An increasing number of wealthy flyers in India are ditching commercial airlines for private jets and charter flights to ensure physical distancing in the skies. By Riaan Jacob George
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the aviation industry has taken a huge hit, with disrupted operations, unpredictable schedules, increased operational costs, and of course, a major drop in passenger bookings. An emerging trend in the wake of this aviation debacle is that of private jet and charter operators. Before the Indian skies opened to domestic flights on May 25, 2020, charter operators found requests to ferry people—who could afford it—stranded in different parts of the country. However, in the post-lockdown phase, the narrative has shifted. With the leisure segment being dormant for now, regular business travellers have started to eschew commercial airliners and opt for charter flights. The primary reason is the ease of physical distancing, thanks to less human interaction and fewer touchpoints.
Sharon-Ann Alder, a Dubai-based Indian entrepreneur, loves to travel across India whenever she visits her family in Mumbai. “We usually invest in First or Business Class experiences of premium carriers whenever we fly to different parts of India. Now, we are more likely to opt for charter flights, as the safety and hygiene quotient is high. Moreover, you can have the whole aircraft to yourself and don’t have to share the space with anyone else, unlike a commercial airliner.”
Commenting on this increased demand and emerging market, Kanika Tekriwal, CEO and founder of JetSetGo Aviation, says, “For the very first time, we are getting requests from people who aren’t necessarily wealthy or would not necessarily travel in Business or First Class. We now get close to 20 enquiries a day with 70 per cent of those being new customers.”
Similarly, Rajan Mehra, CEO, Club One Air—one of India’s oldest charter companies—says that there has been a huge surge in demand for domestic flights, mostly from those who have never flown private before.
In an interesting recent development, India’s SpiceJet recently introduced its charter service, offering its diverse fleet to different sized charter groups. From its C90 aircraft, which can accommodate six people, to its larger Boeing 737 aircraft that can seat up to 212 passengers, the commercial airline has managed to tweak its offering to cater to a new segment. Similarly, IndiGo has also made an update on its website to offer private charter services. How this trend of commercial airlines offering their jets for private use will pan out in the Indian market remains to be seen.
“You don’t have to arrive early or undertake lengthy check-in process and security lines at the airport. One can easily skip the immigration and customs queues, and get on their ride as soon as they leave the aircraft.” —Kanika Tekriwal, CEO and Founder of JetSetGo Aviation
GLOBAL STATE OF AFFAIRS
This phenomenon is visible across the globe. Europe-based GlobeAir recently issued a statement saying that they have noticed a 27 per cent rise in private jet bookings in Europe. There is also a sudden demand for chopper services for short-distance travel. “Private helicopter charters are reliable, tailored to the client’s schedule, and provide a safe, uncrowded environment. Flights are conducted with heightened safety measures, including no-contact check-in. Helicopters are thoroughly disinfected before each flight,” explains Anna Macsai, general manager of Wings Air Helicopters, a New York-based firm.
Eventually, it all boils down to safety, hygiene, and social distancing norms, and cutting out unnecessary human contact. “You don’t have to arrive early or undertake a lengthy check-in process and security lines at the airport. One can easily skip the immigration and customs queues and get on their ride as soon as they depart from the aircraft,” says Tekriwal. “Charters don’t require heavy manpower as compared with commercials. They also give you an option to skip layovers. There is also the luxury of direct assistance. All these benefits that the charters provide make a huge difference to the travellers at a time like this.” She also highlights a recent survey conducted by consulting firm McKinsey, which states that commercial flyers have over 200 touch points at the airports, while those travelling on private jets could have as few as 30.
According to the report by GlobeAir, passengers travelling in private jets have 30 times lower risk than if they were to fly commercial.
IS BUSINESS PICKING UP?
Vineet Sehgal, the founder of Million Air, a Mumbai-based company specialising in charter flights, offers a different perspective. “In the wake of the pandemic, we thought that we would get an increased load of traffic from entrepreneurs and wealthy travellers. However, as things stand, (in the month of June), people are still not travelling,” he says. “They are opting for video calls rather than travelling. We used to do an average of 180 hours of business every month, and that has dropped drastically. We expect it to pick up post July 15. Flying private might be the next big thing, but for now, there’s a lull and our aircrafts are largely lying on the ground.”
“We expect the business of charter flights to pick up post July 15. Flying private might be the next big thing, but for now, there’s a lull and our aircrafts are largely on the ground.” — Vineet Sehgal, Founder of Million Air.
“We are more likely to opt for charter flights now, as the safety and hygiene quotient is high. Moreover, you can have the whole aircraft to yourself and your family, and don’t have to share the space with anyone else, unlike a commercial airliner.” — Sharon-Ann Alder, Dubai-based Indian entrepreneur.
DOING THE MATH
Charter prices vary tremendously and are constantly fluctuating in the current scenario. According to Sehgal, it would cost you approximately INR 18 lakh to fly eight people on a private jet from Mumbai to Delhi. If the private jet is shared by eight people, the per-person cost would be INR 2.25 lakh. Other research indicates charter rates on this sector to be as low as INR 1.2 lakh per flyer. We also checked out Vistara’s website to compare the fares with commercial options. A Vistara Mumbai- Delhi Business Class ticket on July 1 is priced at INR 35,000, including taxes.
In the months to come, aviation experts indicate that commercial airlines stand to lose a portion of the high-end clientele that usually filled their premium cabins, to charter flights. A price war between these two segments vying for luxury travellers is also a possibility. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to note how the Indian charter segment scales up to accommodate the expected rise in demand in the near future.