In Focus: Private Jets

Private jet travel didn’t just fare well during the pandemic, it saw a seismic shift in demand. A combination of travellers seeking greater privacy, fewer touchpoints and increased flexibility led to a dramatic hike in the number of consumers considering flying private, marking a pivotal period for the sector.

With normal life slowly returning, evidence suggests the trend is here to stay. Current demand outstrips supply, experts say, and companies are scrambling to expand fleets and teams at pace. While commercial airlines continue to grapple with travel restrictions and reduced fleets, private jets have the monopoly – and they offer a lucrative proposition for the trade. A niche sell? Indeed. Private jets are still only used by the wealthiest 1% of flyers. But all signs point to a rosy future for private jet travel, so it’s about time you strap in.

Taking off

According to aviation business intelligence firm Argus TraqPak, demand for private jet flights has been at record levels since last June. Private aviation company Vista Global Holding, which includes global charter operator VistaJet and charter brokers XO Global, saw a 64% increase year-on-year in global flight hours across its brands.

VistaJet programme members have also increased by 75% since 2020. “This isn’t a start-up,” says chief operating officer Ian Moore. “Those types of numbers from a company that has been around for 18 years just show you how we’ve performed in the last 12 months.

I’ve been in the industry for 20 years and I’ve never seen results like this, given some of the restrictions going on around the world.” VistaJet is far from an anomaly. Global aircraft charter provider Air Charter Service had a record year in 2021, with a turnover of £1.3 billion, up 45% on the previous year, while aviation services group Air Partner saw “significant growth” in private jet travel during the pandemic and says demand will “undoubtedly” continue to grow in 2022.

The trend is reflected in the wider travel industry, too. Four Seasons, which launched private jet journeys in 2012, has unveiled its largest-ever programme for 2023 following record demand for its 2022 line-up.

Meanwhile, Abercrombie & Kent’s six-figure Inspiring Expedition trips led by founder Geoffrey Kent are mostly sold out.

Soaring benefits

It’s not hard to understand the allure of private jets, particularly amid the context of Covid-19.

“Understandable cautiousness about touchpoints during a journey has made private jet travel an attractive option for many who have booked for the first time having travelled in business or first class in the past,” says Kevin MacNaughton, managing director of Air Partner.

“Comfort, convenience, flexibility and safety have become key deciding factors. “Private travel allows customers to experience a highly personalised and bespoke service that simply cannot be matched with commercial airlines.”

There isn’t just one way to fly private, either. Vista’s XO brand is designed for those flying between zero and 50 hours a year (its VistaJet customers fly 100 hours per year on average in contrast), while Air Partner reported a “large number of enquiries” for its flexible private jet membership programme, JetCard.

Quintessentially Travel has seen an increase in interest for semi-private services such as Aero, which allows customers to book a minimum of two seats rather than the whole aircraft, while concierge agency Ten Lifestyle Group is planning to create VIP packages pairing private jets with major sporting events, where members can book individual seats.

Opportunity knocks

The private jet sector isn’t without its challenges, with key issues surrounding sustainability, but there’s no denying it provides a fruitful opportunity for the trade.

About 20% of Air Charter Service’s private jet leisure business comes through agents. “The growth in the last two years has been vast,” says group director of private jets, Andy Christie.

“We’ve made an effort to reach out to travel agents and say, ‘This isn’t a scary black hole of fear, you’re not going to lose your customer. We can help.’

“The travel market has taken a beating in the last couple of years and there are some fantastic agents out there that we [want to] work with.” And it isn’t just agents who can benefit from working with private jet companies.

A growing number of private jet operators are looking to partner with luxury travel brands to further boost their offering. In October 2020, VistaJet launched Private World, an exclusive black book of hotels, private islands, yachts and ski destinations, helping it create bespoke experiences for customers.

But where some report demand, others say the spike in private jet enquiries is yet to translate into bookings. So what can the trade do to get clients over the line? Being upfront about the price is key, say the experts.

“If someone’s comparing it with commercial, it’s not going to balance out in very many cases,” says Christie. “If you’re looking at taking 10 people first class to Barbados at short notice on a flexible ticket with British Airways, we start to get into the right ballpark, but that’s not the general public.

“Particularly when we’re working with travel agents, we are trying to help them qualify a customer in the same way they would for the spend on accommodation.”

Looking ahead

It’s been a show-stopping two years for the private jet sector, but will this trajectory of success continue beyond the pandemic? The future certainly looks promising.

“Our view for this year is that demand isn’t going to decrease,” says Christie. “The longer [commercial airlines] are hindered in the way they are, that demand will remain.

If there is any kind of a decline, it will be from 2024 onwards and it will be gradual.” VistaJet, which has added aircraft across its fleet, says it has “great confidence” in the future of private aviation.

“[In February 2020], there was a stat from [management consultants] McKinsey that 90% of people who can afford to fly privately were flying commercially,” says Moore.

“That’s a huge runway of people who can afford your product that have touched private aviation during the pandemic. It’s a sticky product – you get it right, you’ll keep your clients – that shows great potential going forward.”

Clearly, the sky is the limit when it comes to private jets.

Agents’ views

High-end agents and concierge services are reporting a steep rise in private jet travel.

Sam Mullen of Quintessentially Travel says clients who hadn’t previously considered private jets are now attracted by “the perceived ease of travelling, enhanced comfort, space and privacy”.

Meanwhile, Different Planet Travel’s Clare Levy says: “Booking a private jet for multigenerational holidays has been really popular lately.

A lot of clients are booking incredible trips, such as Octola Lodge in Finland, and travelling by private jet is an extra luxury they wanted to experience. Two of my clients flew by private jet for the first time over the February half-term and they both plan to do it again.”