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Private air charter operators gain from pandemic as commercial airlines suffer

While safety from the pandemic was the primary reason for a boost in private charters, factors like convenience and falling rates also contributed.

January 10, 2022 / 08:49 PM IST
(Representative image) Goa Tourism data show that 813 charter flights landed in Goa between October 2018 and May 2019. Russia alone accounted for 292 of these flights.

(Representative image) Goa Tourism data show that 813 charter flights landed in Goa between October 2018 and May 2019. Russia alone accounted for 292 of these flights.

Private air charter services in India claimed robust growth in 2021 even as the commercial aviation industry struggled due to the Covid-19 pandemic as more customers opted for safety and efficiency.

Bookings during the pandemic climbed about 30 percent and enquiries almost tripled in 2021 from levels in 2019, Kanika Tekriwal, founder of JetSetGo Aviation Services, told Moneycontrol today.

Although private jet journeys are more expensive than what commercial flights offer, the pandemic has opened up a market for working professionals who want a safe, quick and reliable way to travel without getting into crowded airports and aircraft where the risk of infection could be higher.

“A lot of new startup founders, who would earlier never use chartered planes, have started to use our services. Friends pool in money and lease a plane,” Tekriwal said. JetSetGo operates 12 private aircraft and four helicopters in India.

Data on the number of charter flights in a month or passengers carried is not publicly available. An estimated 43 percent of India’s ultra-wealthy individuals were more likely to consider private aviation as a way to travel in future, according to a survey by international property consultant Knight Frank last year. It found that 15 percent of the ultra-wealthy individuals were already using private jets.

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Blade India, which operates a fleet of 29 helicopters, is seeing a 65 percent re-booking rate by customers, founder Karanpal Singh said in November. Due to the pandemic, the company is not only looking at business travellers but also at the leisure segment, especially foreign visitors and tourists.

What’s driving growth

While passenger safety was the biggest reason for the growth in private air charter operations in India during the pandemic, other factors including time, efficiency, value for money, revenge tourism and falling rates of private jet rentals also contributed.

Tekriwal told Moneycontrol that to reduce the cost of leasing out seats in private jets, her company started locating aircraft closest to the customers, selling empty legs of flights at lower cost, and increasing hourly utilisation to ultimately reduce costs.

Singh said Blade India allows customers to buy only one seat so that they don’t have to pay for the full helicopter.

“We use our technology to crowdsource people to use our service and have used data to identify routes where there is demand for our service,” Singh said.

Indians planning to travel abroad have also been a big driving factor for the growth of private air charter operators.

“Over the past year, many have often booked a large jet to ferry their families and friends for a vacation in Asia or Europe,” Ralph Hollister, a travel and tourism analyst at London-based GlobalData, said in December. “And from what we can see, this trend will not ebb even when Covid fears eventually ebb. Once you are used to flying in privacy and luxury, it is difficult to go back.”

Christian Clerc, president, global operations for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, said that Covid restrictions across the world coupled with the people’s need and desire to travel had provided a boost to private jet journeys for leisure travel.

Customer experiences

The narrowing gap between commercial airline fares and private jet fares and the convenience offered by private aviation have drawn many to opt for services of companies such as JetSetGo.

Bryan Mclyod, a musician based in Canada, first took a private flight from New Delhi to Mumbai in March 2021, right before the outbreak of the second wave of the pandemic in India.

Mcloyd told Moneycontrol today that he considered flying privately due to the comparable prices of flights that were on offer and the safety aspects of private flights.

“I managed to book a seat on a private flight carrying eight others for around Rs 30,000 compared to Rs 17,000 on the next commercial flight from Delhi,” Mclyod said.

Since March 2021, Mclyod has taken five more private jet flights while travelling within India. He added that as part of the experience, he avoided the congestion at both Delhi and Mumbai airports.

Pankaj Gupta, a businessman based in Hisar, said he used private jet services to take his family to Patna in November 2020. He has since used chartered air services thrice when travelling with his family.

He said the first round trip cost him about Rs 60,000 per person and reduced the travel time to three hours against the 12-13 hours it would have taken to travel to Delhi and catch a commercial flight to Patna. Hisar is about 170 km away from the national capital.

“A private charter flight was the easiest way to travel with my family when compared to travelling by road to Delhi and then getting a flight,” Gupta said.

Gaurang Jain, an IT professional based in Pune, took his first chartered flight from Pune to New Delhi in October 2020 to avoid travelling commercial and exposing himself to the virus in public spaces. Since then, he has used chartered services six times when travelling alone and with his family.

“I made the decision to travel using a private jet to visit my elderly parents to avoid catching the Covid-19 virus accidentally,” Jain said.

Akshay and Piyusha Agarwal, who got married in January 2021, used private jets to fly in with their relatives and close friends to Mauritius from Delhi, Mumbai and Pune for their wedding. The couple has since then used private charter service twice.

Yaruqhullah Khan