In a July 2020 article, the New York Times described a scene that has now become a common fixture of air travel in the United States: A resident of San Francisco had flown to Phoenix in early March for what was intended to be a short visit out of state. Still there when the country went into lockdown, she stayed for a few months, hoping to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic.
By June, she decided to return home, cautious about the dangers of commercial air travel. Concerned that getting on a commercial jet would be too risky, she chose a private, chartered air travel service that departed from small airports. Her one-way ticket to California cost only $159, where an American Airlines flight that same day could have run her $150.
That story recounted in the New York Times has become a common occurrence: A growing number of Americans are opting for private and chartered air travel, seeing them as a safer alternative to cramped commercial flights.
In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way millions of travelers view commercial travel. More than ever, the thought of crowded airport terminals and cramped aircraft have led leisure and business travelers to consider chartering a private jet or helicopter, leading to an unprecedented shift toward private airplane and helicopter sales.
This change was evident from the earliest days of the pandemic. In April, all global air travel fell to a fifth of its 2019 volume, and business flights plummeted to 36% their rate in the previous year. But private air travel bounced back quickly. By July 2020, private aircraft and helicopter travel had increased to 85% and 90% their 2019 volume.
For years, private air travel has been regarded as a service for corporate executives and wealthy leisure travelers who want to pay the price for privacy and security. And while that remains true, air charter companies are shifting to meet rising demand from people worried about taking commercial flights.
Private aviation has emerged as more than just a matter of efficiency and luxury: Private air travel addresses passengers’ serious concerns over safety and health.
Here are just three ways in which COVID-19 has transformed chartered air travel.
Among the most striking changes in private air travel, like a chartered helicopter or jet, is the number of new customers that have flocked to the industry for the first time.
In April of 2020, passenger counts on commercial airlines fell 95%, while passenger counts on private aircraft fell by 67%. By June, private aircraft operators saw just a 22% decrease. This rebound, according to private aviation experts, is fueled by existing customers flying for personal reasons and, crucially, newcomers to the market.
XO, a private aircraft chartering company, was quoted in one New York Times article as reporting a 19.8% decrease in hours flown in 2020, but monthly membership sales among first-time fliers had averaged five times higher than numbers in previous years. Another company, Sentient Jet, reported that over 50% of its sales in summer 2020 were sold to first-time customers, and Air Charter Service, a third aircraft company, said its new customer numbers increased by 75%.
Beyond concerns over safety and health concerns for commercial air travel, there are a number of logistical reasons why new customers could be turning to private charters from helicopter and aviation companies.
As the number of commercial flights remain low, private aircrafts help passengers travel to places with lesser connectivity. Particularly during a time where mandated testing and health issues remain unpredictable, private aircraft services, like Helicopter Express’ chartered helicopters, also help passengers in crucial moments when they miss their connecting flights and need to reach their destinations urgently.
“We have been arranging private travel for existing clients as well as new clients who are looking for a better way to travel than commercial and more peace of mind. With the current pandemic, those who normally travel in first-class commercially are elevating their experience with personal well-being in mind, especially for older clients who have more health concerns,” said Richard Thompson, president of Air Charter Service Americas, in a recent article.
“It’s a more streamlined process to get from A to B, whether that’s for business or leisure. The greatest number of private aircraft users are North Americans and half of our calls are from new customers,” he continued.
Most of all, many private aviation experts believe that increases in popularity for private air travel are likely to continue. According to one aviation executive, “In 2021, assuming the virus is under control and effective treatment in sight, we see an opportunity for business aviation to play a bigger role.”
In other words, with commercial aviation options rebounding on a slower schedule, a connectivity gap between the need for business travel and the commercial industry’s capacity could easily ensue. With an expectation that it may take aviation companies at least three years to fully restore their service networks across the country, flying privately may continue to prove a critical resource for business travel to secondary cities.
Before the pandemic, the largest barrier to entry to private air travel was its price tag, but an increase in demand has begun to lower the cost of chartered aircraft. As demonstrated in the New York Times’ anecdote above, a private one way ticket to San Francisco could only cost $150.
While that figure remains unusually low, many private aircraft companies—like charter jet companies offering tickets on a private flight—have considerably lowered their prices. One private aircraft company, JSX, has lowered its average costs for a one way flight to $300-$500 per person, with some shorter legs costing less than $100. While those prices remain high for some fliers, private air travel fees as low as $300 offer an incredibly competitive price point for flyers who normally book business or first-class flights commercially.
"Private aviation is no doubt maturing. And one inevitable trend and outcome is industry consolidation. Manufacturers, charter companies and technology platforms are consolidating across all aspects of operations to seek more efficiencies,” John Prince, CEO of Respada, said during a panel discussion on private aviation last year. "We are about to witness new passenger consumption patterns, industry practices, technology disintermediation and innovations that will make private aviation operate much more efficiently,” he added.
There is no doubt, however, that some private air travel remains incredibly costly, though chartered helicopter services tend to be far more affordable than chartering a private jet. Custom chartered jet flights, for example, can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to more than $10,000 per hour, based on factors like aircraft type and in-flight services.
Even so, the price for chartering aircraft in the United States is low now. Even at exorbitant prices, a one-way chartered aircraft to fly from New York to Los Angeles typically costing $30,000 has now fallen to $12,000 or $17,000.
An important factor driving up the affordability of private air travel is the likely increase in cost for commercial flights. If commercial airlines must again begin to keep open seats between passengers to slow COVID-19 transmission, one expert predicted in a recent article, their prices will likely rise, further tightening the gap between public and private aviation.
Of course, the clear driving factor behind a marked increase in private helicopter and aircraft chartering is that private travel offers a far safer alternative to commercial flight. “The only thing you can’t buy is health,” said one aviation executive recently.
The fact is: Flying privately in a helicopter or airplane ensured COVID-19 avoidance and safety by fulfilling the imperatives of social distancing. Where a passenger on a commercial flight might encounter over 900 touch points—or places of frequent contact—in commercial aviation, the average private travel experience may introduce a passenger to only 30.
Often, private aircraft passengers avoid overcrowded airport and terminal lines by boarding their aircraft—usually a private jet or a helicopter—at a fixed base operator site, or an exclusive terminal for private aircraft. Once landing, instead of line up for customs or border clearance, passengers typically are escorted into a private office to have documents checked.
Across all measures, chartered or private air travel is a far cry from the ever-changing rules about middle seats, passengers refusing to wear masks, or on-board disputes over seating, as one New York Times article recently noted. Most important for many travelers, while passengers on commercial airlines often report confusion over mask policies not being enforced, flying privately almost also ensures everyone has their face covered.
“Flying private is much safer, and consistently so,” said Sridhar Tayur, founder of OrganJet, a company that provides private jet travel for organ-transplant patients, in a recent article. “Social distancing is easier. The pilots wear masks. The passengers—usually a small number—know each other.”
One private air travel passenger quoted in the New York Times summed up the safety of chartered air travel well: “I’d always wanted to fly on a private [aircraft], and then I started thinking about what travel might otherwise be like on a commercial airline,” he said. “I didn’t want to wait in a crowded terminal. I didn’t want the chance that someone on the plane might complain about wearing a mask and the plane might be delayed.”
At Helicopter Express, we hold our passengers safety above all else, and our helicopter chartering services are designed to bring our passengers wherever they need, safely and quickly.
Whether you’re flying for business or pleasure, our experienced pilots provide you with a safe, reliable and on-demand helicopter experience to ensure you get to your destination in private comfort. Primarily based in the Southeast, we regularly charter from locations in Georgia, Wyoming, Texas, Florida and New York.
If you’re interested in chartering a helicopter with Helicopter Express for private air travel, please contact us for more information on locations, availability, and however we can cater our services to your exact needs.
Our highly skilled pilots have the experience and equipment needed to rise to any challenge. When you need experts you can trust, give us a call.