The new coronavirus is causing havoc around the world, but at least one business is booming – private jet operators.
Demand for private jets has soared in recent weeks as companies pull employees out of infected regions and wealthy travellers seek to avoid mingling with the public at airports or on commercial flights. That demand is expected to increase as major airlines continue slashing flights to destinations in Asia and Europe as the virus spreads.
“We’ve never been this busy,” said Justin Crabbe, founder of Jettly Inc., which operates out of Toronto and New York and functions like an Uber for private jets. Requests for bookings have doubled to about 6,000 per day, and the company has tripled its flight support staff to handle the influx. “The situation right now is extremely fluid on an hourly basis with [commercial] flights being cancelled, carriers changing policies and travel bans being imposed,” Mr. Crabbe said.
As the virus spread across Asia and into Europe and North America, bookings have poured in to Jettly and other jet charter companies. Demand is so strong that some wealthy customers have been willing to pay up to three times the going rate – or US$15,000 an hour – for a last-minute flight. “Some people are grouping together with others, and we are having to co-ordinate passports and clearances for large groups of travellers,” Mr. Crabbe said.
Steven Orfali, who runs New York-based JetSet Group Inc., said his bookings have jumped 25 per cent in recent weeks because of the virus, and inquiries have climbed 40 per cent in the past five days. “We have been seeing a spike in interest from people who have never flown private before,” he said. “It’s people just not wanting to go mingle in a public airport or who just don’t want to be a on a plane with 300 strangers where they don’t know what they have or don’t have.”
Families have hired private jets to protect elderly relatives or avoid connecting through various cities. One couple booked a jet to return home to the Channel Islands directly from Spain to avoid a stopover in London. A Los Angeles film studio recently used a private jet to fly 50 people out of Tokyo quickly when Japan became seriously affected by the virus. Private jets have also been used to transport surgical masks, protective overalls and medical gloves to health-care staff in affected cities.
Private jets aren’t cheap to hire even at the best of times. An eight-passenger jet costs about US$5,000 an hour, while a plane that can hold up to 16 people goes for US$12,000 an hour. Mr. Orfali said a flight from New York to Chicago on a small jet costs US$10,000 to US$12,000, while a trip from New York to Los Angeles on a 14-seater is about US$30,000. He added that the price hasn’t deterred customers such as the family who called him last weekend to book a jet after their commercial flight was cancelled.
The increased demand has made it harder for some operators to find planes and crews. Most private jet companies rely on a global network of aircraft and pilots or brokers who source planes for short-term bookings. “The biggest factor we see is a shortage of aircraft and crews, especially in the areas that are affected,” Mr. Crabbe said. “In some cases, it’s tough to locate a crew that is willing to fly into a red zone to pick up a passenger or a group of passengers, in fear of putting themselves or their family at risk of infection.”
However, demand from business clients could fall if the virus causes a global recession.
“While we’re seeing additional requests, other clients are changing or cancelling their travel plans,” said Adam Twidell, chief executive of London-based PrivateFly. “And obviously, the operational logistics of flying in or out of affected areas is now highly complex, with availability of aircraft and crews making it more challenging to fulfill requests in some areas, or creating longer turnaround times than usual.”
Private jet operators have to ensure that their passengers haven’t travelled to affected regions and that all flight crews have been screened for the virus. Some operators have also expressed concern that, since private jets use smaller airports, their passengers might not face the same health screening as those on commercial flights.
For now, private jet companies are enjoying the extra lift and hoping that even if the outbreak is short-lived, they’ll be able to convert some new passengers into regulars. “That’s the hope,” Mr. Orfali said. “That they are kind of just dipping their toe in and seeing the difference in flying privately and not. … Hopefully they’ll continue and it will become a habit.”