Private jets soar past global pandemic, oil price woes

Demand for private jets took off during the pandemic, amid a fear of catching Covid-19 and low commercial flight numbers. PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (AFP) - Airlines may find themselves swept up in unprecedented turbulence - with air travel shunned over climate concerns, plagued by pandemic shutdowns and soaring oil prices - but for private jet operators, business is booming.

The appeal of private jets has taken off since the start of the pandemic, amid a fear of catching Covid-19 and as widespread cancellations and stringent measures turned flying commercial into a logistics headache.

"The impact of Covid-19 really forced people to look elsewhere for their travel needs," said Mr Philippe Scalabrini, who heads the southern European division of the international private aviation company VistaJet.

"Anyone who can afford it wants an entire plane at their disposal," he told AFP, adding that "private aviation, as a whole, has had an incredible surge of demand over the past two years".

Numbers from air traffic regulator Eurocontrol appear to confirm that.

It found that private air travel nearly doubled its global market share between 2019 and 2021, when it stood at 12 per cent.

Luxury

Mr Philippe Scalabrini in the passenger cabin of a Bombardier Global 7500 business jet. PHOTO: AFP

Standing inside the newest addition to the VistaJet fleet, the Global 7500 built by Canadian business jetmaker Bombardier, Mr Scalabrini showed off what air travel can look like in that exclusive market.

Aboard the luxury plane, costing a whopping US$72 million (S$96.99 million), clients can enjoy plush cream-coloured leather chairs, a large double bed, and wine tasting.

To limit jet lag, the cabin pressure can be better regulated than on commercial flights, allowing clients to sleep as soundly "as in their cabin in Saint Moritz", the chic Alpine ski resort, Mr Scalabrini said.

And their pets can travel in luxury as well, with toys and treats on demand.

With annual contracts starting at €500,000 (S$720,255), VistaJet's target audience includes wealthy individuals and business leaders, with growing numbers from the tech sector.

"Obviously we see the evolution of clients following the macro trends we see in the world," Mr Scalabrini added.

Covid-19 effect

More than anything, the pandemic has driven the latest upsurge in demand.

Mr Scalabrini said "the Covid-19 effect" last year helped VistaJet swell the number of flying hours sold by 90 per cent.

And the company, founded in 2004 by Swiss billionaire Thomas Flohr, announced last month the purchase of Air Hamburg, a move it said will help grow its flying hours by another 30 per cent.

That announcement, however, landed just three days before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Western countries unleashed a slew of harsh sanctions, sparking panic in markets and sending oil prices soaring.

Mr Scalabrini said it was "a bit early" to determine how the crisis would affect his company.

"At the moment, we cannot fly to Russia, we cannot fly to Ukraine unfortunately, so obviously there is an impact, but it is a minimal impact," he said, pointing out that Russian clients made up less than 5 per cent of VistaJet's turnover.

"We've got clients all over the world."

Image issue

Environmental questions will be one of the biggest challenges facing business air travel. PHOTO: REUTERS

While private jet companies may weather the crises currently gutting commercial aviation, they face the same outrage over air travel's outsized contribution to climate change.

A private jet flight pollutes 10 times more than a commercial flight, according to the Transport and Environment non-profit organisation.

Environmental questions will in the long term be one of the biggest challenges facing business air travel, Mr Philippe Berland, an air transport specialist with the Sia Partners consulting firm, told AFP.

In the short term, however, he said the immediate question will be how the sector manages to absorb soaring oil prices, and also whether private jet companies can hold onto the clients they gained during the pandemic as commercial flights return to normal.

"In this sector, where an hour of flying time is already very expensive, price is not the only factor," Mr Berland said, suggesting that some of the newly won clients may have grown accustomed to the ease and speed of departures with private jets.

Mr Pascal Fabre, aviation expert with the Alix Partners consultancy, said the sector was not very sensitive to rising oil prices.

When you buy a plane "for several tens of millions of dollars", he told AFP, "the fuel bill is not an issue."

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