In the past year, the private jet industry has been a counterpoint to an otherwise unprecedented global travel downturn. Faced with ever-changing government restrictions and the Covid transmission risk of travelling on cramped commercial carriers, many consumers have started flying privately for the first time.
Travel statistics demonstrate this well. According to aviation consulting firm Argus, in April 2020 commercial airline passenger count was down 95 percent year-on-year, and on private jet charters by 67 percent. Yet by early July, while commercial flights remained down 74 percent, private jet flights had already bounced back to positive growth.
Flying privately has its benefits. It allows passengers to skip long security lines and enjoy the calm of private terminals, as well as reach places rarely serviced by commercial carriers. In a pandemic context, it is also an epidemiologically safer mode of travel: the average private aviation trip is estimated to have fewer than 20 exposure touchpoints — less than an average supermarket trip.
Benefits like these have traditionally come with a hefty price tag, limiting charter travel to the echelons of the ultra-wealthy/ But recent industry offerings have started to “democratize” this once privileged space.
One of these disruptors is JetASAP, a company that defines itself as the “AirBnb for travel”, which allows customers to book private flights from their smartphones with no membership fees or commissions. Another is FlyJets, a travel search engine that allows customers to bid on flights with no fixed prices and where seats can be bought on shared charters at discounts of up to 50 percent the cost of an average charter. Ride-sharing services like these have made it possible to snag a spot on a private plane for as little as $100 each way.
The emergence of such services means the recent demand surge might continue even after the pandemic. A recent poll conducted by website Private Jet Card Comparisons revealed that 96 percent of new private jet converts still plan to fly privately at least occasionally after coronavirus restrictions ease, while 41 percent intend to continue such travel on a regular basis.
“Those who previously considered private flying a luxury now see it as a necessary means of travel,” said Lee Applbaum, Chief Marketing Officer at Wheels Up, one of the largest US private aviation operators, in an interview with Conde Nast Traveler.
It is interesting that this boom in private aviation is occurring during a period otherwise marked by rising consumer consciousness of climate change issues and the importance of environment, social and governance (ESG) factors.
Private aviation is undeniably one of the most environmentally destructive forms of travel: passengers flying by private plane have a carbon footprint approximately 10 times that of individuals travelling by commercial carrier and about 50 times that of those travelling by train. To put this in perspective, a single four-hour private flight emits as much carbon as the average person does in an entire year.
While some industry players are making efforts to become more sustainable by partnering with environmental projects to help offset passengers’ carbon emissions, their efforts largely remain ‘window dressing’ solutions: offsetting does not eliminate the original emissions and will not foster long-term sustainability. Industry lobby group Transport & Environment has suggested a more ambitious but impactful alternative — to prohibit short-haul flights whenever alternatives exist that increase travel time by no more than two and a half hours.
Whether consumer consciousness of environmental issues will be enough to dampen the rising popularity of private aviation is not yet clear. But the growth of private air travel may have a silver lining if it can provoke aviation’s ‘Tesla moment’ and bring hydrogen and electric powered small aircraft from design concepts to reality.