With onboard social distancing and reduced touch points, private flying is proving invaluable for an increasing number of fliers today
When air travel in India effectively stopped in March, private jet operators feared the worst, believing the pandemic would decimate their businesses. On the contrary, however, many have held up surprisingly well. Delhi-based entrepreneur Kanika Tekriwal, who runs JetSetGo Aviation, a private plane aggregator business, has seen a spike in queries since flying resumed. “Now, we get approximately 20 queries a day… out of these, over 70% are new customers. In March, we saw a nine-fold increase in demand just before the lockdown was announced, but were able to fulfill only 50% of the requests mainly because the regulations kept changing overnight in countries. During the lockdown, which was being implemented in various parts of the world, we received 10-12 requests a day to bring people stuck in various parts of the world back home,” says Tekriwal, the CEO and founder of JetSetGo Aviation.
Similarly, Santosh K Sharma, co-founder and CEO, Foresee Aviation, a professional private jet and helicopter aggregator, witnessed 30-40 queries per day both in the domestic, as well as the international sector, and is hopeful this number will eventually rise. “Guests flying private for the first time would realise the importance of safe and customised travel. Speedy, efficient, flexible aviation comes to the fore in these unprecedented times. The ability to fly anywhere at a moment’s notice and get home quickly is proving invaluable,” says Sharma, who is also the founder of the soon-to-be-launched app Book My Jet for private booking.
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Charters give one the option to fly at one’s convenience, skip layovers and reach one’s destination directly, saving a lot of time. Add to it personalised VIP service, onboard social distancing, hassle-free security check and the scenario becomes extremely appealing. “The various touch points throughout the journey reduce, making private flying favourable. For instance, commercial fliers have over 200 touch points at the airport, while private jets have as little as 30. Hence, the preference,” explains Tekriwal.
The pandemic has paved the way for new trends to emerge as consumer behaviour shifts, feels Delhi-based Pritish Shah, founder and CEO, A Travel Circle, a bespoke luxury holidays brand. “We see two segments of private jet users-the most affluent segment who were always exposed to this lifestyle, and an interesting segment of business and first-class travellers… mostly, first-time users in the jet chartering segment. They do not typically look to charter the whole aircraft, but rather buy a few seats in a charter that’s operating to a leisure destination… the concept of pooling on jets could be the new way to travel at least in the near future,” he says.
Since businesses have come to a halt, most business leaders are opting to hire private jets to cover backlogs, shares Sharma of Foresee Aviation. “A few charters are available at a comparatively lower price as well (with price discounts of 40%), so it makes sense to opt for these,” he adds.
Repatriation has seen a significant rise for Dubai-based Air Charter International, an aviation services provider. “To this date, there are restrictions on entry to various countries, which has reduced the number of flights routinely taken… that’s why a significant rise in demand for cargo and passenger repatriation in the last two months,” says Stuart Wheeler, founder and CEO, Air Charter International.
The conservative rich are embracing the idea of private charters, says Mumbai-based Sachit Wadhwa, co-founder, Book My Charters, an air charter booking platform, which has seen over 70% first-time flyers preferring to consult charter advisers over phone before taking any decision. “Charters are now driven by utility and not luxury. This was always one big untapped market and can now be expected to add significant demand in the future. Personalisation is also key, as one can opt for an Indian meal like dal makhni in a European nation or watch a Bollywood movie on demand,” says Wadhwa.
In August, GVK-led Mumbai International Airport, which manages the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA), undertook the ‘Restart Feedback Survey’ post the resumption of flight operations to align the needs and expectations of passengers. The survey, conducted with 1,386 Indian passengers, revealed that passengers are eagerly awaiting the return to normalcy of flight operations and are looking forward to international travel for leisure. It also found that passengers are comfortable with air travel in the new normal, as 98.4% of them, flying to and from CSMIA, found the airport to be safer than bus or train stations. Around 99.6% found air travel to be the most reliable mode of transport. The survey also displays a change in the purpose of travel for passengers, with business travel gaining momentum.
In September, a new private jet terminal was inaugurated at the IGI Airport by Delhi International Airport Ltd (DIAL). Exclusively for chartered flights, the terminal is a milestone in the segment, with the ability to cater up to 150 private jet movements on a single day, including code C-type aircraft. Spread over eight lakh square feet, it has 57 parking bays for private planes. The facility offers car parking, passenger lounges, retail and F&B sections, 24×7 concierge services, a convenient access route towards the city, common processing area with customs and immigration and immediate access to private jet stands, which can handle over 50 passengers every hour.
“India’s civil aviation sector is all set to emerge stronger in a post-Covid world, as more routes are opening and the number of passengers is growing. We expect the bulk of pre-Covid domestic air passenger traffic to be back by Diwali. The new terminal is the need of the hour, which will significantly support this growth,” said civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri.
Airlines like Air India and IndiGo are flying to meet the demand under the Vande Bharat Mission, which aims to repatriate Indians stranded abroad. From June till August, IndiGo operated more than 800 charter flights while repatriating 1.50 lakh passengers from the Gulf Cooperation Council, south-east Asia, Commonwealth of Independent States and SAARC countries. The airline operated international flights from Middle-Eastern countries, including the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and from Asian nations like Maldives, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong (an SAR of China), with Russia, Uzbekistan and Philippines being the latest additions to its international repatriation efforts. Air India officials, however, said they will start charters depending on the destination and if the demand surges.
Experts say charter flights may see more demand in the coming days, as HNIs would want to travel alone or with family. “We are operating multiple international charters every day either as part of the Vande Bharat programme or for individual entities and corporations. There is a heightened focus on safety, which is pushing the demand for direct and charter flights. As of now, we are flying around 60-70 (international and domestic) charters a week, including all cargo missions (essential supplies),” says Willy Boulter, chief commercial officer, IndiGo.
Tata SIA Airlines Ltd, operating as Vistara, is exploring various alternative revenue-generating opportunities as well, including charter and all-cargo flights subject to securing business at viable levels. “We are pivoting to operate routes where there is demand and review opportunities under the air bubble initiative. We are already flying to Dubai under the scheme,” says a Vistara spokesperson.
The charges of a private jet vary depending on the size of aircraft and length of the trip, starting at Rs 80,000 per hour for an eight-seat turboprop to Rs 5-Rs 6 lakh per hour for a 16-seat jet, shares JetSetGo’s Tekriwal. Sharma of Foresee Aviation feels it’s unfair to differentiate between the average ticket price vis-à-vis a private jet charter price, but a business-class return ticket on a commercial airline for Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi would cost anywhere between Rs 60,000 and Rs 1.40 lakh. However, hiring a minimum seven-seater like a Cessna Citation II or Cessna Citation Cj2+ would cost approximately Rs 11 lakh to as high as Rs 19 lakh in an aircraft like the 10-seater Dassault Falcon 2000. An IndiGo charter could cost around `4 lakh per flying hour, which varies for different routes, seating capacity and number of passengers. Vistara did not wish to comment on pricing.
Things to keep in mind
· Advance booking is must to ensure all permissions, availability of aircraft and a scheduled itinerary
· It’s advisable, especially for first-time flyers, to check offers/deals offered by operators
· Carry photo identification and passport for international travel, and driver’s licence, Aadhar and PAN cards for domestic travel
· Avoid carrying sharp, flammable objects, etc