Has Covid-19 helped business aviation come of age?
One year ago, yesterday (March 11th), the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. It has been an appalling human tragedy, which has already claimed more than 2.62m lives, according to John Hopkins University.
The anniversary of that declaration seems a useful point to try to gauge how the worst global pandemic in more than a century has shaped business aviation and what might be its legacy.
Forged in the crucible of Covid-19, business aviation has won new respect for its resilience, public service deliveries and (we hope) a new generation of clients. Where airlines crumpled under the pressure of Covid, business aviation kept on keeping on. It supplied the means to conduct crucial repatriation flights and medical evacuation missions. Business aviation enabled urgent passenger travel, avoiding crowded airports, and allowed cargo flights, sometimes ferrying essential personal protective equipment (PPE), when no commercial flights were available.
Testimony to what business aviation has achieved during the past year is provided by the latest WINGX weekly Global Market Tracker. Worldwide flight activity is down by 33% since the start of March compared with the same period of last year. Scheduled airline operations are at 42% fewer sectors than this time last year, whilst cargo operations are up 18%, with demand continuing to grow.
Demand continuing to grow
Global business aviation activity is down by only 2% this month, with 94,625 sectors flown up to March 8th. The industry now accounts for 19% of all fixed wing flights, compared with 12% before March 2020. So far this year, global business aviation traffic is 8% below normal, compared with the 24% fall last year.
The US is seeing a rapid recovery in business aviation activity. In Europe, business aviation’s recovery is proving less sure-footed. For the first two months of this year business aviation movements were down by 26%, although, so far, March is showing strong improvement.
The statistics contain a simple message, Richard Koe, WINGX MD and cofounder told Corporate Jet Investor. “They tell us that business aviation demand has been much more robust than scheduled airline demand, although the suppression of international and inter-continental travel during the lockdowns has seen a more significant reduction in flight hours (versus sectors) as sector length has reduced.”
Business aviation has proved its resiliency and has attracted new clients: Clients who want to avoid the perceived risk of airline travel or who simply cannot find commercial flights to fit their schedule. True, at present, most of those business aviation flights cater for leisure or family repositioning – with larger scale corporate aviation expected to return in the third or fourth quarter of this year.
But some believe this summer will see a rising tide of small and medium-scale business people forced into business aviation to maintain face-to-face relationships with existing clients and to win new ones. Joseph Carfagna Jr, president, Leading Edge Aviation Solutions, told a recent CJI Town Hall online meeting: “The people who will travel first are a lot of us who are on this call [Town Hall]. It will be people who run smaller businesses who have to go to press the flesh to make something happen. These folks are going to have to travel.”
‘These folks are going to have to travel’
Denied airline travel – that doesn’t demand multiple flight connections – private aviation becomes the natural choice for those with the means to pay. Charter, fractional and card schemes continue to prove popular entry points for those without the budget or the commitment for whole aircraft acquisition (and maintenance). Longer term, there is the prospect of ride-sharing technology and other technical innovation bringing the cost of private aviation within the reach of millions more potential customers.
Koe, from WINGX, agrees Covid-19 is likely to have an enduring impact on the way businesses and individuals travel. That includes both the voluntary shifts in mode and frequency of travel, due to changing risk-assessment, and the changes in availability and convenience of travel options due to public health measures. “This could be transformational, in a good way, for business aviation, opening up new markets and catalysing new products,” said Koe.
Like many in the industry, he believes, Covid-19 has vastly accelerated the pace of change set in train well before the pandemic: “Technological, digital, demographic, environmental changes to name a few,” said Koe, who draws insight from an unexpected source. “To borrow from Lenin, there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”
Richard Koe, WINGX MD and cofounder.