Defined by soaring demands and an increasingly younger, sophisticated clientele, the private aviation space has seen itself upended over the past two years. What does this mean for the future of private flying—especially in Asia? We speak with industry insiders to find out what’s behind the movement and where the industry is headed.
Over the last two years, you’ve certainly heard about how we’ve all changed the way we work and play—but one change that’s received little attention is an upsurge in high-flyers using private jets for the first time. It’s a global phenomenon that’s especially salient in Asia, where in recent years a burgeoning of new flying options has made private jets far more accessible and attractive than they were just ten years ago. To say that the industry is arriving at a watershed moment would be an understatement.
“We saw an increase of 29 percent in new members joining in 2020,” says Ian Moore, the chief commercial officer of VistaJet, a company that gives flyers pay-by-the-hour access to a global fleet of 70 Bombardier private jets. “Eighteen percent of them came from Asia, where we have seen a 108 percent year-on-year increase in new members.”
One major contributing factor is the restrictions on scheduled commercial flights. “The demand for critical flights [for medical, repatriation, and emergency business purposes] shifted towards private aviation, which has seen an increased number of first-time private flyers looking for reliable and safe alternatives,” explains Moore.
Don’t take Moore’s numbers as an indication that Hong Kong’s private jet services are enjoying a pandemic boom. In stark contrast to China, where domestic business aviation travel has recovered by 95 percent, Hong Kong’s private aviation sector has been hit hard by international flight restrictions, with charter jet flights still less than 20 percent of normal as of June, according to Denzil White, managing director of Metrojet, the Peninsula Hotel Group’s sister company under the Kadoorie Group.
There is a silver lining, however. “The positive side is that there’s a new market segment being appreciated, where health and safety are critical going forward,” says White. “Those who previously weren’t willing to allocate funds to business jets are now considering or are willing to fly on them.”
MORE WAYS TO JET…
This trend of new charter-flyers piggybacks on an older and longer trend of rapid industry development in the region. In the earlier days of private aviation in Asia, choices for flying a private jet were largely limited to purchasing one, which for many potential buyers simply wasn’t worth the multi-million-dollar price tag and the associated bother that includes a typical two-year wait for delivery, registering the aircraft, securing a flight crew, buying insurance, renting a hangar, and more.
Over the years, though, private jet flight in the region has become much more convenient and affordable. Pre-owned jets can be delivered immediately upon purchase, while fractional ownership, where buyers share the expense and right to use the jet, is also taking root. Offsetting the costs of owning is also easier via services that help you rent your jet out when you aren’t using it.
Those who don’t wish to buy but still want to fly private can now book charter flights. Alternately, they can purchase membership and jet card programmes that grant flexible access to private flights for a fixed, upfront fee based on hours of usage or other criteria.
…AND MORE WAYS TO PLAY
As the means to own and fly private jets grew in number, so did Asia’s elite flyers. Naturally, charter flight providers and savvy entrepreneurs rushed to meet their insatiable demand for out-of-this-world travel and lifestyle experiences. One outstanding example is L’Voyage. Established in 2014 and billing itself as “your private aviation concierge”, the company offers bespoke journeys that integrate anything from yacht charters to the presence of international celebrities into their travel packages. “We’ve also curated journeys in isolated spaces for meditation and wellness experiences in private villas, including bringing in a team of private chefs and yoga gurus for our clients,” says L’Voyage CEO Jolie Howard. She notes that most private jet flights are business-related, but often a leisure element will form part of the trip.
Likewise, VistaJet’s luxury services portfolio Private World illustrates the diversity of eclectic experiences available to private jet flyers by offering “access to suites, historical estates, private retreats, yachts, and slopes” worldwide. Private World components include a wine programme that provides “bespoke access and personal introductions to the world’s best winemakers and wine clubs” as well as “round-the-world wine itineraries and personal tours of the finest vineyards and wine regions”.
Another interesting component called VistaPet even provides the flyer’s pets with bio-organic food, treats developed by a Michelin-starred chef, and a four-week “fear of flying” course for dogs that desensitises the animals to things like the smell of fuel, the sounds of jet engines, cabin air pressure, and air turbulence.
Five-star indulgences aside, an essential service of travel management companies serving elite flyers is the guarantee of a hassle-free and effortless trip. Clients “want a simple, safe, straightforward, and transparent booking process in Asia that is as seamless as it is in the US,” explains Howard. Moore also emphasises the seamless angle, claiming that VistaJet offers “the simplest door-to-door service, with no need to check-in, guaranteed privacy, and a host of personal services to make their journey as simple as possible”.
Fantastic service and luxury experiences are cause for celebration, but anyone involved in private aviation today must also be aware of its impact on climate change. Climate scientists say that the global aviation industry as a whole contributes 2 to 2.5 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions, so achieving significant emission reductions by private jets would be a major step forward for the climate effort.
Fortunately, many industry players seem to realise the urgency of climate change and are making meaningful efforts to reduce emissions. The Asian Business Aviation Association (AsBAA), the region’s private aviation advocacy group, encourages the adoption of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which is made largely from waste products and whose total lifecycle emissions are said to be 85 percent less than common jet fuel.
VistaJet, which is a member of AsBAA, is among the charter operators with the most ambitious sustainability plans. The company aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025, largely through increased use of SAF and purchases of carbon credits that support emissions-reducing projects that are carefully selected for their likelihood to succeed and make a difference.
A NEW GENERATION
So who exactly is flying private jets today—and what choices are they making? “The overall trend we’re seeing is that private jet travellers and owners are getting younger,” says Howard. “Business aircraft are becoming more accessible [in Asia, in the form of charter flights] and more end users are now used to that form of transport, especially with the younger generation having been educated and having experienced what’s offered in Western countries.”
According to Moore, practical considerations are guiding this new generation of younger flyers, along with the “sharing economy” mentality you’d expect from those who grew up with Uber and Airbnb. “Instead of committing tens of millions of dollars to a depreciating asset that comes with capital risks and management responsibilities, clients tend to save the money and only pay for the hours they need to fly nowadays,” he says. “More and more customers, especially younger ones, are moving away from aircraft ownership and turning to a subscription membership model for their flying solutions.”
Such a spendthrift and relaxed approach to luxury travel also suggests that the younger generation of flyers are sure to embrace an exciting new category of flight service rolling out worldwide in the coming years: electric-powered air taxis. Air taxi fleets will feature a new type of aircraft known as eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) that can take off and land vertically like a helicopter, but that will fly much faster and quieter.
Joby Aviation expects to launch its zero-emissions fleet of eVTOLs nationwide in the US in about three years, allowing people to book a flight by app just as they would an Uber. (In fact, Uber is one of the companies that has contributed to Joby’s US$820 million in capital raised, with other notable giants including Intel, Toyota, and JetBlue.) Another leading firm in the segment is Germany aerospace company Lilium, which has signed on a former Airbus CEO as its chairman and has
raised US$240 million from a group of investors led by China’s Tencent.
For wealthy private jet users who enjoy seamless cross-border travel from airport to airport, eVTOLs will solve a problem that they can’t always avoid: the nightmare of getting to and from the airport when roads are congested, as commonly happens in cities such as Manila and Bangkok. Platform-based eVTOL services will be available for more than just trips to airports; they’re expected to be affordable for a broader group of people than jet charter services. Joby’s founder has said he expects rides to cost as low as US$3 per mile.
So the next time you’re stuck in a blare of car horns on your way to the airport for one of your private jet charter flights, don’t feel too bad. Sooner rather than later, you’ll likely be making the trip in a whisper-quiet air taxi as you cruise the brilliant blue.