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The British bride-to-be who called PrivateFly this weekend had not slept for two days. She had flown to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on a last-minute getaway before her wedding in London this week, and found herself stranded there when a cloud of volcanic ash shut down international air travel indefinitely.

"She wouldn't have ever dreamt of hiring a private jet," says Adam Twidell, CEO of the company that books private planes across Europe and North America. "But her family said, 'Look, this wedding has cost £30,000-£40,000, for the sake of £15,000 we want you at it.'"

The volcanic eruption in Iceland last week has produced an unprecedented economic disaster for the commercial airline industry, but has led to a surge in demand for private jets, as increasingly desperate travellers look for any way off the ground.

One group of corporate lawyers offered to pay more than £100,000 for a flight crew that would break Europe's no-fly zone in order to get them to Nice, where they were expected to sign an important business agreement.

Mr. Twidell, a former British air force pilot who trained in Newfoundland, founded PrivateFly in 2008, and said the London-based company has never experienced such fierce demand.

"We've had some ridiculous offers," he says. "It was a little bit on Thursday afternoon and then Friday I think people started to understand the extent of the problem. Saturday it was just ballistic."

He received a call from an Irish woman Sunday who had gone to London for a day trip on Wednesday, and been stuck there ever since. She was desperate to get home to her infant child, whom she was still breastfeeding.

"She called us at 1 o'clock and she was airborne at 3 o'clock on a Chieftain aircraft," Mr. Twidell says. "And although the main international Dublin airport was closed, she landed at the Irish air force base, which is open."

While major hubs across Europe have been closed for days, small regional airports are still operating in some countries, he says.

The PrivateFly database taps into a network of more than 600 companies around the world that operate private aircraft, from Gulfstream jets to tiny Cessnas, and his staff has been working around the clock to find routes on and off the European continent.

One regular customer, who Mr. Twidell described as a British artist and "high net worth individual," requested a private jet in Toronto on Saturday.

It took the company 10 hours to get a Gulfstream G4 to Pearson International Airport, where the plane collected its sole passenger at 6 p.m.

Told he could offset the cost of the flight if he was willing to pick up two other passengers from New York, the Gulfstream made a brief stop at Teterboro airport in New Jersey.

"He would never have dreamed of sharing an aircraft normally, but when we explained that these people were away and they wanted to get back to their families, he was quite happy to put an extra three hours on his trip," Mr. Twidell says. "They landed in Madrid Sunday morning."

Fancy jets are not the only planes suddenly in high demand.

Older aircraft, with piston-powered engines instead of powerful turbines, are not affected by ash in the sky and can fly in uncontrolled airspace unaffected by the travel ban.

One customer paid £2,200 for a Cessna 182, a single engine aircraft, to fly him to a wedding in Scotland Sunday.

Other high rollers have been using the tiny planes to hop their way across to France and beyond.

"The aircraft we couldn't sell to anybody because they were too old are now the most valuable things in the sky," Mr. Twidell says. "Our database has about 200 of them and they're all flying."

But not everyone is willing to go to extremes to get home.

One 30-year-old man called PrivateFly from Marrakesh, in Morocco, where he was stranded on holiday with his wife. He whispered into the phone that he did not actually want an aircraft but had been ordered by his wife to inquire about how much one would cost.

"He said 'I'm in absolute heaven. My mother-in-law has the kids and I'm on an extended holiday. There's no way I want to come back - I've got the best work excuse ever." He intended on milking it," Mr. Twidell recalls.

The company gave him a price for a private flight to Nice, where he would have to find ground transport back to England.

"£15,000," Mr. Twidell says. "But he was quite happy to stay in Marrakesh."

Follow on Twitter: @SiriAgrell

 

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