The commercial air travel industry has been among the worst hit by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. With international travel restrictions in place just about everywhere, there’s very limited opportunity to board a plane – and little appetite to do so among the public. 

Even after the lockdown has been lifted, it’s likely that at least some of these effects will be permanent. The business world has engaged in an unprecedented experiment in social distancing, during which it will have conducted conferences and meetings entirely via online platforms like Zoom. It may well be that this has had only a minimal effect on actual results, and that the cost of a trip simply isn’t justified. 

The broader economic effects of the lockdown might also kerb demand. When customers are worried about their job security, they tend to hesitate before booking holidays. Given that the economy contracted by a record 20.4% in April, a fall in demand for international travel is entirely likely.

What about Private Jets?

The story for private airliners might provide an entirely different picture. Many of the people who would otherwise have boarded a commercial flight are turning instead to private jet charter. These include the high-ranking executives, politicians and media moguls which traditionally constitute most of a private provider’s clientele. But increasingly, those with more modest resources are beginning to make enquiries. 

Chapman Freeborn remain optimistic about the private jet market, the global aircraft specialists said, “We do feel that the level of demand will increase, albeit slowly. The COVID-19 situation does provide an excellent opportunity for the general aviation business to tap into a whole new clientele; those who previously flew First and Business Class and are now willing to place a premium on their health and safety by flying privately, thus avoiding overcrowded airports and high-density commercial airliners.”

There’s a good reason for this: fear. The prospect of being crammed into a small space with passengers from across the world, many of whom might be coughing, is not one that many customers relish. When the perceived danger of a commercial flight outweighs the cost of a private one, wealthy customers will make the switch without a second thought. Some may even stock up on private jet hours that they never intend to use – just in case they need to leave a given country in a hurry. You might think of this as analogous to raiding the local supermarket for toilet paper and dried pasta.

Some of these precautionary measures may be justified. Disproportionately, private jet customers tend to be older ones who might statistically be at greater risk from Covid-19. Boarding a private jet involves several dozen potential points of contact with other people; a commercial one requires several hundred from check-in to boarding. This is in addition to the fact that long-haul private jet operators rarely have to stop to refuel anywhere, further limiting the exposure and consequent risk of contagion. While the industry might alter its practices, for example by removing handshakes and insisting on facemasks for cabin crew.

While March and April were undoubtedly lean times for private air travel operators, it’s likely that they’ll be at the forefront of the wider industry’s recovery. This contrasts starkly with the picture in 2008, when the financial crisis hit private aviation particularly hard. Whether the industry rebalances away from private travel as the lockdown measures are lifted remains to be seen, but for the time being, it’s a good time to be in the private jet business.