(Reuters) – Private aviation companies are making a beeline for executives wary of flying commercial to business meetings due to a limited offering of direct flights, as corporate travel eases back this fall after a pandemic-induced slump.
Private air traffic has rebounded above 2019 levels, helped by wealthy leisure travelers avoiding commercial earlier in the pandemic to avoid contracting the virus or due to fewer direct flights.
Now, some charter companies are trying to extend that advantage to corporate travel, with scheduled flights to some business hubs still below 2019 levels despite a broader leisure-driven rebound in commercial traffic.
Corporate planemakers like General Dynamics Corp’s Gulfstream Aerospace and Textron Inc are boosting production as demand rises. Rival Bombardier reports earnings on Thursday.
Corporate travel, expected to revive this fall, is crucial for aviation because of demand from frequent flyers and airlines’ appetite for higher-margin premium fares.
But a full recovery could take years due to remote work and rising U.S. COVID-19 cases driven by the more aggressive Delta variant.
Major U.S. carriers are restoring routes as restrictions ease. Delta Air Lines will more than double the number of daily flights between the U.S. and Canada starting in September, once fully-vaccinated Americans can fly to the country.
But major carriers’ domestic flights dipped 15.3% in July 2021 compared with 2019, with flights down by half to and from certain business hubs, according to aviation data company Cirium.
That creates an opening for companies like Airshare, now growing with three new Bombardier Challenger jets this year. Its business traffic has returned to 90% of 2019 levels.
“For you to be able to get in and out of a destination (by commercial) for a meeting on the same day, it is very difficult,” said Andy Tretiak, chief marketing officer of Airshare, which offers charter flights among other services.
“They have to cater their schedule around the airlines,” Tretiak said in July about his customers who also fly commercial.
“But they would rather do the opposite.”
U.S. commercial airline flights, while soaring over 2020 levels, were still down 20% compared with 2019, according to the weekly average from July 21-28 from FlightAware. By contrast Business aviation flights were up 23% for the week compared with 2019.
David McCown, president of the Americas for Air Partner PLC, which provides aircraft charters among other services, expects to get some new corporate shuttle contracts “coming online by Q3, certainly by Q4.”
He said UK-based Air Partner brokered a new shuttle contract in 2020 from an energy company that couldn’t find a direct airline flight to Latin America due to cutbacks.
Still, private aviation remains niche and prohibitively expensive. Business aircraft flights account for just 4 percent of traffic at the busiest airports used by commercial airlines, according to the National Business Aviation Association.
Air Partner’s advertised U.S. hourly rate for a midsize cabin is $7,300.
Tretiak acknowledged private aviation can’t beat airlines on price, but can attract travelers through fast service at smaller airports.
In the United States, 9,399 flights were canceled in June, FlightAware said, due to labor shortages, among other reasons.
“What we’re competing with is the value of your time,” Tretiak said.
(Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal, Editing by Nick Zieminski)