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High Flyers: Is Flying by Private Jets Our Future?

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In trying times such as these, business jets seem more attractive than ever, guaranteeing the privacy, luxury, reliability and flexibility that well-heeled travellers are increasingly willing to invest in. Stephanie Ip finds out from the experts at VistaJet and Jet Luxe how flying private is taking over.

Once upon a time, travel was bliss. Nowadays for many, it’s a distant dream – and for those who’ve stepped aboard a commercial flight in the past two years, it’s an utter nightmare. But for private aviation, the pandemic has proved to be something of a boon. People’s appetite for travel isn’t going anywhere and as Covid drags on, their desire to escape the day-to-day mundanity only grows stronger. For this reason, many have turned to flying private – and they haven’t turned back since.

Data drawn from FlightAware saw total global flights plummeting in March 2020, with most categories excepting business aviation at 50 percent lower than previous years. Moreover, it was the private industry – classed as flights that are neither commercial nor cargo services – that bounced back quickest, returning to 85-90 percent of previous volume by July 2020.

Ian Moore, Chief Commercial Officer at VistaJet, says, “What’s happened with commercial versus private has been sort of polar opposites. One of the reasons is because commercial routes around the world have been decimated and still haven’t come close to recovering, particularly in places like Hong Kong. Private jets have really picked up the slack and connected the world again. The cost of flying an aircraft with eight passengers for us in relative terms is significantly cheaper than flying a 200-250 passenger aircraft with only five or six passengers on it.”

According to private-jet operator Jet Luxe’s chief commercial officer, Caroline Cresp, the company has seen a dramatic uptake in passengers when compared with the pre-pandemic situation. Not only has demand for private travel now outstripped supply, but the industry has also seen a demographic shift of private users.

“The industry saw both increased use from existing users along with a significant number of ‘new entrants’,” says Cresp. “We’ve also seen a trend of jet travellers upgrading their access from chartering on demand to purchasing partnership models which offer guaranteed access.”

VistaJet is seeing a similar phenomenon, boasting a 75 to 80 percent increase everywhere in terms of sales. “We’re well up not just on the Covid year at the start of 2020, but actually compared to where we were in 2019 as well.”
People who want and need to travel will travel. Concerns about hygiene and safety, repatriation issues, crew shortages and the need to conduct urgent travel are all factors contributing to the rise in demand. Businesses value the safety and efficiency of private aviation while leisure travellers are “embracing revenge travel and making up for lost time”, according to Cresp.

“Even in normal times, private aviation offers a level of efficiency that commercial travel can never match,” says Cresp. “When flying privately, the passenger has ultimate agency over when and where they fly. In the USA and Asia, where many destinations are poorly served by commercial airports, private aviation offers a viable, swift solution … When time is money, the business argument for private aviation is strong.”

There are still many operational aspects that are just better done in-person – relationships to be rebuilt, supply chains to be overseen, contracts to be signed. CEOs and company founders can reach multiple destinations in one day, sign deals, and be home for dinner with the family at night.

In 2020, private-jet clients looked to charter services for repatriation, bringing family members or pets home safely, transporting a sick patient or conducting essential business. According to Moore, VistaJet was even outsourcing its empty legs to governments so they could get their citizens home. But as the travel situation evolved over the past two years, so have client needs.

“Flying privately with a young family is just infinitely different from flying commercially,” says Moore, who speaks from experience. “It’s being able to get to the aircraft just five or 10 minutes before take-off, having access to just the people inside the aircraft that you vetted. The privacy and safety elements, of knowing your crew and knowing that they’re vaccinated and fine, and being able to get what you need, are huge drivers.

“People are spending a bit more money on their companies and on their families to ensure they’re safe and ensure they have the convenience of being able to get to locations when they want, how they want and with whom they want. That’s why we’re seeing such high growth numbers from one year to the next,” says Moore.

Today, VistaJet has more than 80 private jets available to its customers. And for its Program Members, there’s guaranteed availability anytime and anywhere, with no positioning costs. The company was founded in 2004, launching a revolutionary subscription model in 2007 that proposed a new way to fly – customers can have access to an entire fleet but only pay for the hours they need. Moore wasn’t exaggerating about the company’s growth – its list of achievements for 2020 run long. Vista partnered with governments and medical organisations to offer global infrastructure and medical support during the pandemic; it also launched Private World, a global programme of bespoke experiences that offer private and safe travel end to end; announced its Sustainability in Aviation pledge (focusing on becoming carbon-neutral by 2025 when the industry standard is by 2050).

Vista Global (the parent company of VistaJet) acquired Red Wing Aviation and debuted the ultra-long-range Bombardier Global 7500 to its fleet, which is capable of flying nonstop between Hong Kong and New York, or Singapore and San Francisco. In 2021, Vista Global further acquired Apollo Jets and Talon Air, expanded its Global 7500 fleet and put in an order for 10 new super-midsize Challenger 350 jets. If this isn’t a sign of a company doing remarkably well for itself, we don’t know what is.

2021 was a good year for Jet Luxe as well, which debuted its INVICTUS Partnership, a programme that’s set to be a new niche and highly exclusive partnership for business flyers. INVICTUS permits four partners to share hours allocated to them in a business jet, with guaranteed access but without the financial commitment or depreciation associated with fractional ownership. According to Cresp, the feedback has been overwhelming so far and the company expects to see more partners joining INVICTUS in 2022.

“There’s also a rising group of travellers who are embracing ‘revenge travel’,” says Cresp. “It’s a concept of making up for ‘lost time’. We’ve seen a large spike in clients wishing to take once-in-a-lifetime, special trips with their loved ones. Our clients don’t want to continuously put their bucket lists on hold, they want to fly now.”

At Jet Luxe, the company offers concierge and ultra-personalisation services that will enable its clients to curate their trips down to the smallest detail. The experiences are often truly one-of-a-kind, bespoke to the client’s unique preferences. From wellness travel to fine dining, children’s entertainment to pet’s meals – these are all services unavailable to the traveller on a commercial flight. Full trips can often come with multiple stops and extended leisure itineraries. “For so many of our clients, they view time as their most precious and scarce resource,” says Cresp.

The second is safety. “Private aviation has reduced ‘touch points’ by over 80 percent, meaning that the risk of contracting Covid-19 is reduced to almost zero,” says Cresp, “We were extremely quick to embrace safety practices and evolve to the sensitivities of travelling in a pandemic. Jet Luxe is founded by aviation professionals with decades of collective experience, so we knew that travel wouldn’t end, but it would change. We swiftly actioned safety and hygiene protocols that exceed best practice and we were able to reassure our clients of their safety.”

For Moore, the future of private jet travel is based on accessibility. “It’s an industry that’s driven now by time-saving rather than being potentially luxurious in the mindset of people. Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, it was all about strawberry champagne and caviar, maybe even when I first entered the industry in the early 2000s,” says Moore. “Now it’s about accessibility. It’s about time-saving and it’s a real business tool. If it’s not a business tool, it’s about safety for you and your family.”

Private aviation won’t ever be cheap – but now more than ever, it’s less about being elite. “It’s more expensive than flying commercially, absolutely,” says Moore. “But there are so many more advantages to what it brings. Obviously, there’s a luxury element to it, which we won’t want to remove. But the shared-ownership model that VistaJet pioneered has enabled us to have that luxury element, married with privacy, married with accessibility and time-saving. This is what really is driving interest in private aviation in the last couple of years.”

As we collectively continue to explore private aviation, the industry is going to look a lot more transparent. “We expect to see greater consumer power with benchmarking and greater transparency,” says Cresp. “Comparatively, the mainstream travel sector has a large amount of data at consumer’s fingertips to quality and price check between brands. To date, the private-jet sector hasn’t offered the same visibility; there’s a lack of transparency and that’s something we’re seeking to change.”

Moore’s position is very much aligned. “Private aviation has different levels of commitment to things like safety and service that need to be known. The industry is going to become a lot more transparent, and I think technology is going to drive that.”

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