A couple from Singapore booked a private jet to the Maldives for a 10-day romantic getaway last month, after the paradise nation reopened borders in mid-July.
Flying in style with champagne and delicacies served by an air stewardess garbed in personal protective equipment, the duo were the only passengers on a Gulfstream G150 jet that can seat half a dozen.
The price tag for a socially distanced flight on a mid-sized aircraft like this? US$50,000 (S$68,000) or more, one way.
The escape out of Seletar Airport was brokered by Air Charter Service, which opened its Singapore office in March, when passengers everywhere were scrambling to fly home before swathes of the world went into lockdown.
Between April and last month, the company clocked three times more charters in and out of Singapore, compared with the same period last year.
Mr Brendan Toomey, its chief executive here, says customised flights have heightened appeal now that privacy, safety and flexible departures are desirable in a pandemic.
Take safety. A private air passenger encounters only about 40 people from home to hotel check-in, he says. For commercial flights, the average rises to 700 encounters.
In this light, chartered flights are enjoying a surge in business globally as passengers, many of them flying privately for the first time, make the flight to safety, said aviation companies and recent reports.
Last month, the World Economic Forum, in a report published in partnership with non-profit news organisation The Conversation, said: “We are also witnessing a rise in the use of individuals and organisations hiring private jets as short-term solutions to avoiding airport delays.”
Some British universities have also chartered private jets for incoming international students as a way to ensure a steady flow of income, the report added.
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New York-based brand-building consultancy firm Finn Partners listed five ways private jets are shaping aviation trends, including with flexible timings.
“You are not restricted to stringent timings like those of commercial airline schedules, you create your very own schedule,” read its blog post published last month.
“If you’re running late, the plane will wait for you, or if you want to change your departure time, this can easily be done.”
The Bellagraph Nova Group, which put in a takeover bid for Newcastle United football club, claimed on its Instagram account that it has over 10,000 private jets at its disposal. The post was edited later to remove the number.
While private jets have an aura of exclusivity, the truth is that they are not only for ultra-high-net-worth individuals like Russian billionaires and Hollywood stars.
Besides students, aviation companies have also repatriated stranded cruise ship staff to their home countries after commercial flights were widely disrupted.
From Singapore, Air Charter Service, a British company with access to 50,000 jets on six continents, has sent a marine engineer to the Philippines to attend to a cargo ship.
Mr Toomey says his company supports clients who “need to move”, including rotating crew from ships or cargo aircraft, who normally rely on commercial airlines. The company has also repatriated families to Phnom Penh and professionals to India.
Some services are relatively affordable, especially if clients fill every seat and choose not to have a flight attendant or catered meal on board.
A shorter regional route, such as from Singapore to Phnom Penh, starts at about US$20,000 for a super light aircraft, and the cost can be split among six or seven passengers.
Still, in Asia, a business jet is perceived as a luxury, compared with in other markets.
Mr Dennis Lau, an analyst at Cirium, an aviation analytics company, says: “Most people in Asia view it as a luxury item, while in mature markets such as the United States, business jets are mostly seen as a business tool to help companies increase productivity.”
Singapore is one of the few major cities in Asia to have a second airport available to handle business flights, he notes.
And a misperception is that private jets can skirt border controls.
Mr Lau says: “International travellers are subject to the same restrictions, whether they travel by business jet or commercial airline flights.”
Although private jets also face travel restrictions, their appeal is growing and aviation companies are innovating the experience for these times.
Global business aviation company VistaJet announced in July that it had embedded the Tempus IC2 vital signs monitor within its global fleet. In case of illness on board, air crew can measure and transmit the clinical data of the patient in real time to ground-based medical experts 24/7.
Mr Thomas Flohr, VistaJet’s founder and chairman, said: “It is the next best thing to having a doctor by your side.”
Also in July, Qatar Airways announced its Diamond Agreement for corporate and leisure customers to pre-purchase flight time at fixed hourly rates on long-range and ultra-long-range private jets.
The minimum purchase is 50 hours – with no minimum annual use – but the rates are not publicly disclosed. These bespoke flights are guaranteed if booked at least 72 hours in advance.
The Doha-based airline noted that as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, clients are looking for “versatile, high-quality services from a financially secure operator”.
Looking ahead, the demand for private jets may grow as travel restrictions are gradually lifted, filling the gap before scheduled flights resume.
“Those who must travel urgently could choose the business jet option,” says Mr Lau from Cirium.
There is also the “moreish” factor.
Travellers who have used business jets for the first time could choose it again for future travels, “driven by the convenience, privacy and peace of mind offered by business jets which they have experienced”, he suggests.
And so, private jets are one bright spot, keeping at least one segment of the bruised aviation sector aloft.
Aman Private Jet
A tea ceremony at high altitude soothes pandemic anxiety, while all-natural skincare products pamper skin in the low humidity of an aircraft.
Social distancing is a given on the Aman Private Jet, a Bombardier Global 5000 that seats a maximum of 12 passengers.
The interior is luxurious, with buttery leather seats, cashmere throws and cushions.
The all-important high-speed Wi-Fi is at your fingertips, of course.
Guests are whisked in privacy and comfort to cities and remote destinations, where Aman luxury resorts await.
The idea is to move about the world at your own pace. Whether jetting to one or multiple Aman properties, or for use between non-Aman destinations, the plane is for bespoke journeys.
Exotic destinations include Morocco and Montenegro, which have Aman sanctuaries. Closer to home are Bali, Indochina and China.
“With flexible departure times, seamless Customs clearance and the ability to avoid busy airports, each booking can be tailored to individual needs to ensure a seamless trip from start to finish,” says Mr Roland Fasel, chief operating officer at Aman.
A round trip from Singapore to Shanghai, with four nights in the Chinese metropolis, costs about US$70,000 ($95,500). Accommodation, of course, is a separate bill.
A Singapore-London journey sets you back about US$137,000. Again, this is for a round trip and four nights on the ground, minus lodging costs.
Vistajet Safe Havens
Seven safe point-to-point journeys to far-flung destinations – which promise minimal human contact and lots of fresh air – have been designed by global business aviation company VistaJet.
The Safe Havens destinations include the Galapagos Islands, Velaa Private Island in the Maldives, Antarctica, and Pittormie Castle in Scotland.
The ballpark fare? Brace yourself. It is US$13,000 (S$17,700) to US$19,000 an hour for aircraft use alone.
With a flight-hour subscription plan, guests have access to the company’s fleet any time and anywhere. Passengers are cossetted by “cabin hostesses” trained by the British Butler Institute.
They will have mastered modules on children’s behaviour and family dynamics taught at Norland College, which is also British. Certainly, they know their wines and spirits too.
On every flight, there will be crystal and porcelain by Christofle, cashmere eye masks and a signature aircraft fragrance designed by luxury perfumer Le Labo.
Cannot sleep? Curl up with a book from the high-altitude mini library curated by London bookstore Heywood Hill.
As the aviation company sees it, the cabin experience is itself “an exquisite journey” for each guest wandering the world in a pandemic.
This article was originally published in The Straits Times.