Business Insider Edition

Travellers are paying thousands of dollars to evacuate from coronavirus-affected areas on private jets

Melissa Wiley , Business Insider US
 Mar 03, 2020, 06:08 PM
A Boeing 737 MAX airplane is seen parked at a Boeing facility on August 13, 2019 in Renton, Washington.
  • Private jet companies have reported increased demand, as commercial aviation takes a hit due to coronavirus travel bans.
  • Both corporations and individuals are paying top dollar to evacuate and avoid areas affected by the coronavirus.
  • Private jets are able to bypass travel bans and screenings through "many holes," according to Justin Crabbe, CEO of private jet charter company Jettly - though country regulations are ever-evolving.
  • Because private jets fly out of smaller terminals, passengers aren't necessarily subject to commercial security and health screenings, Crabbe told Business Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As commercial airlines cancel flights around the world due to the coronavirus outbreak, private jet companies are swooping in to fetch both leisure and business travelers.

"In short, we are booming," Justin Crabbe, CEO of private jet charter company Jettly, told Business Insider. "I've never seen so much activity in our evacuation flight department."

Jettly, which has headquarters in New York and Toronto, connects clients to 23,713 private aircraft around the world and calls itself the "Expedia of private aviation."

The company has seen an unprecedented spike - thousands of requests "within hours" - in last-minute travel and evacuation requests from clients trying to avoid existing and impending travel bans. "This time of year we typically see 2,000 to 3,000 flights requested each day, but we have doubled that for almost every news release of a major outbreak in the past weeks getting people out of the affected areas," Crabbe said.

To accommodate the demand, Jettly is tripling its flight support staff.

Adam Twidell, CEO of London-based PrivateFly, told Business Insider that his company has also seen a rise in demand for short-notice charter over the past few weeks related to the coronavirus. "We've had a very significant number of inquiries for group evacuations and from corporates and individuals," he said.

The coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has since spread to at least 69 countries and infected over 89,000 people. Over 74 commercial airlines have canceled flights around the world as a result of the outbreak, which the International Air Transport Association estimates will cost the global airline industry close to $30 billion in 2020.

Reporting for the Financial Times, Tanya Powley noted that the number of business jet flights from Hong Kong - a destination close to the outbreak's epicenter - to North America and Australia was up 214 percent year-over-year in January, and the number of flights from Hong Kong to locations around the globe was up 34.2 percent-year-over year.

Events such as the Superbowl have created demand spikes in the past, Crabbe noted, but these requests usually come weeks in advance of the events.

The coronavirus-related demand is unlike anything Crabbe has seen. "It's very unusual to see the sporadic and immediate demand we see as a result of this coronavirus outbreak."

Media reports of the coronavirus outbreaks and travel bans have fueled demand - and clients are willing to pay top dollar for last-minute flights

Demand has been driven by media, Crabbe noted. Reports of travel bans, city quarantines, evacuations, and new cases "drive the public to become extremely fearful and prefer to stay away from commercial airport terminals and commercial aircraft cabins due to the increased levels of exposure," he said.

PrivateFly's coronavirus-related flights have ranged from the transport of medical teams to new clients wishing to avoid exposure that a commercial flight might bring. "Recent inquiries have included transport of a decontamination team within Asia, and flights from Hong Kong for a family traveling to Bali. They normally fly by commercial airline but on this occasion, are concerned about exposure on the flight," Twidell told Business Insider.

Jettly customers, both individual and corporate, are willing to pay well above standard rates - a typical rate for a light jet that seats six to eights passengers is $5,000 for an hour - to evacuate areas within 24-48 hours instead of waiting a few days. "We have seen dozens of bookings that are two to three times the regular rate for the flight due to the increased demand and the shortage of available aircraft and crews in the area," Crabbe said. "Many aircraft are having to fly in to pick up customers and evacuate them. All of that additional flight time comes with additional cost."

Large companies, in particular, are spending top dollar. "Some of our large corporate clients have already activated their disaster relief plans which include the evacuation of employees out of affected areas back home to the United States and there appears to be no limit to what some of them will spend," he said.

Private jets can capitalise on "many holes" in the system to avoid travel bans and other coronavirus-related regulations

Private jets have more flexibility when it comes to flying in and out of areas affected by coronavirus than commercial planes, according to Crabbe. "In my opinion, there are many holes that are being left open," he said.

"Passengers are using private terminals off to the side of the regular commercial terminals and are not subject to commercial security, possibly even including temperature screenings," he said.

GlobeAir, a Europe-based private jet charter company, has set up a coronavirus advisory page on its website, noting that private jet charters and lounges are "much more secure than big airports' terminals" for travelers looking to avoid coronavirus exposure. However, the company encourages clients and staff to follow preventative health measures. The company states that "instructions to report the state of health to the authorities are known" to its staff.

The long-term effects of the coronavirus outbreak on the private aviation industry are yet to be determined

While private air travel is surging, the long-term effect of the coronavirus outbreak remains to be seen.

"Any short-term gain is obviously balanced with longer-term concerns and challenges, including the impact on the global economy," Twidell told Business Insider.

"Even now, while we're seeing short-term additional demand, other clients are changing or canceling their travel plans," he said. "And obviously the operational logistics of flying in or out of China, and increasingly between other countries, is now highly complex, with low availability of aircraft and crews making it difficult to fulfill requests. Operational protocols are changing daily - it's a very fluid situation, which we are monitoring closely."

What's more, "some pilots and air operators are no longer willing to fly into red zones such as Iran for fear of putting themselves or their families at risk of infection through a passenger onboard," Crabbe said.

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