An untapped market of consumers who can afford private travel, a safer way to fly, and a robust rebound seem to be setting up private jet travel providers for a continuing recovery
Private aviation has been tracking to better than 80% of pre-COVID-19 levels for nearly three months. In October, jet card and on-demand charter flights were at nearly 95% of 2019 activity, and fractional fleet operators were 89%.
This morning on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Andrew Ross Sorkin, speaking about the current state of flying via the airlines, said, “As COVID spikes, it’s going to be hard to get on an airplane where at least one if not more passengers have it.”
Said another way, you’re 30 times more likely to come in contact with a COVID positive person on an airline flight compared to a private jet. Multiply that out a few times, and the case for private jets becomes even stronger. Ten airline flights mean 7,000 potential points of contact to 200 if you fly privately.– Analysis of touch points flying privately vs. the airlines
You might say across the broad travel and hospitality industry, next to RVs, that’s recreational vehicles, private jets have been the star performer for an industry that has been battered harder than virtually any other. Restaurants were forced to close, and many still face reduced capacity. Hotels in Europe have been closed again, and others are operating with single-digit occupancy.
Oh, and cruise ships, what cruise ships? Last week, the industry’s trade group affirmed there would be no passengers boarding from North American ports until at least 2021.
But, what’s the outlook for private jets going forward?
In my opinion, there are three factors that will drive optimists.
First is, of course, past performance, at least, looking back at private aviation’s performance during the current COVID-19 crisis.
Looking at the U.S., both Argus and WingX data show in early March private aviation flights held on for a bit as people flew to second homes or sent jets to pick-up kids from schools that were closing. After dropping by as much as 80%, a steady pickup started by the second half of April. As pointed out in the introduction, fractional and charter fleet operators are essentially 90% of norms.
Part 91 aircraft, which are for owner users only – they can’t be rented out on a flight-by-flight basis – are behind. That seems to be mainly that the principal reason most folks own an entire private jet is an ongoing business need. And, it’s for sure business travel even in the private realm is still lagging. Still, in October, Part 91 flights were up to 83% of pre-pandemic activity.
One interesting trend highlighted by data from Tuvoli is how private jet flights have moved from the typical big-city airports like Teterboro serving New York, Dallas Love Field, and Hanscom Field in Boston to resort destinations.
At the time flights to places like Aspen, Nantucket, and the Hamptons would normally be tailing off there have been triple-digit increases.
What’s more, with so much flying seeming to be second home to second home, or perhaps to private villas or yachts, it doesn’t seem like more COVID-related closures in the U.S. will stop these type of movements.
We also know from hurricanes, those who are on the bubble often turn to private jets when they need to get out of harm’s way on short notice. More spikes could in fact drive folks to relocate, and it’s unlikely they will use the airlines.
We are also hearing from travel agents and villa rental agencies more clients staying for periods of 30 to 90 days instead of the typical week or so. During that time, they say, it’s typical for family members to come and go – by private jet, so some incremental COVID-related flights.
Everyone loves an $800 an hour consultant when they have that rare good news. Your business is in the right place at the right time. Nothing more for us to do here.
That seems to be the read on research McKinsey put out back in April. It quantified something that has long been speculated. Many affluent households and medium-sized businesses can financially afford to fly privately that hadn’t been before the pandemic.
It probably shouldn’t be a surprise. For all those press releases that talk about how private flights’ cost can be similar to first-class seats on the airlines, it’s always based on all seats on your charter flight being filled.
Unfortunately, the reality is that the average number of passengers on a private flight is four, and more often two or three.
Light jets typically have six or seven seats. Super midsize jets, which are generally needed for flights over four hours, have eight and nine seats.
In other words, real-world math equates that $30,000 for a private roundtrip from the Northeast to Florida is greater than the $2,000 to $6,000 for two to four first-class tickets. Yes, it’s is a significant premium, even if you can afford it.
That’s especially true if you didn’t have to check luggage and used services like TSA Pre-check or CLEAR.
Yes, private aviation can save you time – getting to the airport 10 or 15 minutes before your flight. Yes, if you get there early and the airplane is ready, you can often leave early. Yes, you can fly into and out of more convenient airports.
But the question always was, is saving you six hours of your time on those Florida trips worth $25,000?
For some the answer is yes. But McKinsey essentially said 90% of the market was saying no.
The McKinsey presentation lists fear of infection from flying with the airlines and reduced airline service as producing tailwinds for private jets.
It also noted a large part of the demographic that has the money and hadn’t spent it flying privately falls into the high-risk group, or has to contact those who do. That could be children with pre-existing conditions, an older relative living with them, or the desire to visit parents and grandparents safely.
Okay, admit it. Do you really trust the airlines? Or, more to the point, do you really trust 150 other people you don’t know?
While there have been some limited examples of coronavirus spread from airline flights, and the airlines have implemented stepped up cleaning procedures and taken mask-wearing seriously, stepping on an airline flight says you trust the person sitting next to you, in the row behind you, or front of you doesn’t have COVID-19.
As GlobeAir cataloged, a private flight has less than 20 touch points – opportunities where you could come in contact with somebody who has COVID – versus over 700 when you fly on the airlines. This number has been widely reported and, while not scientific, underscores the point. Until there is a vaccine, the only way you can ensure you don’t get COVID is by not coming in contact with people who do.
Said another way, you’re 30 times more likely to come in contact with a COVID positive person on an airline flight compared to a private jet. Multiply that out a few times, and the case for private jets becomes even stronger. Ten airline flights mean 7,000 potential points of contact to 200 if you fly privately.
An Opposing View
If business travel was roughly half of all private flights before COVID – maybe a bit more – there are no conclusive statistics I’ve seen – more lockdowns in Europe and the spike here in the U.S. is going to diminish any potential recovery there.
What’s more, some say the folks left in the 90% pool who still don’t see the value of private flights compared to keeping the money in their bank accounts are probably not going to change their minds. If they haven’t pulled the trigger in the past six months, they are likely to either stick with the airlines or wait it out at home.
Lastly, the flight to flying privately has been a bump. As a vaccine rolls out, the world will be on to its next crisis, and instead of being in an FBO, these newbies will be back in Seats 1A and 1B sipping their pre-flight beverage.
Experience shows that flying privately is a sticky thing as does research done by this website in September.
Before COVID, except for international first and business class, service and seats with the airlines were getting worse. In domestic first-class, outside of a few transcontinental routes, seats were getting thinner and scrunched closer together. Gone are the days of special meals where you could order a fruit plate or something healthy. Celebrity chef offerings are in name only, and even with precheck, there were lines and delays. Full flights meant if you missed your connection, you might have to wait until the next day.
I think it’s safe to assume a section of new private fliers will stick. It’s probably the older segment that is looking at their bank account realizes the cost of their four to six private trips per year has no material impact. I also think families with young children will appreciate the convenience of not having to take strollers and diaper bags through security or keep track of a four-year-old in a departure lounge during a four-hour delay.
I also believe those folks who said gaining six hours for a long weekend or even a weeklong vacation wasn’t worth the extra money may rethink that.
Arriving refreshed and in time for dinner on Friday night or early enough for nine holes of golf makes a difference. The value of having those extra hours on a Sunday afternoon for a few more runs down the mountain versus heading to the airport to check-in for you connecting flight back east is hard to quantify. The realization that you don’t have to return from a vacation more tired than when you left is not.
It’s likely companies that are new to business aviation will continue to use it, at least tactically. Those companies that expanded it will likely end up someplace between where they were and where they moved to, so a net gain.
Can they all be wrong?
As an aside, the one in 10 user statistics from McKinsey is the middle of the road estimate. While pre-COVID private aviation users in the U.S. may have been as low as 100,000, its high estimates of potential principals – which it describes as having a net worth of at least $10 million – is 1.6 million. That apparently doesn’t include medium-size businesses that may in the future find airlines no longer serve the routes they need or focus more on “duty of care.”
Thomas Flohr’s Vista Global said as much in announcing it will add 50 light jets to their U.S. fleet earlier this week. Back in July, NetJets reversed course, saying it is moving forward and will take delivery of 60 new private jets through the end of next year. I assume Warren Buffett had to give his nod of approval. Kenn Ricci advanced the launch of FXAIR, a brokerage that will sell flights on more than 30 super-midsize and large cabin private jets being retired from Flexjet’s fractional fleet. The alternative would have been to sell them. In July, Jet Linx Aviation CEO Jamie Walker moved forward with a deal to acquire Meridian’s management contracts, giving it the largest for-hire fleet based at Teterboro. August saw Wheels Up founder and CEO Kenny Dichter raiding two of the largest whole aircraft brokerages to set up Wheels Up Aircraft Sales. In other words, if you want to be bullish, you don’t have to take my word for it.