With commercial airlines engulfed by the maelstrom of the COVID-19 pandemic, one sector of the industry favored by wealthy people is thriving: private jets.
Fears of massive bankruptcies and calls for emergency bailouts have swept global carriers, with one top US official warning that the outbreak threatens the industry even more than the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
However, for Paramount Business Jets chief executive officer Richard Zaher, the e-mails and telephone calls just keep coming.
“Inquiries have gone through the roof,” he told reporters, adding that his US-based private jet charter had seen a 400 percent increase in queries, with bookings up 20 to 25 percent.
“It is completely coronavirus,” Zaher said. “We are seeing our regular private jet clients flying as they normally do. However, we have this surge of clients coming our way and the majority of them have never flown private.”
Across the world airlines have been slashing capacity and passengers canceling travel plans as countries block arrivals to stem the spread of COVID-19.
ForwardKeys, a travel analytics company, estimates that as many as 3.3 million seats on transatlantic flights alone are disappearing.
Zaher said many new bookings were from clients who had emergencies, and either could not find seats on commercial routes or did not want to risk them.
One booking involved a woman who flew her elderly mother across the US.
“Her mom was on oxygen and needed to be flown coast to coast,” Zaher said. “They felt it was necessary to pay a premium in order to avoid flying commercial and to be together during this uncertain time.”
Costs vary hugely depending on the aircraft, region, number of passengers and duration of the flight. A round-trip charter on a 12-seater plane from London to New York can be about US$150,000. Hong Kong to Japan costs about US$71,000 one-way, and booking a private flight from the UK to the south of France can set you back just over US$10,000.
In Asia, charter firms said that the past two months had seen a sustained increase in new customers, as people who fled the virus, which originated in China’s Hubei Province in December last year, returned this month from places now experiencing their own epidemics.
Commercial flights to and from China have dropped by about 90 percent in the past two months.
A spokeswoman for Air Charter Service in Hong Kong told reporters that it had seen a 70 percent increase in fixed bookings from Shanghai and Beijing in January and last month, and had recorded a 170 percent jump in new customers during the same period.
“It is the kind of people who are wealthy enough, but who would not necessarily charter, who are maybe chartering as a one-off,” said James Royds-Jones, Air Charter Service’s director of executive jets for Asia-Pacific.
Daniel Tang, from Hong Kong-based charter company MayJets, said that he was receiving five times the number of inquiries than normal, with three times more bookings since the outbreak began.
Clients were choosing to charter because they did not want to be confined with hundreds of people with “unknown” travel histories, Tang said, adding that private passengers usually cleared customs and immigration separate from the crowded main airport terminals.
“Both of these are usually just the perks of flying on a private jet, but have become an invaluable advantage to chartering a private jet during these uncertain times,” he said.
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