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Private jet firms in region hope to land new opportunities during pandemic

The pandemic has caused turbulence for the commercial aviation industry. Area companies involved in private aviation, on the other hand, are seeing new customers in the midst of the coronavirus.


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  • | 4:20 p.m. August 12, 2020
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Courtesy. Elite Jets Executive Vice President, Phenom 300 Captain and Assistant Chief Pilot Stephen Myers says June was a strong month, reaching 110%, and July was strong as well.
Courtesy. Elite Jets Executive Vice President, Phenom 300 Captain and Assistant Chief Pilot Stephen Myers says June was a strong month, reaching 110%, and July was strong as well.
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The “Fasten Seat Belt” sign has been flashing since March, and for good reason — the pandemic has been a bumpy ride for the aviation industry.

For commercial airlines, travel restrictions and public health concerns have led to canceled flights, panicked passengers and plummeting profits. For businesses involved in private air travel, the story is more nuanced. The beginning of the pandemic brought difficult days, but as coronavirus dragged on, many passengers have turned to private aviation as a welcome alternative to commercial flights and airports packed with people. Now some area companies are hoping the crisis creates new customers who will continue to fly private long after the pandemic passes.

Up in the Air

Naples-based private jet charter company Elite Jets has seen recent fluctuations in the industry firsthand. The firm, which opened a new 60,000-square-foot private terminal at Naples Airport earlier this year, has five jets and a helicopter that were bought new in 2017. Elite Jets’ planes travel to places such as Chicago, New York, California, Dallas, Pennsylvania, Montreal, Toronto, Barbados and the Caribbean.

Elite Jets Executive Vice President Stephen Myers says the company saw some increased traffic in March as people realized what was going on with the pandemic. In April, amid stay-at-home orders, business fell off, with the company doing 15% of its gross revenue compared to April 2019. In May, business came back to about 54%. “After things started to open back up again, so did the traffic,” says Myers, also a Phenom 300 Captain and assistant chief pilot for the company. 

June was a strong month, reaching 110%, and July was strong as well. “We did go through a dramatic drop off, and then it did come back pretty quickly,” he says. “Our charter service has come back very strong.”

Courtesy. Elite Jets Executive Vice President, Phenom 300 Captain and Assistant Chief Pilot Stephen Myers says June was a strong month, reaching 110%, and July was strong as well.
Courtesy. Elite Jets Executive Vice President, Phenom 300 Captain and Assistant Chief Pilot Stephen Myers says June was a strong month, reaching 110%, and July was strong as well.

In Sarasota, Rectrix Aerodrome Center saw similar trends. The aircraft hangar and passenger service facility, part of Ross Aviation as of 2019, has 17 Sarasota-based employees.

“March and April were not very kind to us,” says General Manager Deron Webb. “In May, we saw an uptick in travel.” When Gov. Ron DeSantis opened the state and some counties opened beaches, it was like someone turned on the light switch, he says. “It was unbelievable how busy we were for June.”

It’s the same story at private jet charter and aircraft management company Elite Air, headquartered at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. “April was the lowest,” says Director of Sales AJ Becker. “May started to pick up, and June was good.”

Courtesy. Elite Air Director of Sales AJ Becker expects demand to continue to climb for its smaller planes and continue to be down for its larger planes for the rest of the summer and the fall months.
Courtesy. Elite Air Director of Sales AJ Becker expects demand to continue to climb for its smaller planes and continue to be down for its larger planes for the rest of the summer and the fall months.

The company’s 25 airplanes range in size from smaller planes that hold six to eight people and can travel about 1,200 miles to larger planes that can hold up to 14 people and have a range of 5,000 miles. “Demand for the little ones has picked up a lot,” says Becker. “Demand for the bigger ones has dropped significantly.” For the larger jets, the number of trips is down 75%. Becker attributes the drop to closed borders, people not wanting to travel in larger groups and people not wanting to travel too far. For its smaller planes, Becker estimates business was up about 20% in June and July.

Air Trek, based at Punta Gorda Airport in Charlotte County with an additional office at Naples Airport, has four private charter planes and three air ambulances. (Its air ambulance division transports people from one hospital to another medical facility or from a hospital to a nursing home.)

‘In the past, my clients wanted to get in the jet and smell the leather seats and crisp new carpet and have that new airplane smell. Now they want to get in and smell disinfectant.’ — Dana Carr, Air Trek

Air Trek Executive Vice President and Director of Operations Dana Carr, who has been partners in the business for 42 years with Wayne Carr, his brother, says business travel hasn’t been strong for Air Trek lately, but there has been a big emphasis on people traveling to second homes. “I lost my recreational charter customers who would just fly to the Keys or Bahamas,” says Dana Carr. “Those stopped in their tracks, but what we started to gain was private individuals who wanted to get home or travel and thought it was better to travel by charter jet.”

For many businesses on the west coast of Florida, summer can be slow even without a pandemic to contend with, but that hasn’t been the case for Air Trek. “May and June picked up greatly with air charter,” says Carr. “I have not seen the drop off I anticipated for the summer.” 

Private Perks

For many recent Air Trek customers traveling back to their homes in the Northeast and Midwest, pandemic concerns were top of mind.

Carr says those customers felt more comfortable traveling in a private jet where they knew all the passengers instead of traveling on a commercial flight filled with dozens more people.

Courtesy. Air Trek Executive Vice President and Director of Operations Dana Carr says there has been a big emphasis on people traveling to second homes lately.
Courtesy. Air Trek Executive Vice President and Director of Operations Dana Carr says there has been a big emphasis on people traveling to second homes lately.

The pandemic has prompted passengers across the region to consider private aviation, some for the first time. From safety and security measures to avoiding airport crowds, the private option has clear benefits in an era of social distancing.

One more reason charter services are seeing increased business lately is commercial airlines have reduced the number of flights they offer, with some cities cut out altogether. Plus, some commercial airlines have added restrictions for traveling with pets. Elite Jets allows pets, and the company has the flexibility to leave whenever clients want to depart. Another major perk? There’s no need to show up at the airport two hours ahead of time.

The advantages of flying private have appealed to a range of passengers during the pandemic — even with the sometimes higher costs. Elite Jets’ demographics include business owners, executives, families and retirees.  

Unlike commercial flights, Elite Jets charges for the airplane as a whole, not for individual seats. The cost is usually based on the number of hours flown and might be, say, $15,000 to go from here to there, whether one person is traveling or several. “It’s a little bit more than a first-class ticket, but it’s in the same ballpark,” says Myers. “Safety, newness of equipment, privacy, security, convenience — there’s a lot of value associated with that.”

Courtesy. Elite Jets opened a new 60,000-square-foot private terminal at Naples Airport earlier this year. It has five jets and a helicopter that were bought new in 2017.
Courtesy. Elite Jets opened a new 60,000-square-foot private terminal at Naples Airport earlier this year. It has five jets and a helicopter that were bought new in 2017.

In conversations with customers who are worried about traveling during the pandemic, the Air Trek team emphasizes they’ll be traveling with only their party on the aircraft and they won’t have to go through any major aircraft terminals. They also make sure people know about their strict sanitation processes. The shop teams clean the planes and then Carr personally inspects them. “In the past, my clients wanted to get in the jet and smell the leather seats and crisp new carpet and have that new airplane smell,” says Carr. “Now they want to get in and smell disinfectant.”

Get on Board

Although the pandemic has left the future of many industries up in the air, private aviation officials are optimistic the events of recent months could have a positive impact.

Rectrix’s Webb says he thinks a gradual incline for charter air travel will continue. One reason behind that prediction? 9/11. He thinks back to that time and how long it took for people to feel safe with air travel after the terrorist attacks. “The pandemic is worldwide,” says Webb. “Again, the airlines are going to have a steep hill to climb.” In the meantime, private aviation could see a boost.

Carr points to the introduction of new clients to the world of flying private as one benefit of the pandemic that could last. In recent months, Air Trek experienced at least a 60% increase in new charter clients, he says. “Of course, the hope is that once they’ve experienced the convenience and luxury of flying privately that they’ll become repeat customers,” says Carr.

Courtesy. Air Trek, based at Punta Gorda Airport in Charlotte County with an additional office at Naples Airport, has four private charter planes and three air ambulances.
Courtesy. Air Trek, based at Punta Gorda Airport in Charlotte County with an additional office at Naples Airport, has four private charter planes and three air ambulances.

There have already been some indications of that. An elderly couple that recently flew private for the first time told Air Trek to go ahead and schedule their next flight. And they’re not the only ones. “We have a lot of clients we flew north in April, May and June who are already starting to talk about their fall trip back to Florida,” says Carr. “Not everyone will meet the financial cost of it — probably half of them were one-time emergency charters — but we’re going to start seeing a lot of repeat customers.”

To help lure, and keep, those customers, Air Trek offers a TrekCard Carr describes as similar to a frequent flyer program. After the company flew one new customer from Naples to Canada recently, the customer said he wanted to sign up for a TrekCard. “He was not a first-time charter client, but it was his first time flying with our company,” says Carr. “It’s good to have someone who was that pleased that the next day, he bought into the program.”

Elite Jets has also had quite a few new customers lately, some of whom had never traveled by private plane before. Myers even heard a lot of them say they’ll never go back to flying commercial. “We received a number of first-time charter clients,” says Myers. “They just love it.”

 

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