s city centre, has multiple lounge facilities, passenger showers, a concierge and even a dedicated pet travel support officer. Meanwhile, Flexjet has a hub in London’s Mayfair (around the corner from Claridge’s, no less) where owners get access to meeting spaces, private offices and dining areas, and
Aero can secure access to exclusive perks and events at partner resorts, restaurants and beach clubs.
In the era of flygskam (flight shaming), the carbon-intensive industry of private aviation has a lot to answer for. According to the NGO Transport and Environment (T&E), private jets are five to 14 times more polluting than commercial planes (per passenger), with a single private jet able to emit two tonnes of CO2 in an hour. Put into context, four hours of flying on a private jet is equivalent to the emissions of the average European citizen over the course of a year. Its clients, too, face opposition for their choices. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for instance, was criticised earlier this year when he took a short private jet flight to Cornwall for the G7 summit. With the impacts of climate change becoming more prominent by the day, private aviation companies have sought solutions in carbon offsetting programmes, the purchase of sustainable aviation fuel and investment in greener technologies.
I question, however, whether carbon offsetting is enough to address the problem. “Carbon offset is a minimum baseline and there’s nothing you can really brag about. You’ve got skin in the game, you can’t just address it from a PR perspective, it has to be rooted and real,” Flexjet’s Eugène tells me. Flexjet is offsetting every flight by 300 per cent, compensating not just for carbon emissions but also other pollutants such as aerosol sulphate and nitrous oxides. This is a mandatory measure, built into the pricing model. The aircraft itself is also another consideration, with newer models far less polluting. Flexjet’s fleet, for instance, has an average age of six years.
Victor’s Build Back Better framework also includes a mandatory minimum 200 per cent offset – that is, buying double the amount of carbon credits to reverse the pattern of emissions – and clients can choose to top this up. “It isn’t a silver bullet; it’s a pragmatic method of cleaning up after yourself and paying for your collusion,” Edwards says.
Vistajet also introduced carbon offsetting in January 2020, and while this isn’t mandatory, more than 80 per cent of members took part last year. “That shows that you’re pushing on an open door,” Moore says. Such measures will help Vistajet to reach its commitment to be carbon neutral by 2025, which is 25 years ahead of current industry goals. “I want to make sure this little guy has a planet to be able to fly on a little later,” he remarks as his toddler joins the Zoom call.
Meanwhile, Netjets has been carbon neutral in Europe since 2012, and expanded its Global Sustainability Programme last year with a focus on SAF. The company has committed to purchasing 100 million gallons of Wastefuel’s SAF over the next ten years. “This partnership will make sustainable aviation fuel more accessible across the industry as a whole – both private and commercial,” Gallagher says.
Flexjet, Vistajet and Victor also allow customers to purchase SAF credits to minimise their impact. It helps that airports are also getting involved, with Farnborough announcing in July that it would offer Neste MY SAF to all passengers, in turn reducing flying emissions by up to 80 per cent.
While the private jet players are getting involved in the discussion, T&E suggested in May that more drastic measures should take place. Its paper Private jets: can the super-rich supercharge zero-emission aviation? recommended that regulators only allow the use of electric or hydrogen aircraft for private jet flights under 1,000km within Europe by 2030, and impose a tax on flights and fuel in the meantime. T&E states that a ticket tax applied to flight distances could raise €325 million per year if applied to all flights departing from the EU and UK, which could in turn be used to finance further green technologies.
It appears that things are moving in that general direction, with the European Commission (EC) announcing in July a set of tax reforms as part of its Fit for 55 plan that would end the tax exemption on jet fuel for private and commercial flights within Europe. This, however, doesn’t apply to flights departing from Europe, which are responsible for more than 60 per cent of emissions, according to T&E. The EC proposes that these are instead covered by an offsetting scheme.
Looking further ahead, there’s the prospect of electric aviation, which will lend itself to the private market as it will begin with smaller cabins. Another game changer will be eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off), which will provide door-to-door capability. Flexjet’s sister company Halo Aviation, a UK-based helicopter operator, has ordered 200 eVTOL aircraft from Embraer’s Eve Urban Air Mobility Solutions, with an expected delivery date of 2026. It will be years before all of this is reality, but as Eugène states, “it’s credible, it’s not science fiction”. Aviation is, after all, an evolving industry that has been constantly changing its technology over the past century.
With the surge in demand inextricably linked to the pandemic, will we look back on this period as an anomaly? Honeywell Aerospace’s Global Business Aviation Outlook forecasts that business jet usage will recover to 2019 levels by the second half of 2021, while a report from market research company Beroe predicts that the business jet market is set to reach US$37.5 billion by 2030. Netjets, for instance, which is the oldest and largest operator in the industry, says that 70 per cent of new owners plan to extend their contracts or upgrade to a lease or a share. “Even if only 10 to 15 per cent stick, that’s a lot of growth for this industry to be able to take on top of the natural growth that we’re already seeing,” says Moore of Vistajet.
Business travel is also set to rebound, with face-to-face meetings still key to maintaining client relationships. In Vistajet’s The Future of Business Travel report, issued in June 2021, 55 per cent said that they would travel privately to save a client relationship worth more than US$5 million, with 33 per cent seeing fewer deals closed as a result of the lack of business travel during the pandemic.
“As an industry, we’ve had an accelerated opportunity to show what we do and I don’t think anyone sees that trend reversing any time soon,” concludes Moore. Time is money, after all. So long as you can afford it.
EXPERIENCING THE EMBRAER PRAETOR 600
In June, I was lucky enough to be one of the first passengers to experience a new Embraer Praetor 600 belonging to Flexjet – it had been delivered from Brazil just a few days earlier. The “super midsize” aircraft is part of Flexjet’s shared ownership scheme, the first of which was delivered in November 2020. Owners can fly to European hotspots such as Saint-Tropez, landing at La Môle airport, or to long-haul destinations such as New York and Dubai. With travel restrictions still in place, we instead took a domestic flight from Farnborough airport, benefitting from a day of sunny weather.
The interiors are as glamorous as the exterior, with custom-designed furnishings, such as tailored textiles from the operator’s own LXi Cabin Collection. The aircraft can carry up to nine passengers, with six plush seats that can convert into beds for longer flights, and three spaces on a divan at the back of the aircraft. It’s easy to see why it appeals to business travellers, with high-speed Ka-band wifi that allows for video streaming, stowable tables and fantastic noise insulation. The latter was particularly apparent during take-off, and I could easily chat to fellow passengers throughout the flight.
Meanwhile, fly-by-wire controls dampen the effects of turbulence, allowing for a more peaceful experience. It also has a cabin altitude of 1,767m, lower than the altitude of St Moritz in Switzerland, allowing you to feel refreshed when you reach your destination. When it comes to hygiene, the cabin has a continuous exchange of fresh, clean air from outside the aircraft, and is equipped with HEPA filtration to improve the cabin air quality.
Then there’s the in-flight service, which included catering by Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge, with cold canapé-style starters and hot meals fashioned from the galley’s microwave oven on white-tablecloth covered tables. There are also holders for your drinks, although it’s still best to hold on to your glass tightly during take-off and landing to save champagne from flying down the cabin.
- High speed cruise: 863km/h
- Maximum range: 7,441km
- Endurance: 8 hours nonstop
- Altitude: 13,716m Cabin height: 1.83m
- Cabin width: 2.08m