Luxury travel on private jet planes has surpassed pre-COVID levels, according to two of the biggest airports in the country. There are now more first-time users, more international trips and demand has outstripped supply of planes to such an extent that many frequent fliers unable to get aircraft at the time and place of their choice are considering buying their own planes.
The number of chartered flights at the Delhi and Hyderabad airports has been showing a steady increase every month since June 2021, when the second wave of COVID-19 started to wane. Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, which has a dedicated terminal for business jets, saw between 910 to 980 departures and arrivals per month between June and September, indicating an increase of 10% to 22% as compared to calendar year 2019.
Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi International Airport recorded between 74 to 110 departures and arrivals per month during these four months, which is an increase of 10% to 54% from corresponding months in 2019.
The Mumbai airport, which contributes the largest number of charter flights, and the Bengaluru airport declined to share data. The Director General of Civil Aviation doesn’t maintain a record of such flights.
Leisure travel, the driver
“Leisure travel is essentially the driver for the increase in charter flights contributing to more than 50% of trips. This is followed by corporate and election-related flying,” says a spokesperson for Bird Group, which oversees operations at the business jet terminal in Delhi along with its Swiss partner, ExecuJet.
“Earlier, private jets were looked down upon by certain corporates, but now they have become more acceptable in boardrooms and at management levels for flying their team principals in the interest of safety and efficiency,” says Kanika Tekriwal, Founder, JetSetGo, a private jet operator.
Concerns over health safety during the pandemic has also led to the emergence of a new class of people willing to splurge on air travel.
“There is a whole new customer segment that has been introduced during the pandemic and this includes those who could afford to but didn’t fly private because it was considered a wasteful means of luxury,” says Ms. Tekriwal. She says they are here to stay “once you taste scotch, you don’t go back to whiskey”.
In a fillip to the sector, there are many more international trips than before because of restrictions on commercial passenger airlines. These rake in 4-10 times the money a domestic flight would earn — a return flight from Delhi to Mumbai on an 8-seater plane costs ₹10 lakh, a Delhi-Dubai return flight on a 13-seater ₹40 lakh and a 12-seater for London up to ₹1 crore.
And, there is no let-up in demand.
“With offices re-opening, many who were until now opting for staycations every month are looking at two-week-long holidays at the end of the year. We are getting a lot of interest for the U.K., the Netherlands, France,” says Sachit Wadhwa, co-founder at BookMyCharters, a private jet aggregator.
Boutique hotel of choice
“Demand has exceeded the supply as leisure travel is being planned well in advance for December and January. This is definitely a trend. Instead of planning 10-15 days in advance, people are booking two months ahead because they want the boutique hotel of their choice entirely for themselves,” he says.
The demand has been so robust that Mr. Wadhwa’s company is expecting to clock in four times the revenue it saw pre-COVID. “These are from actual bookings, but enquiries are 12-15 times the number of calls we received pre-COVID. This is the reason why we are also adding to our pool of available planes as we are often forced to bring aircraft from overseas to cater to the demand for international travel.”
But Mr. Wadhwa and Ms. Tekriwal aren’t the only ones planning to add to their fleet. They have also been approached by high networth individuals and corporate houses planning to buy own planes simply because the machines of their choice are not available when and where they want it.
“Individual customers and corporates who are frequent flyers are looking at purchasing their own machines because of availability issues. They may not get the aircraft of their choice when they need it, so I may give them an upgrade or a downgrade. So, they are exploring the option of purchasing planes,” says Mr. Wadhwa.
“Two to three business houses have approached us and we are helping them with financial structuring,” says Vishok Mansingh, CEO, Vman Aviation Services.
While the rich and mighty shop for luxury planes, this is a yet another sign of widening income disparities during the pandemic which pushed an additional 23 crore Indians below poverty, exacerbated food insecurity and is feared to have led to worsening of child and maternal under-nutrition and their mortality rates.