The threat of terrorism has made long queues, delays and stringent security checks a regular occurrence at airports in the US and beyond, often making the whole experience of traveling a frustrating one. But an increasingly viable alternative, particularly for the business traveler, is to fly privately and avoid the hassle.
In the days following the recent terror alert in the UK, when a plan to blow up transatlantic planes was uncovered by British police, private jet service companies reported a surge in demand from customers, old and new, eager to boycott commercial flights in favor of these alternatives. “August is traditionally a slow month for private charter but last month, with terror alerts becoming more frequent, many people have taken the decision to fly privately,” says Alexis Grabar, Managing Director of corporate business travel specialists Avolus. “Large hub and international airports are coming increasingly under threat from terrorism and the private and corporate sectors are turning to flying privately to avoid such risks.”
In particular, events such as those recently witnessed in the UK have led to huge spikes in private aircraft hire to accompany its robust year-on-year growth. “The most recent surge in demand was on the day of the terror alert in August when 23 people were arrested,” recalls Michael Scheeringa, CEO of Flight Options. “We witnessed an 80 percent surge in demand. There was an immediate need for private travel – not only from people that normally book with us, but also their associates who wanted to avoid the hassle and delay associated with commercial travel.”
One thing the company has witnessed is that organizations are allowing other senior staff, not just their top executives, to fly on private jets. “We have a select number of companies that have liberalized their access policy, which decides who within the company is allowed to travel privately,” observes Scheeringa.
Getting the timing right
Saving time is one of the biggest advantages of flying privately. Even if the client is running late, the plane will wait for them, which would be inconceivable on a regular commercial flight. Since 9/11, security checks before boarding planes have become an essential, although time-consuming, practicality. Even on a normal day, passengers need to arrive early for check-in, luggage check and passport control before the flight has even begun. These kinds of delays are avoided when flying privately, with passengers only needing to arrive around 30 minutes before departure. Not only is time saved, but passengers can feel more reassured that their luggage will be safe. “Luggage is more secure and does not have to be checked in amongst hundreds of other bags,” says Grabar. “It is far less likely to be damaged, tampered with or lost as it is never far from the customer’s sight.”
Recently there has also been the added inconvenience of strict requirements about hand luggage, including the banning of any liquids being taken onboard by passengers. As passengers are validated beforehand, customers of private aircraft firms avoid the rigmarole and inconvenience of airport security checks. “Being able to go point to point with no connections ever and never having to worry about allotting time for going through security is definitely a time saver,” says Chet Gray, Vice President of Marketing at the American Small Business Travelers’ Alliance (ASBTA). “You also have the added bonus of not worrying about what you can and cannot bring on board.” Although restrictions on hand luggage are set to relax, the EU is proposing a restriction on liquids so it is likely that queuing will remain an ongoing inconvenience in the future.
The added security that private jet and charter can bring is another huge attraction. Knowing exactly who your pilot and fellow passengers are provides enormous peace of mind. “Travelers are provided with an optimum level of safety and security,” reassures Grabar. “Charter pilots undergo the same training and certification process as commercial airline pilots, and indeed in some case, more. In general, chartered flights have a safety record comparable to or better than the airlines.”
Although flying is expensive, it isn’t simply an activity reserved only for the mega-rich and famous. Often is it true that private charter travel is a viable alternative to regular scheduled flights, especially if many passengers travel on the same plane. “Absolutely,” agrees Grabar. “For example, consultants and lawyers are paid by the hour and need to charge their clients anything from a half to a whole day, just in travel time alone. Hours of precious working time are wasted queuing, checking in, being searched at security and lining up at customs. In some instances it may not be possible to use laptops or PDAs for various reasons, and even when this is allowed it is difficult to find the space, peace and privacy required to deal with confidential business matters.”
However, even with this in mind, for private flying to work out as economical for corporate travelers it would need to involve larger parties flying. “Private jet services are very rarely a lower hard cost than commercial airlines,” warns Gray. ‘If you have a larger group (15-20 people) you can get close to full fare coach pricing on some routes, but in order to justify the expenditure you will have to assign a dollar amount to the time savings for your people.”
Another aspect of flying privately enjoyed by passengers is that privacy is guaranteed – a luxury that isn’t really possible when flying on a commercial airplane and surrounded by strangers. On private airplanes, when customers travel with their families they are also guaranteed that they can all sit together rather than being separated. Travelers are also individually catered for, so will have more choice regarding their meal options.
Others factors should be taken into account before choosing a private jet or fractional ownership (whereby a company or individual buys/leases a fractional interest in one aircraft just as they might acquire a partial interest in a condo) and one of the most obvious considerations is budget. Most companies have a range of aircraft that differ in price depending on a range of variables. “In choosing a private jet service, a company needs to first understand what their passenger numbers are, the exact flight path and budget,” advises Grabar. “Once they know these details they are then able to communicate their needs better and decide which service would suit them the best. We have a wide range of jets, turboprops and helicopters in our fleet which all vary in price depending on their age, size, interior and availability. From this fleet, a company can choose an aircraft to suit their budget and requirements.”
Flying into the future
Further growth in the charter, fractional and private jet industry is a strong possibility in the coming years, particularly as the risk posed by terrorism does not appear to be diminishing and a feeling of unease remains amongst corporate travelers. “As travelers become even more disenchanted by commercial travel and concerned by security issues we expect to see a larger percentage choosing to opt for the tailored individual service that private charter can provide – thus saving time and reducing stress levels,” explains Grabar. “We foresee private travel becoming increasingly popular over the coming years as customers look for a more convenient and pleasurable means of getting from city to city, or country to country.”
New FAA regulations requiring that companies disclose who is in operational control of the airplane – including who owns it, who flies it and who manages it – are likely to result in a migration away from brokers as people go directly to the operator, whether it be a fractional or a charter manager. And this means good news for companies such as Flight Options: the questions posed by the new regulations will, according to Scheeringa, benefit those involved in the fractional ownership side of corporate travel. “If you are a fractional provider, answers will come from one place, but if you are a charter operator you could have as many as three different people involved in the disclosure. As a result, we believe more people will come over to the fractional side of the business than to the charter side of the business.”
The introduction of the very light jet (VLJ) is likely to make a huge impact on the price of flying privately in the future, reducing expenses even further and making this alternative to commercial flying even more attractive to the business traveler. “Some of the new jets going into production could reduce the price of a jet by 50 percent or more,” predicts Gray. “This would not only reduce the cost of purchasing a plane but also makes the air taxi concept a viable business. Short regional trips by VLJs could see costs as low as US$4 per mile – still more that a commercial flight, but it will certainly start to close the gap.”
Whatever the reason for flying privately, doing so undoubtedly has its advantages. The added convenience, security and comfort it brings is an attraction for the business traveler – particularly with the risks now posed to the aviation industry from terrorism. And if growth continues along its current flight path then the industry’s fortunes are set to soar.
Facts and figures
An ‘aerotropolis’ is an airport-centric city where distribution centers, manufacturing, convention centers and office buildings are all interconnected with the airport as the centerpiece. The new Dubai World Center is an example. By the time that it is completed, DWC will have almost twice the capacity of LAX and have a permanent population of 750,000, almost the size of Stockholm.