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Private Jets Are Filling The Void As Airlines Cut Flights To Small Airports

As airlines cut flights to regional airports, private jets are filling the gap, according to data tracking business jet routings, as well as anecdotal reports from industry executives.


An analysis by WingX highlights the pure numbers. At Ithaca, New York, where American Airlines recently stopped flying, private jets, excluding turboprops, piston aircraft and helicopters, now make up 40% of departures, up 3% from 2019, while airline scheduled operations are down 34%. Compared to 2020, private flights are up 84%, while scheduled flights increased just 4%. In Toledo, Ohio, it’s a similar story. Private jet flights are now 62% of arrivals, up 20% from a year ago, while scheduled operations dropped 12%. Compared to 2019, private jet flights are up 21% and scheduled airline flights are down 25%. At Iowa’s Dubuque Regional Airport, private jets now make up 83% of arrivals, up 48% from a year ago and 49% before the pandemic. Compared to 2019, scheduled airline flights are down 51%.


According to No Plane, No Gain, an advocacy group for the industry, 80% of all business airplane flights are into airports in small towns and communities. Since last year, Wheels Up Experience, a major player in the private aviation space, has seen a 44% increase in flights to the 200 smallest U.S. regional airports.


“We have members and several corporate customers that have fully transitioned to flying private due to reduced or limited commercial service in their area. For example, we have a corporate customer in central Pennsylvania that needs access to the interior West Coast. With the reduced service, this requires a connection and can take as much as nine hours or 18 hours on a return. With a private flight, they leave after a meeting on a direct flight and land within minutes of their ultimate destination, saving them over 10 hours of flight time on a round trip, not to mention additional travel time on the ground,” says Robert S. Bourrier, Senior Vice President, Head of Corporate Sales at Wheels Up.


Patrick Gallagher, President of NetJets, the world’s largest private jet operator, adds, “Anecdotally, I would tell you that (reduced airline service to regional airports) is absolutely driving people to fly privately and more often. Where we are seeing this manifest itself to the greatest extent is in wallet share - people who were flying a mix of commercial and private are leaning further into flying privately.”


He continues, “Historically, we would hear customers say that if there were a nonstop commercial flight available, they would go that route and save their NetJets hours for special occasions, flights with larger passenger loads, or trips that would require a connection if flown commercially. With fewer nonstops and a less desirable overall commercial experience for a host of reasons, we continue to see very strong growth with people flying more hours privately than they did in the past.”


Tommy Sowers, President and Chief Operating Officer at flyExclusive, a large, national charter operator based in Kinston, North Carolina, says he has seen the impact firsthand. “I’ve personally sold to friends who just can’t continue to do business in the southeast with reduced commercial travel. With our program, they can hit two sites in a day, turning a three-day trip into one day.”


No Plane No Gain data shows 42% of business aviation missions involve multiple destinations.

Sowers says the impetus towards private flying isn’t just when airports lose service altogether, and it’s also coming as airlines trim frequency of flights on certain routes. “When service is reduced, options are reduced, and (private aviation) opens up all those options and more,” he says.


Airshare CEO John Owen says his experience is similar. “I would say we have always attracted those types of customers because of the considerable benefit in flexibility for customers who live in or fly to these smaller markets. But we are seeing more customers coming to us due to reduced airline schedules making it increasingly difficult to get to where they need to go. It’s not specific to the regional airports either. The cutbacks to and from major hubs are also pushing more customers into our programs.”


Peder Von Harten, President of Nicholas Air, adds while it is hard to directly correlate airline reductions to new customers, “Private aviation becomes more important to keep those smaller markets connected economically. There might not be a population density there, but there are still businesses and families that need to be connected to those larger hubs to access people, or financing or attend meetings.”


A single business jet based at a local airport can generate $2.5 million in economic benefits to the airport and community, again, according to No Plane No Gain.


Flexjet’s Executive Vice President of Sales D.J. Hanlon says while there may be a trend, it’s not new. “Private aviation has always had access to more than 5,000 airports nationwide, many of which are small regional airports. And those smaller airports have always been underserved by commercial airlines. The reduction in routes and dissatisfied customers have allowed us to move in and take advantage of some of that – for those who have the means and have previously used a hybrid travel solution of some commercial travel and some private travel.”


He adds, “While we haven’t yet seen an increase in customers from recent route cutbacks, we are seeing our existing hybrid customers shifting more and more to private travel from commercial.”


At Volato, which yesterday placed a $174 million order for 25 of Honda’s very light jets, Co-Founder and CEO Matt Liotta tells Forbes, the fractional operator is seeing a growing volume of short hops within Florida, especially to the capital, Tallahassee, where most scheduled flights mean connecting through congested hubs.


He says, “Airlines are focused on the mass market, causing the premium aspect of that market to shrink relative to everything else. Even with a first-class airline ticket, you are still exposed to the same airport experience, the same security experience. Therefore, private aviation will increasingly be differentiated by its wholistic approach that isn’t limited to the seat on the airplane.”


Leona Qi, U.S. President of VistaJet, says that the need to fly nonstop isn’t limited to places like Ithaca, Dubuque and Toledo. “There are no nonstop commercial flights even from New York or Palm Beach to Aspen. The only way to get there nonstop is by flying private,” she notes.


Forbes

Image via Unsplash

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