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2 years of the pandemic: Private jet journeys took off as Covid-19 bogged all other travel down

Private jet journeys are unlikely to see a drop in demand after Covid, given the kind of connectivity they offer now - a network developed over the last two years of the pandemic.

March 11, 2022 / 07:51 AM IST
BLADE India recently entered into a partnership with Airbus, to expand its ‘on-demand’ services, adding five new H125 to its fleet initially.

BLADE India recently entered into a partnership with Airbus, to expand its ‘on-demand’ services, adding five new H125 to its fleet initially.

Private jet journeys became a viable option for more and more people who needed to travel despite Covid-restrictions over the last 24 months, since the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 pandemic on March 11, 2020.

There are no absolute numbers of growth patterns and flights taken across the last two years of the pandemic yet. But an initial survey by Knight Frank (which publishes an annual global wealth index) offers a picture of both intent to fly private and action.

The survey shows that 43% of India’s ultra-wealthy travellers are more likely to consider private aviation as a permanent way to travel, over 15% who have already boarded that private jet. International travel is set to reopen this month - and some of these predictions will be put to the test soon enough.

Ultra-wealthy respondents from the United Arab Emirates (75%), Russia (71%), Nigeria (69%), Spain (60%), Canada (60%) and South Africa (60%) also say they are more likely to use private aviation even after the Covid threat abates.

It isn’t that private jet journeys weren't a thing in the past. Until recently, the corporate or political traveller -  usually the country’s top leadership or industrialists and entrepreneurs - were likely to book private jets to save time or to make a statement, or both.

Ralph Holister of Global Data, who has tracked the exponential growth of leisure over the last two years (almost 52% worldwide), says, “Private jet journeys took off when countries established safe travel bubbles with other countries. Hotels and even tourism boards began to make a case for travelling on a private aircraft or helicopter, for shorter routes, across the safe corridors,” he says. “The interest that (the) luxury leisure traveller has shown in continuing to hire private jets even after COVID loosened its hold on the world for a while, will permanently transform the business models of many private jet companies.”

India has seen a significant increase in the number of people travelling globally for a holiday on a private jet. “Over the past year, many have often booked a large jet to ferry their families and friends for a vacation in Asia or Europe,” he says. “And from what we can see, this trend will not ebb even when Covid fear eventually ebbs. Once you are used to flying in privacy and luxury, it is difficult to go back.”

“Covid restrictions across the world, and the need and desire to travel, provided a boost to private jet journeys for leisure, rather than just business, sometime late last year,” says Christian Clerc, President, Global Operations for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, which is one of the major hotel groups running private jet journeys between its hotels worldwide. Rich Indians are among their top customers.

Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts runs leisure private jet journeys between its hotels worldwide.

While some Indians were already taking private flights in 2020-21 to go on holiday in India and abroad (wherever they were allowed to go under the special air travel arrangements, particularly to Dubai), Indian private jet companies saw a surge in demand in-step with the big spike in Covid cases in April 2021. “It was not just the rich. Anyone who could take a private jet out took one in April before the world blocked flights from India,” says Rajan Mehra, CEO, Club One Air, a private jet purveyor.

Thankfully, as the crisis came under control, the second surge in jet journeys was observed sometime in September, when Indians flew, in large numbers, to the Maldives, the one country that welcomed Indian tourists with open arms. And with that, luxury hotels across Maldivian islands pulled out all stops for Indian luxury travellers.

If the poster boy of sustainable luxury, Soneva Fushi resorts, escorts its guests from Male International airport to the seaplane terminal in Tesla, The Nautilus Maldives in Baa Atoll, a hub for manta rays and whale sharks, flies its guests in a private, luxury seaplane with just eight comfortable, leather seats.

While there are private purveyors of jet journeys, even a commercial airline such as IndiGo ventured into charter services. Over the last year, the airline has operated over 2,000 passenger charter flights, of which 85 per cent catered to international destinations. IndiGo is offering a ‘family and friends’ charter (6E Charter) that can be booked from the airline's Web site, with an option for travellers to add a hotel deal to the service.

During the pandemic, we have seen an entirely new set of people booking private jets for leisure travel, says Rohit Kapur, President, Jet HQ Asia, a private aircraft brokerage. He has spoken about Indians willing to pay up to $5,000 per passenger for a chartered flight, nearly double the cost of a business or first-class seat on a commercial airline.

So, how does this work?

The more traditional way is for individuals to book private jets to journey across the world, for business (earlier) or leisure (now). Or for luxury hotels to offer a uber-luxe journey, which takes their customers to different properties from their group across the globe.

Aman Jet Expeditions (Aman hotels are considered blue chips of luxury boutique hotels) have collaborated with Remote Lands, which take travellers aboard an Airbus ACJ 318 or 319 to tour their beautiful hotels in lands as far apart as Bhutan and the United States. Then there is, of course, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, pioneers in launching leisure private jet journeys. In 2015, they launched the first experience. And since then, they have transported hundreds of their guests to destinations across the world onboard their jets.

In 2021, Four Seasons has introduced a custom-outfitted Airbus A321LRneo, with four dining options, and a lounge area where passengers can meet and learn from a Four Seasons crew on how to make a cocktail or a lovely cup of coffee, all this while you jet across their various luxury resorts. The journeys (that travellers’ book across four to five resorts) includes a dedicated physician, who travels with you.

But there is a new way to do it, too. Tourism boards of various countries are getting into the act and making it easier for private jets to land on their shoes. In Sri Lanka, which opened its borders 10 months after they were sealed over the coronavirus pandemic, luxury resort brand Resplendent Ceylon partnered with Delhi-based Jetpooling for bespoke experiential journeys via private jet.

Travellers booking this journey can choose to charter a private jet from either Delhi (in a 12-seater Dassault Falcon 2000) or Mumbai (in a 13-seater Embraer Legacy 650) to Colombo. From Colombo, a helicopter ride will take you to the lush tea estates of Ceylon Tea Trails in the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea region. The private jet journey package includes a seven-night stay at one of three private bungalows—Summerville, Dunkeld or Castlereagh, exclusive dining experiences, picnic lunches, biking trails, and a private tea tasting experience. Resplendent Ceylon can also fly guests, on another private jet, to their other properties such as Cape Weligama, a resort 30 minutes east of Galle, and Wild Coast Tented Lounge that’s adjacent to Yala National Park.

Institutions such as National Geographic believe there are some serious opportunities here. It recently launched a private jet expedition across 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Taj Mahal in Agra. Onboard will be National Geographic explorers, art historians, and geographers. Among the experiences include a visit to a women’s cooperative in Samoa, cooking alongside a Cambodian chef, and sipping mint tea with a Berber family in Morocco. The India segment spans exploration of the sandstone Agra Fort, a maze of palaces, courtyards, mosques, and private chambers, a heritage walk to Agra’s lesser-known monuments, a visit to the red sandstone city of Fatehpur Sikri, once a Mughal capital, and time spent at the Taj Mahal, of course.

The Indian private jet purveyors

The Indian private charter companies haven’t seen such growth in years. Many have increased their fleet.

Amba Shankar of Chennai-based private jet company, SBS Aviation, says they are importing two to three jets, among them an Embraer Phenom 300, and a 10-seater Dassault Falcon, 2000, and they have already done 750 hours of flying in India and internationally.

Many charter companies are considering leasing planes to meet the demand. Most private charters own their aircraft, but ownership is expensive, and the depreciation costs are high.

In India, among the players in the leisure private jet market is BLADE. It began operation in Maharashtra in 2019, shut it down for a while in 2020 due to restrictions, and then began again late last year, by now expanding to Karnataka.

Interestingly, BLADE tied up with luxury hotels such as Hilton Shillim near Mumbai, Evolv Back Resorts in Coorg and Kabini, and Mercara Golf Course, Madikeri for fixed charter flights. Of course, you can charter a private jet anywhere across the country and to go overseas.

BLADE India also recently entered a partnership with Airbus, to further expand its ‘on-demand’ services, adding five new H125 to its fleet initially. In some ways, BLADE pegs itself as an Urban Air Mobility (UAM) company, who offers both private jets across scheduled, fixed routes and an opportunity to hire your own. Among its fleet are helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. They plan to buy EVAs (Electric Vertical Aircrafts).

Karanpal Singh, founder, Hutch Ventures and BLADE India, says, “We already see a sharp increase in domestic tourism, people are now ready to try various new destinations within striking range of their hometowns. We believe this will have a positive impact over the long term on the domestic tourism industry. Our services, both from a transport and a hospitality perspective, now need to pivot to cater to this new trend of quality over quantity. We are preparing for the next generation of eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft that will make mobility much more accessible economically, reduce sound and the carbon footprint and make them a lot safer.”

Embraer Lineage 1000 Embraer Lineage 1000

Experiences aboard

Many private jet companies rely heavily on the individual skills of a flight attendant for service at the back of the cabin. Cabin servers are trained to not just listen and fulfil requests but understand the necessity of anticipating the needs and unsaid wishes of guests. Then there are the luxuries onboard. India’s Air One Charter’s Embraer Lineage 1000 has five spacious cabins and special dining areas, while Legacy 650 boasts HD Entertainment Suites.

Onboard Delhi-based Club One Air jets, expect soft linens, porcelain tableware, and Christofle silverware is used to set the tables. Their wine list includes Ruinart champagnes and chardonnays carefully sourced from vineyards across the world.

Private jet journeys are unlikely to see a drop in demand after Covid, given the kind of connectivity they offer now, a network developed over the last two years of the pandemic, and the luxury of flying in jets that are more hotels in the air, than just another way to fly.

Deepali Nandwani
Deepali Nandwani is a freelance journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.
first published: Jan 1, 2022 08:20 am