Launching an air travel service when the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated commercial aviation is ambitious, to put it charitably. But Toronto upstart Momentum Jets says interest in private flights is strong as wealthy Canadians look for more secure and convenient ways to fly, including among those who have never chartered a plane before.
Momentum Jets is also striving to broaden access to the luxury of private flight from the ultrarich to the merely well-heeled. Rather than chartering an entire flight, which is typically billed by the hour and can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $250,000, Momentum will allow customers to purchase individual seats on a private aircraft for a select routes.
“We were thinking about how to make this more accessible to people,” said Janelle Brind, vice-president at Momentum Jets. A seat on a round trip Toronto-Montreal flight could run between $600 and $800, while longer haul flights to islands such as Barbados and Turks and Caicos can cost up to $5,000, about double the price of a business-class seat.
The company launched in October as an affiliate of Momentum Solutions, a firm operated by Toronto entrepreneur Stephen Arbib that provides aviation services for emergency and disaster relief, along with freight transport. The jets division does not own any planes, but instead sources aircraft from other companies. Momentum charters entire aircraft for clients, as would traditional private jet services.
But it also secures access to private jets to sell individual seats for a handful of destinations from Toronto, including New York, Miami and the Bahamas. That still means flying with strangers – just fewer than on a typical commercial flight.
For the company, margins are low, from 3 per cent to 5 per cent, according to Mr. Arbib. “It’s a volume business,” he said. But he and his executives are confident demand is strong. Some Canadians are eager to travel, Ms. Brind said, but are wary of crowded airports, long lines, security checks and sitting shoulder to shoulder with others on commercial flights. As a result, some people are considering flying private for the first time, which is faster, more convenient and involves fewer interactions with other passengers.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of upper middle class people that are saving up for a big-budget trip,” Ms. Brind said. She recently had one family looking to fly to Anguilla and another to Barbados. Because the islands are fairly close together, Ms. Brind put both families on one flight to divide the cost. Some clients are temporarily relocating to sunnier destinations as a result of the pandemic and continuing to work from there, rather than strictly vacationing.
In January, the company plans to offer flights exclusively for passengers over the age of 65, who will be required to present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding. If needed, Momentum Jets will refer customers to a company that provides at-home tests. “We wanted to offer flights that they’re going to feel very safe on,” Ms. Brind said. Passengers will have to comply with local rules when arriving in destination countries, however, which could include a quarantine period.
The federal government is advising Canadians to avoid non-essential travel, and even a preflight COVID-19 test isn’t foolproof since there could be a gap of at least a day or two between the test and the flight. Ms. Brind said the company will ask clients to self-isolate during that period.
Over all, private flights are down in North America this year amid the pandemic. Private flight hours plummeted in April and March, but have started a slow recovery. U.S. aviation services company Argus International projects private flight hours in December will total 300,772, a 21.5-per-cent drop from the same month last year.
For competitor Air Charter Service, which has offices around the world, including in Toronto, the decline in private flights among executives travelling for work has been steep. “It has been hard because not all of our regular customers are flying,” said Andy Christie, the company’s group private jet director.
In the early days of the pandemic, private jets were in demand as wealthy individuals sought the fastest way to return home or escape to a property in, say, the Bahamas. Those travellers have mostly stayed put since then.
But Mr. Christie said interest from new clients has helped offset those losses, and volumes are down only slightly overall. In Canada alone, he said the company has seen a 41-per-cent increase in new fliers, many of them seeking leisure travel.
The company is betting those customers will continue to fly private even after the pandemic and when commercial aviation rebounds. “There’s a lot of wealthy Canadians who have flown first class, and now have had the opportunity to fly private,” Mr. Christie said. “It’s a very sticky product.”
That’s why Momentum plans to expand with New York and London offices. “COVID changed a huge amount of behaviours, and this is going to be one of those industries where behaviour will change,” Ms. Brind said.
She also has a ready bon mot for clients flying private for the first time: “Once you’ve had Godiva chocolate, you don’t go back to Cadbury.”
Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.