The private jet rebound might be stronger than it looks

By Doug Gollan, September 3, 2020

Adjusting August private jet flight numbers for the later Labor Day holiday in 2020 shows U.S. flights moving closer to pre-COVID-19 levels

Mark Twain said, “”There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” He also said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

In terms of the second quote, many a CEO has told tales about how traveling to new places was an eye-opener. In terms of private jet flight numbers for August, it all on how you want to look at.

August private jet travel numbers

WingX in its weekly Global Market Tracker report gave this perspective: “August was a faltering month for business aviation recovery in North America, with the month ending 21% behind August 2019. The US domestic market has done slightly better, back up to 81% of normal activity for the full month. The U.S. trend fell away in the second half of August, the month ending with a rolling 7-day average of 7,347 flights, 5% down on the traffic we saw mid-month.

Looking at the Argus data, which offers a daily look split between Part 135, 91k, and 91 operations show roughly the same. Part 135 operators offer on-demand charter and jet card flights. Part 91k is fractional fleet operators and their flights for both owners and jet card customers. Private flights for aircraft owners operate under Part 91 rules.

Long explanations aside, what the August numbers as reported by WingX and Argus don’t count is the movement of the Labor Day holiday. In 2019, it fell on September 2, while this year it moves to September 7, the first Monday of the month.

Labor Day 2020 vs. 2019

It makes a difference.

Looking at the Thursday and Friday before Labor Day 2019 versus those same non-holiday dates in August 2020 shows all private flights in the U.S. down from 30,807 to 17,196. That’s a decline of 44% for Aug. 29 and 30.

However, looking back at the July 4th holiday, private jet travel was actually 5% ahead of 2019 numbers and several key players are saying they expect Labor Day 2020 to beat last year’s numbers.

COVID-19 Impact on Private Jet Travel by Month

MonthPrivate Owners (Part 91)Fractional Operators (Part 91K)Charter Operators (Part 135)
May -45.9%-54.5%-47.0%
June -27.8%-25.4%-22.2%
August adjusted-21.3%-14.3%-13.1%
Adjusting August private jet flight numbers for August to account for a later Labor Day holiday reveal a rosy outlook

Without adjustment, Argus shows U.S. flights down 21.9% for the month. However, if you adjust August 2020 numbers to the 2019 levels for those two days, it’s a different story. August numbers would have been18.4% below last year.

Looking specifically at the segments – Part 91, 91K and 135, making the same adjustments shows in fact good news across the board (chart above).

Part 91 flying in August would have been down 21.3% year-over-year instead of a 24.9% deficit. Moreover, it would represent a 7.8% improvement over July’s 23.1% deficit.

Fractional fleet operators

For fractional operators where market leader NetJets and second-place Flexjet represent about 80% of the volume, accounting for the shifting dates of Labor Day shows an even more dramatic month over month improvement.

The adjusted August deficit of 14.3% represents a 25.5% gain over July’s negative 19.2% performance and continuous improvement compared to a -25.4% performance in June, -54.5% in May, and April’s –80.4% swoon.

Part 135 operators

For the Part 135 charter operators, it is good news as well. Instead of moving backward, there was also double-digit improvement. Adjusted August numbers show flights within 13.1% of 2019 levels, up from a 15.1% deficit in July, -22.2% in June, -47.0% in May, and -67.0% in April.

Private jet outlook

During a virtual Town Hall meeting organized by Corporate Jet Investor last week, attendees echoed the optimistic outlook.

Nearly half (45%) expect to finish 2020 in a stronger position, compared to just 16% who predict a decline and 92% were very/fairly optimistic about 2021.

Of course, there are varying opinions on how to interpret the data. The week before, David Edwards, CEO of the Air Charter Association, a trade group, told the same audience, “While it’s been a not too bad summer, those numbers are being driven by things outside our control, scheduled airlines not doing anything like they used to. And we need that to continue for the rest of the year.”

He predicted, “By quarter-four when all of the government support disappears, that’s when in our traditional quiet time, we’re going to be having the challenge of our life.”

Whatever way you want to look at numbers, private jet flying is still massively outperforming the airlines. TSA numbers show passenger counts were down 71% in August.

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