The travel industry has been one of the sectors hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, with international flights in particular suffering. Yet private jet industry statistics show there have been upwards aircraft sales. They also show that in 2021, the charter sector has seen a significant rise; private jet flights are booming in 2021.
Let’s look at the causes and consequences of COVID’s effect on private jet chartering—and what’s causing the boom.
Private Jet Travel in 2019
In 2019, the private jet industry was thriving, with 21,979 private aviation jets in operation. Increasing business aviation in emerging economies and globalisation, together with a rise in the number of high-wealth individuals, were boosting growth.
Private jet industry statistics reveal pre-pandemic aviation trends such as the busiest travel days for private aviation. Unsurprisingly, these peak travel times fell mainly in the summer and around major holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas and New Year. These patterns are beginning to re-emerge in 2021.
But as we said goodbye to 2019, there was news of a new, dangerous virus: COVID-19. The pandemic it created forced many countries to lockdown and close their borders. Surely this must have devastated the private jet charter industry in 2020?
COVID and private jet travel in 2020
While the pandemic had a huge impact on the commercial airline industry, the effect on the private jet industry was comparatively positive. Why?
Private aviation believes there are a number of reasons.
As the pandemic spread, commercial airlines were forced to dramatically reduce the flights they offered. Customers were concerned about their health and safety, and the risks of crowded terminals and commercial flights. This meant the flight trend was towards business aviation, who could offer:
Exclusive, less crowded terminals with private check-ins and security clearance.
Shorter and fewer transfers, reducing contact time with others.
Private flights on smaller planes with smaller crew.
There was also a surge in demand for private charter flights in the latter half of March 2020, as people rushed to catch flights home before lockdowns and travel restrictions were imposed.
After this, the private jet sector was initially hit just as hard as the commercial airline industry. Traffic was down by 30% in March compared to the previous year, and this plummeted to 70% in April, hitting its lowest point around 20 April. However, as travel restrictions eased towards summer, more and more travellers were choosing the safer private jet charter option and a steady recovery began. Flight volume was still down on 2019 figures by 50% in May, but only by 35% in June.
One company, which offers fractional aircraft ownership and private jet leases alongside private jet card programs, saw its flight volume drop to 10% of its 2019 levels at the start of the pandemic. But by November 2020 it was operating at 85% of its 2019 volume. It also had three times as many new customers between January and October 2020 as it did in the same period in 2019.
Growing Base of New and Returning Customers
Other private jet companies have seen a similar rise in new customers, many of whom are private jet travel first-timers. One broker reported that 44% of its customers between July and September 2020 were new, up from 35% the previous year.
Private jet chartering and card membership schemes in particular have seen an increase in new customers. One private jet membership scheme provider welcomed 320% more new members in July 2020 than it did in the same month in 2019. Meanwhile, a popular charter service saw a 25% increase in new customers booking flights throughout 2020.
So, who were these new customers? And why are they still flying private in 2021?
An industry survey of aviation customers last September revealed that 31% were from companies that were expanding their private jet use due to COVID-19 and limited airline schedules.
More than a third of respondents were new or returning private aviation users. Returning users included executives, mainly retired, who had travelled by private jet previously in their professional roles. Now older, and in higher risk categories for COVID, they were opting for the increased safety of private jet travel.
Why is the Private Jet Charter Sector Booming In 2021?
Health and safety concerns
As 2021 began, it was obvious that the pandemic was far from over. Some countries were still experiencing second and third waves, and many were struggling to control new variants.
So, this year, many private jet passengers are still using private aviation to keep themselves, and their family, friends or colleagues, safe. For them, this method of travel isn’t a luxury, but a practicality—and a necessity.
With the schedules of many larger airlines still disrupted and fewer flights available, private aviation has become the easier option for some people—and the only option for others.
“The even-slower than expected recovery in commercial airline operations will emphasize the advantages of flying on-demand,” predict industry experts WingX.
The ‘grass is greener’ factor
Those customers who were new to private jet travel have learned the value of investing in their own comfort and safety. Having turned to private aviation as a necessity during the pandemic, they’ve found out that the grass is much greener! They’ve become used to the luxurious, convenient, stress-free experience of chartering a private jet.
“Once you fly privately, you don’t want to go back,” says Aviation Week’s Molly McMillen.
Private jet charter in 2021: Recovery and Growth
Private Aviation Is Booming
The latest Covid impact bulletins from industry analysts WingX show that the private aviation sector is recovering strongly. They also show that while recovery in the US market has been quicker, Europe is now catching up rapidly.
Looking at the global picture, their most recent bulletin says that for the year to date, ‘business aviation activity is up 41% on last year, and almost exactly where it was two years ago.’
Only eight months into the year, Europe’s business jet travel is down just 5% on figures for the whole of 2019. This suggests annual pre-pandemic figures will be easily exceeded by the end of 2021. Business aviation in Russia, Turkey, and Greece has been busier post-pandemic than pre-pandemic throughout this year.
August was a record-breaking month for almost all European markets, while the US had a third consecutive record-breaking month. Business jet activity was up by 16% in the US compared to August 2019.
Business or pleasure?
Jet card providers are predicting that when summer travel figures are in, they could be as much as 50% higher than they were pre-pandemic. One private jet company was already seeing higher than the industry growth rate—177% increase year-on-year—before summer and expecting to see that continue with summer demand for leisure flights.
Other private aviation companies agree, with one predicting that while business jet bookings may only reach 85% of 2019 levels, an increased demand for leisure travel will make up this deficit.
Domestic or international?
Domestic flights surged initially, with an increase in bookings for midsize, light and very light jets. WingX reports that flights between Florida and New York are up almost 70% compared to 2019 figures, while Florida departures are up 30%.
However, there has also been a rapid increase in demand for long-haul flights (those lasting over five hours). One company revealed that demand was up 44% on the previous year during the first seven months of the U.S. COVID outbreak, with 11% of their flights lasting for at least eight hours. As vaccination numbers increase and travel restrictions are reduced, international private jet travel is beginning to recover too, albeit more slowly than domestic.
It’s obvious that the events of 2020 have paved the way for this private aviation boom in 2021. Travellers are still concerned about their health and safety, and more prepared than ever to pay for peace of mind. With commercial airlines still struggling to serve them, they need another way to quickly reach their destination.
These factors, paired with customers’ new appreciation for the convenience and luxury of private aviation, mean the boom seems set to continue well into 2022.
Problems in Private Aviation: Higher Demand, Fewer Pilots
Many charter companies and jet card schemes offer customers the option to book with as little as 24 hours’ notice. However, many customers are now booking way in advance. With travel opening up, vaccinations under their belts, and a lack of commercial flights, they’re determined to book their leisure and business trips. And there are now more private jet customers than ever, showing little sign of abandoning private jet charters anytime soon.
As the year has progressed, this has led to an unprecedented demand for private jet travel. The demand has been so high that some companies have had to temporarily stop accepting new jet card members.
Companies have struggled to meet this demand, and prices have risen. These issues have been exacerbated by an ongoing shortage of qualified pilots.
The shortage has been affecting commercial and private aviation alike for some time. In June 2021, American Airlines were forced to cut hundreds of July 2021 operations ahead of the summer air travel demand peak due to a lack of pilots and cabin personnel.
“By 2025, after global demand in domestic and international travel expands beyond 2019 levels, we expect a worldwide shortfall of at least 34,000 commercial pilots — almost 10% of the total workforce,” say Geoff Murray of Oliver Wyman consultants.
Why is there a pilot shortage?
There are a number of factors behind the pilot shortage.
While piloting was once seen as a stable and lucrative career, the pandemic and economic uncertainty now make it less appealing.
Barriers to entry and the cost of training.
Mounting costs and the sudden surplus of pilots caused by the pandemic mean cadet programmes and their financing have been reduced. This reduced entry will cause a supply shock a few years down the line.
Retirement: airlines in some areas have relied heavily on early retirements to
reduce costs, which in turn will permanently reduce the supply of pilots. It’s predicted that future annual pilot retirements will average 4,100 per year and be at their highest over the next five years. By 2023, there will be a shortage of around 12,000 pilots due to COVID-related early retirements and mandatory retirements. This issue is particularly hitting the US, with an aging workforce.
Some pilots furloughed during the pandemic have found alternative careers.
Planning Your Next Charter Trip? Follow Our Tips.
More people than ever are flying privately, many of them new jet card members. But there are also fewer pilots. This has created a huge demand for private flights and an increase in prices.
The result? Booking the flight you want, when you want it, can be difficult at the moment—especially at peak travel times. So, to improve your chances of getting the flights and jets you want:
Book your trips as far in advance as possible. Arranging flights just 24 hours in advance is becoming increasingly difficult.
Avoid the busiest travel days and periods when you can.
Be as flexible as you can with your needs and wishes. Bear in mind that at present, there may be some flights that just can’t be accommodated. When demand is at its peak, aircraft ideal for your needs may not be available.
Whenever you fly and wherever you fly to next, enjoy the safety, convenience and luxury of travelling by private jet—and make sure your next trip is booked already!