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Why private jet operators have been soaring through the pandemic

Privacy, safety from the virus, the reduction of scheduled services and the need for people to travel for business, healthcare or pleasure have helped private jets fly high.

February 24, 2022 / 01:25 PM IST
Representative image.

Representative image.

While airlines were hit hard by Covid and are still limping back to normalcy, one aviation segment has been thriving ever since the pandemic hit the country: private jets.

Essentially a product of the pandemic when commercial flights were grounded, private jets have managed to retain their popularity even as the pandemic abates.

Those from the segment maintain there was always demand, albeit latent, for private jets in India. The world sat up and took notice of private jets as an option when Chinese families spent $20,000  per seat on a private jet to fly their children back home from the US. What did not come into the limelight was that a family from Guwahati booked a charter from Guwahati to Dubai for $75,000.

A shift in the wind

The pandemic forced  social distancing everywhere, including air travel when flights resumed, says Anoop Sehan, Chief Executive Officer, IndJets India Private Ltd. “With airlines suspending operations and countries banning regular scheduled commercial flights or restricting them under the so-called Air Bubbles, capacity was greatly reduced. However, those who absolutely needed to travel and had the means to do so, created, or rather greatly enhanced, the market for charter flights.”

Sehan says small  private charters are the most expensive category within the segment, wherein 8-10 people, usually corporates, travel on a single aircraft.

Corporates using private jets is understandable but what emerged during the pandemic was another completely new segment. “During the pandemic we found upper-middle-class people with jobs abroad or families stranded using these to get back to their places of work or family reunions, paying approximately Rs 4-6 lakh per person, depending on where they were headed,” Sehan says.

According to Sabeer Ahluwalia, Co-Founder, Yaqoot Air Charter, before the pandemic, high-end corporates hired  business jets only for business purposes but “during the pandemic they started using such jets for their families also.”

Other private segments

Other newer segments for private jets, or charter flights, also emerged during the pandemic, though out of necessity. For instance, large commercial charters that were primarily relief flights were operated to bring back stranded people.

Then there were  small cargo charters that carried emergency  medicines, including vaccines, for specific individuals  or corporates. Large cargo charters were primarily undertaken due to a heavy dip in the belly-cargo capacity after the suspension of scheduled airline services.

The pandemic  also increased aero medical evacuation traffic  at least 10-fold. “This traffic is hugely popular in smaller cities like Ranchi, Patna, Bagdogra, Guwahati, Agartala,  Silchar and Imphal. Now, insurance companies are also covering air medical evacuations,” Ahluwalia says.

Not just a blip

However, what the private jets segment is gung-ho about is that there are clear signs people will continue to fly private even after the pandemic abates.

“All these models are here to stay for the next three-to-four years as people have found these to be viable options, especially if they need privacy and an added layer of safety from travelling in a closed space with hundreds of unknown people,” Sehan says.

“In the last couple of years, particularly during Covid-19, a lot of new clients came forward to charter flights. The latest trend is that almost 70-80 percent of charter flights are for clients flying for the first time,” adds Santosh Sharma, founder of BookMyJet and cofounder of Forsee Aviation. He says that at least 50 percent of these people will stay with private jets even when Covid is history, while “I have strong reason to believe that the other 50 percent might go back to commercial flights or other modes of transportation.”

Pre-Covid,  Sharma received orders for about 9-10 flights per week, which has now doubled. “In the last couple of months, election campaigning  in UP, Punjab, Goa and Uttarakhand has taken flying higher, especially helicopter flying,” he says.

More destinations on the radar

With more people flying private, the number of destinations they fly to have also increased. Goa, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Hampi, Dubai and Maldives, for instance,  gained huge momentum during Covid. “This is primarily for leisure purposes. But what we are noticing is that a lot of clients have started using private jets to visit their facilities or plants,” Sharma says.

Ahluwalia adds that destinations such as Guwahati and Bhubaneshwar have seen a lot of corporate charters from Mumbai and Delhi.

Needless to say, private aircraft operators believe the outlook for the segment is rosy. Some, such as Sehan, say that besides corporates opting for air travel for senior executives in a more secure environment,  “a greater demand for charters will also come from professionals such as lawyers, doctors and businesspeople. Sports teams from the IPL and other sports leagues will also go for charters, which will give them a greater sense of safety, privacy and the convenience of operating per their schedule.”

It was costly and is now costlier

But all good things also have a flip side. Inevitably, with demand going up, so is the price of hiring a private jet. According to  Sharma, charter rates have gone up for two reasons: the rise in the price of Aviation Turbine Fuel and increasing demand.

“The prices of both turbo-props and business jets have gone up by 10-15 per cent after the pandemic. Now it costs anything between Rs 90,000 to Rs 100,000 per hour to hire a turboprop aircraft like a KingAir C 90. A Super King Air B 200  now costs between Rs 110,000 to Rs 125,000 per hour,” he says.

“When it comes to business jets such as the Citation XL or Beechcraft Hawker 850 XP, the price is Rs 2,75,000 per hour. In pre-Covid times these were available for Rs 240,000 to Rs 250,000 per hour. Heavier jets like Dassault Falcon and Embraer Legacy are now available at Rs 4,00,000 per hour; pre-Covid, they could be  hired for Rs 3,50,000 to Rs 3,75,000 an hour,” Sharma says.

Ashwini Phadnis is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.
Tags: #aviation
first published: Feb 24, 2022 01:25 pm