To fly or not to fly? For most people this is no longer a question: the Covid-19 pandemic has put paid to business trips and holidays alike. But the rich, as so often, are a bit different.
Those who can afford it are increasingly opting for a private jet. Flight data shows that after plummeting at the start of the crisis, in line with the collapse in scheduled passenger services, private jet usage is recovering quickly.
According to Wingx, an aviation intelligence company, business jet flights jumped to 18,900 a week in the first three weeks of May, from just 12,600 weekly in April. While the numbers are still far short of normal (last year’s weekly average was 50,100), the turnround is striking. By comparison, scheduled services were still falling in the first three weeks of May, down to 71,000 from 81,500 weekly in April and 500,100 a week in January.
Wingx says business jet operators have restored flights by working flexibly, carrying fewer passengers to allow for social distancing, using small terminals and airports, and doing more intensive cleaning.
Demand is still sharply down from pre-crisis levels, especially for leisure trips. The rich have clearly taken note of the health risks and hunkered down at home (or perhaps one of their homes).
As official restrictions on travel are slowly eased, Wingx expects business flights to “bounce back”, especially in the US, where it sees activity returning to 80 per cent of pre-crisis levels in the next 12 months. Longer term, it expects there will be opportunities in filling gaps left by airlines and catering “to passengers unwilling to risk infection and/or endure the experience of flying commercial”.
The trouble is that few will be able to afford to switch to business jets. If they travel by air at all, they will have no choice but to “endure”, as Wingx so delicately puts it.
It is hard to see how the experience of flying commercial will improve in the coming months. Constraints are likely to persist for a long time to come. Passengers will have to rely on airlines that have cut services, redoubled time-consuming health checks and (often) raised prices. British Airways, American Airlines and Lufthansa are just three operators that have announced cuts in services and jobs. Aircraft-maker Airbus has said it does not expect air travel to return to pre-crisis levels for five years.
While the divide between those familiar with the inside of a Cessna and the rest has always been there, it has never been more important. Those with access to private jets will be able to continue participating fully in the opportunities and pleasures of globalisation. Others will not.
The rich will, like others, probably make more use of digital communication than ever before. Some may decide it is healthier, greener and more comfortable to fly around the globe a bit less.
But they will still have a choice that the less well-off will not. About when to opt for a face-to-face meeting, for example, or inspect a new investment project, attend a foreign university, or simply go and sit on a beach overseas.
Governments could respond by increasing taxes on business jets to make them less affordable, especially if they want to restrict air travel on environmental grounds. A better response might be to make local and regional travel more desirable, such as by increasing investment in surface transport.
It is already possible to travel the 1,100km by train from London to the Mediterranean (Marseille) in six and a half hours. Such connections can be improved. But, let’s be honest, Bognor Regis will never be the new Bali.
Stefan Wagstyl is editor, FT Wealth and Financial Times wealth correspondent
Follow Stefan on Twitter @stefanwagstyl
This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment.
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