Private air travel is prospering under the pandemic.
In fact, interest is so high that many private jet companies have a different problem of their hands: keeping up with demand.
Private aviation company VistaJet said new memberships for the first half of 2021 are up 53% compared to 2020, with Europe bringing in the greatest number of new members (51%) during this period.
“It’s no surprise that searches for ‘charter travel’ have increased by 520% over the last 12 months,” said Naveen Dittakavi, CEO of the flight website Next Vacay. “Searches for ‘if you wanted to take a private plane’ have increased by 1,100% in the past 12 months worldwide.”
Most people who can afford to fly privately don’t, said Gregg Brunson-Pitts, founder of Advanced Aviation Team, a Virginia-based private jet broker. The pandemic caused some of those people to book private jets, many for the very first time.
“People … have come off the sidelines,” he said. “It wasn’t just the wealthy people with means —governments were using them. They were a way to move around supplies so our business picked up pretty rapidly even during the shutdown.”
Brunson-Pitts, who was the director of the Travel Office at the White House during President George W. Bush’s second term in office, acknowledged charter jet pricing isn’t as transparent as commercial flying. But there are reasons for this, he said.
Unlike a commercial flight — where passengers are flying on the same plane at the same time on the same date — charter jets vary considerably by size and service (none vs. “VIP catering and flight attendants”), said Brunson-Pitts. Due to rising demand, flexibility around travel dates also affects prices, he said.
As such, a flight for a family of four from New York City to Washington, D.C., could easily vary from $10,000 to $50,000, he said, depending on customers’ requirements.
To get a broader idea around prices, CNBC spoke with newly converted private flyers about how much they paid for their first flights during the pandemic.
‘Wrestled for years with the costs’
Name: Jarrett Preston
Profession: CEO of international asset trading company Idoneus
Preston said he was “a very occasional private flier” prior to the pandemic.
“I wrestled for years with the costs and benefits of private travel,” said Preston. “As the global pandemic moved into full swing and flights were drastically reduced or rerouted, lines became longer [and] incidences of violence on board aircraft increased, I decided that private air travel was necessary.”
He paid around $10,500 to fly from Tampa to Miami and back with Florida-based Monarch Air Group charter service.
“Beyond the incalculable time savings, my safety and that of my family and team come first,” he said. “It has been one of the best business and personal decisions I’ve made.”
Safety, privacy and comfortability
Name: Ahmad Sahroni
Profession: Businessman and politician
As a member of the People’s Representative Council, one of two elected bodies in Indonesia’s legislative branch, Sahroni said he started flying privately for “safety, privacy and comfortability.”
He paid around $36,000 for his first flight, which was with the Indonesian aviation company CeoJetset. He flew from Bali to the country’s capital city of Jakarta.
“As a person with high mobility … time efficiency is also the key factor,” he said.
As to whether he plans to continue flying privately after the pandemic wanes: “Yes, definitely.”
‘Takes all the stress out’
Name: Steven Sadaka
Profession: CEO of executive search firm StevenDouglas
Sadaka often flies out of Miami International Airport.
“It’s very stressful going through such a large international airport. There are endless lines through security, and you’re treated as a number,” he said. “This was always a pain point for me, but I could never justify [spending] $6,000 an hour for a charter jet.”
The company he now flies with, Jet It, runs about $1,600 an hour, he said. He paid $8,000 for a round-trip flight from Boca Raton, Florida, to Teterboro, New Jersey, for his first flight.
Sadaka said private jet travel “takes all the stress out of travel.” Now, he said, he’s not going back.
“I can arrive five minutes before takeoff, a car is waiting at my destination, and I don’t have to worry about cancellations,” he said. “I can travel on my schedule, even if it changes.”
Name: Derrick L. Miles
Profession: Founder and CEO of health tech company CourMed
Miles made the switch for two reasons: time savings and Covid-19 safety.
“Travel delays, spending time in long lines can all negatively impact our organization’s ability to get more accomplished each day,” he said. “Time is money.”
He is now flying with JSX, a Dallas-based service that operates 30-seater jets in the United States. On his first flight, he paid $1,200 to fly round-trip from Dallas to Miami.
“While JSX does not operate a true charter service, I personally prefer its ‘hop on’ jet service,” Miles said. “They have flights pre-set to go to certain destinations, and I can travel at a more modest price point.”
The biggest perk, according to Miles: “getting my time back.”
“I don’t have to go to the private hanger until 20 to 30 minutes prior to departure,” he said. ”In addition, the JSX parking lot is about 20 yards away from the facility. Therefore, I’m saving hours of time, and I can focus on the company’s liquidity, profitability and growth.”
Most private of all
Name: Brandon Ham
Profession: Investment manager in the finance industry
It’s not in a jet, but Ham flies the most private way possible — he pilots his own plane.
He started flying lessons just before the pandemic began, he said. In September, he bought a Cirrus SR22 single-engine piston plane.
He declined to share the cost of the plane, but said certified airplanes get to “seven figures quickly,” while new jets cost “many millions.” He said it’s far more expensive to own and fly his own plane than to fly commercially in first-class seats. Yet chartering a jet with a professional pilot is even pricier, he said.
“The purchase price only tells part of the story,” he said. “Running costs and maintenance are massive expenses with all airplanes, with jets typically costing thousands of dollars per hour to operate.”
The greatest aspect of plane ownership is the flexibility, which outrivals even charter services, said Ham.
“If you feel like sleeping in, you can. If you’re wondering if you have time to finish your round of golf or take another run down the mountain, you can,” he said.
But there are drawbacks as well.
“Cost is surely one of them, and the fact that the plane doesn’t have a bathroom, nor food and drink service … my plane will also fly much slower than a commercial jet,” said Ham.
Time is saved “on the ground” though, he said, adding that door to door, from his apartment in Chicago to his sister’s house in Nashville, it’s faster to fly his own plane.
Ham didn’t fly privately before he became a pilot, he said, adding that he will continue to fly commercially, especially to go abroad.