Increasing COVID-19 Coronavirus restrictions in Europe likely to impact private jet availability

By Doug Gollan, March 31, 2020

As airlines reduce flights, it will become more difficult to position pilots on short notice

Like with the airlines, drop in demand due to Coronavirus restrictions is leading some private jet operators to ground aircraft

Both London City Airport and London Heliport have closed for normal private aviation flights

NetJets, VistaJet affirm continued operations in Europe and worldwide

Booking a private jet charter flight in Europe may become more difficult in the coming weeks, especially on short notice. That’s the consensus of several executives from private jet operators and charter brokers who spoke to us. The silver lining is, it’s not a problem yet.

A story last week in Aviation International News was headlined, “BBGA Expects Full Bizav Fleet Grounding Soon in UK.”

In it, Marc Bailey, president of the British Business and General Aviation Association, was quoted as saying, “I would suggest that in a couple of weeks we will be in full grounded mode across the sector, and I don’t see that changing.”

You don’t want to use a plane or pilots that haven’t been flying for a while

– European private jet charter broker

“With borders being closed, countries in lockdown, the ability to undertake normal business activities is substantially diminished,” Bailey said via email this morning. “I think we will have to wait and see what patterns develop in the network as countries control their COVID-19 cycle from lockdown to lockdown.”

He added, “We are trying to work strategically amongst associations in Europe to keep open what we can to help both the virus efforts and to help kick start the economies in member states once the situation changes.”

Private Jet demand drops in Europe

The drop in demand over the past few days is helping. It means brokers are still able to secure operators with aircraft to fulfill flight requests.

It’s not business as usual.

“One of the more delicate issues to overcome is the entry and departure requirements country to country, making travel difficult or occasionally not possible at all,” says Timothy Rees of Air Charter Service, a charter broker that reported just under $700 million in revenues last year.

“For example, intra-European flights are still possible but with caveats on whom can fly onboard, and these caveats can change rapidly and significantly, so in short we have to review each request specifically.”

Flight requests from passengers that don’t comply with government restrictions can be a big challenge, says another leading broker, who asked not to be quoted by name.

Typical “bans” exclude repatriation of citizens or in some cases resident aliens as well as government and medical workers. Brokers and operators are on the hook to ensure compliance.

“In terms of a customer wanting to fly, there are still enough aircraft to fill the demand as of today,” says the broker.

European Private Jet Operators adapt operations

Making things tricky, some operators are restricting where they fly. Last week, GlobeAir announced it is limiting operations. Flights are now only within the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, and Luxembourg.

Normally, GlobeAir, which has a fleet of Cessna Mustang very light jets, serves airports stretching across Europe.

A third broker said floating fleet operators are starting to keep their aircraft and pilots based in their country of registration. This makes it harder to organize short notice flights.

Floating fleet aircraft are typically spread out in areas of demand to minimize ferry flights. Both operators and pilots are increasingly concerned about being stranded if there are sudden full closures.

One operator is now returning aircraft and pilots to its home base after each mission. For each trip, it now means positioning jets from base to the point of origin for the customer. Then, after dropping off passengers, the aircraft has to be returned back home. The extra flying time also adds costs.

“As commercial airlines have cut routes, logistically, it will be more challenging to find an aircraft and crew in the right place,” says Vincent Kavanagh, a senior vice president with Air Partner, which is publicly traded in the U.K.

Most airlines in Europe have chopped around 90% of their schedules. Today easyJet said it was grounding all 330 of its planes. Flybe, an airline that served many regional airports shut down on March 5.

In the U.S., Flexjet is now using its own fractional fleet to position its flight crews instead of relying on airlines.

NetJets, VistaJet affirm Europe flying

Officials with NetJets and VistaJet, two of the largest private jet operators, confirmed they are still fulfilling requests around the globe, including within Europe, so long as passengers meet government-imposed restrictions.

Last week, VistaJet launched a new program offering short-term leases. Starting at one-month, customers get a dedicated private jet and crew positioned at an airport local to them.

One broker says as the travel downturn extends, vetting operators is going to become even more important. “You don’t want to use a plane or pilots that haven’t been flying for a while,” he says. “The entire booking process is much more time-consuming. There is a lot more to do.”

He added, “I think this will really separate brokers who have sound ownership, financials, and the infrastructure, especially for sourcing.”

The brokers said what action there is in Europe right now are mainly requests for long-haul flights. Kavanagh said several new customers have been attracted by its guaranteed availability, fixed-rate jet cards for trans-Atlantic flights.

Light at the end of the tunnel

There is perhaps a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Both Rees and Kavanagh say the cargo side of their charter businesses is booming. From Asia, they report signs of recovery taking hold.

Still, what’s ahead in Europe over the next weeks and months is unsure. BBGA’s Bailey says, “(Members) will be needing to access all of the benefits offered by our U.K. government’s £300 billion financial packages.”

He sums it up, “In Europe, we are caught in very different stages within the member states. I was just on a conference call across European associations and each country is following its own timeline, setting border controls and access requirements on a national basis to protect their people.”

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