Private jet market grapples with surge in get-me-away demand

Private jets at Teterbroro Airport in New Jersey on Sept 29, 2021. Waits for charter flights are longer, and costs higher, as many more of the rich seek to avoid crowded planes and airports. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Even people who can normally afford to charter a private jet at a moment's notice are being forced to be patient and, often, pay more.

It's all because of the pandemic.

Early on, few people were flying at all - or really had anywhere to go. Since then, demand for high-end travel, in particular, has increased exponentially as more of the wealthy opt to avoid airport lines and crowded commercial flights. But so many are flocking to private jets, there are not enough planes and pilots to serve them.

That has been coupled with the same supply chain problems that have plagued many other parts of the economy. Want a replacement tire for a jet and someone to swop it out? What could once be done in a few hours may now take a week or more, one jet company said.

As a result, providers that used to be able to quickly send out a jet to members have been changing their terms.

"Record private travel is beyond the capacity of the system," said Mr Doug Gollan, founder of Private Jet Card Comparisons, which monitors the industry. "Some of this is beyond the control of the operators, like parts shortages or fuelling delays - not because they forgot to order fuel but because there's a shortage of truck drivers." And that, Mr Gollan said, is coming at a time of record demand for private jet travel around the country and, in some instances, the world.

He pointed out that most jet card programmes, bound by contracts that go on for dozens of pages, require people to pay US$200,000 (S$270,000) or more upfront, so few flyers are pleased by the delays.

Let's be clear: Flying private is still an incredible luxury that only some people can enjoy. But they are flooding the system.

Before Covid-19, there were about 100,000 regular private jet flyers in the United States, out of some 1.5 million people who could afford to charter a plane, according to a 2020 report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. After last year's shutdown, the report found, many more people who could afford to fly private did.

The motivations for people with great wealth to switch from first-class commercial flights are not surprising. Convenience is one. Walking out to your plane is easier, safer and less stressful than dealing with airport lines. And there are no fights over wearing a mask on a private jet.

"We have 85 jets, and if I had double or triple that number, I wouldn't have enough because of the demand," said Mr Jim Segrave, owner and chair of flyExclusive.

The industry was not prepared for this increase in demand. Short of buying your own jet, which can cost US$60 million or more for a new, top-of-the-line model, there are several common options: charter a plane when needed, buy a jet card with prepaid hours on it or buy a fraction of a jet. Each is under strain right now.

The charter market works like a beach rental. You go through a broker who sources the planes for you. Prices depend on where you're going and when.

What's causing problems are jet cancellations. "Most of these jet cards, if the operator cancels it because of a mechanical issue, they guarantee you a replacement aircraft at no cost," Gollan said. But if the jet operator cancels because it doesn't have a jet, he said, "your broker could say, 'Sorry we lost this plane, but we have three new quotes.' Instead of paying $18,000 to go up to New York, you could pay $28,000." Your choice at that point? Get a refund and fly commercial or pay the extra and go.

"Jet operators have been inundated with requests," said Mr Gregg Brunson-Pitts, founder and president of Advanced Aviation, a boutique jet broker. "We have had to be creative." Since the lockdown was loosened last year, charter prices are up 15 per cent, but customers are not balking, Mr Brunson-Pitts said. Yet in the rush to fly private, he said, would-be flyers needed to ensure that their broker is working with reputable jet owners who properly maintain the planes and train the pilots.

Jet cards are supposed to provide more of a guarantee. Flyers have already paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the hours and want the plane when they want it, usually on relatively short notice.

But those, too, have been in high demand. Even higher prices didn't cool interest.

Mr Kenny Dichter, chair and CEO of Wheels Up, another provider, said he didn't see the jet card market cooling. "People are putting money down for travel into 2022," he said. "The demand we're seeing now is the result of the stubbornness of this Covid crisis."

Throwing another wrench into private jet travel are countries' different Covid-19 rules. "If you want to fly from Hong Kong to Dubai, you have to take into account different government restrictions," said Mr Ian Moore, chief commercial officer of VistaJet, which runs an international fleet. "It's very complex in normal times. Covid has made it triply difficult."

Plane maintenance, too, has been affected. Since the planes are being flown more, they're being serviced more often. But there aren't always enough parts or people to do the work because of how Covid-19 has disrupted the global supply chain.

"If you needed to get a replacement wheel to Cairo, you used to be able to get it in a couple of hours," Mr Moore said. "Now it takes seven to 10 days. So servicing that customer has become a lot more difficult."

Even small delays can be a problem, Mr Segrave of flyExclusive said.

"It's not that we can't get the service," he said. "It's, 'We can get to you, but it's going to be three to four days'. Three to four days on an aircraft that flies 100 hours a month is an eternity."

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