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Private jets soar past global pandemic, oil price woes

GENEVA (AFP) – Airlines may find themselves swept up in unprecedented turbulence – with air travel shunned over climate concerns, plagued by pandemic shutdowns and soaring oil prices – but for private jet operators, business is booming.

The appeal of private jets has taken off since the start of the pandemic, amid fear of catching Covid-19 and as widespread cancellations and stringent measures have turned flying commercial into a logistics headache.

“The impact of Covid really forced people to look elsewhere for their travel needs,” said Philippe Scalabrini, who heads the southern European division of the international private aviation company VistaJet.

“Anyone who can afford it wants an entire plane at their disposal,” he told AFP, adding that “private aviation, as whole, has had an incredible surge of demand over the past two years”.

Numbers from air traffic regulator Eurocontrol appear to confirm that.

It found that private air travel nearly doubled its global market share between 2019 and 2021, when it stood at 12 per cent.

A Bombardier Global 7500 business jet at Geneva airport. PHOTO: AFP

‘THE COVID EFFECT’

More than anything, the pandemic has driven the latest upsurge in demand.

Scalabrini said “the Covid effect” last year helped VistaJet swell the number of flying hours sold by 90 per cent.

And the company, founded in 2004 by Swiss billionaire Thomas Flohr, announced last month the purchase of Air Hamburg, in a move it said would help grow its flying hours by another 30 per cent.

That announcement, however, landed just three days before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Western countries unleashed a slew of harsh sanctions, sparking panic on markets and sending oil prices soaring.

Scalabrini said it was “a bit early” to determine how the crisis would affect his company.

“At the moment we cannot fly to Russia, we cannot fly to Ukraine unfortunately, so obviously there is an impact, but it’s a minimal impact,” he said, pointing out that Russian clients made up less than five per cent of VistaJet’s turnover.

“We’ve got clients all over the world.”

IMAGE ISSUE

While private jet companies may weather the crises currently gutting commercial aviation, they face the same outrage over air travel’s outsized contribution to climate change.

A private jet flight pollutes 10 times more than a commercial flight, according to the Transport and Environment NGO.

Environmental questions will in the long term be one of the biggest challenges facing business air travel, an air transport specialist with the Sia Partners consulting firm Philippe Berland told AFP.

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