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How the Pandemic Is Changing the Charter Customer Experience

Providers implement safety measures but worry about the “impersonal” touch.

Maybe you haven’t chartered since the pandemic began. Or perhaps you’re a first-timer wondering what life was like on board before the flight crews wore masks. Or you could be a long-term customer curious about how your provider’s new normal compares with that of other companies. We asked some leading charter operators and brokers about the changes they’ve implemented and seen that affect their customers’ experience with prices, catering, health screenings, cabin attendant protocols, and more.

The companies we spoke with include Clay Lacy Aviation, Executive Jet Management, Jet Aviation, Jet Linx, Magellan Jets, Paramount Business Jets, Priester Aviation, Solairus Aviation, and XO. This list includes three of the top five, and half of the dozen largest charter operators as well as seasoned brokerages that utilize a network of vetted operators. So their responses reflect what any customer of a quality charter provider will likely experience now and for the foreseeable future. 

First, about pricing: charter costs have been swinging wildly, exhibiting “as much volatility as we’ve seen in the stock market,” says Anthony Tivnan, cofounder and president of brokerage Magellan Jets. The swings have been almost exclusively on the downside, with prices bouncing from the initial lockdown plunge to partial recoveries (such as in the summer travel season). Such fluctuations are expected to continue at least until international borders reopen.

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Point-to-point, or one-way, pricing has become more available on some routes and less on others, respondents report. These flights are particularly in demand by first-time charterers drawn to private aviation by COVID-19 exigencies, says Leslie Cheshier, Jet Aviation’s vice president for owner and charter services for the Americas. “They are definitely shopping around, looking for the best price point,” she notes, adding that Jet Aviation is spending “more time with this market segment to help educate them.” So are other providers.

Availability at XO and Jet Linx, which are built on point-to-point charter models, is unchanged.

Reflecting demand, charter pricing on light, midsize, and super-midsize jets has resisted the discounting seen with large-cabin jets, which suffer from stagnant international activity.

When you arrive at the airport for your flight, you’ll get the forward-facing view of COVID-era safety protocols that your provider has adopted. Ramp-side drop-off is the new standard, as many operators and brokers—and customers—try to minimize potentially risky time spent at ground facilities. Up to 70 percent of trip requests at Paramount Business Jets “specify direct access to the aircraft without stepping inside an FBO or otherwise interacting with non-crewmembers,” says Richard Zahir, founder and CEO of the Leesburg, Virginia, brokerage.

You will likely be asked to unload your own luggage from your car and place it where gloved crewmembers can take it directly to the aircraft without it touching intermediary hands.

Before boarding, you will sign a declaration affirming your health and lack of recent exposure to contagious infections. (You will have been asked when booking about prospective passengers’ health and recent travel.) 

All your charter provider’s personnel will wear face masks and practice social distancing. 

Once you’re on board, you won’t be required to wear a face mask but will be encouraged to do so. You will be asked not to approach the flight deck except to report an emergency.

Though only large-cabin jets require qualified cabin attendants, operators often provide them on super-midsize and smaller aircraft. Attendants will remain in the crew rest area when not providing services. Information will be conveyed over the cabin audio system rather than face-to-face.

On flights where cabin attendants aren’t required, some customers have asked to fly without them, which providers advise against. Health concerns may trigger the requests, but “cabin attendants are part of stringent cleaning protocols,” explains Kevin Thomas, president and COO of XO. “We try to be clear with customers: [attendants] are responsible for so much more than just the service.”

Though he was speaking about attendants at XO and sister company VistaJet, the comment applies to all providers’ attendants.

However, such attendants no longer prepare meals, and COVID has taken onboard dining, once a highpoint of many charter flights, down a star or two. Cabin attendants at Clay Lacy “would regularly source food and supplies from local farmers’ markets, specialty stores, and restaurants,” says Scott Cutshall, senior vice president of business operations. “Now, almost all food and supplies are sourced from caterers who have been verified to have their own strict COVID protocols in place.”

“Family-style” service and onboard replating of meals are out. Box lunches and individually packaged meals are in, and so is more use of disposable utensils.

Catering menus have been pared, and some of your favorite onboard snacks may be missing; operators are cutting down on the number of items carried and replenishing what they do offer more frequently, to reduce the amount of time any food stays on board.

Though this all amounts to greatly enhanced customer service, the concern among providers is that social distancing, masks, and other safety protocols can give the opposite impression.

“We’re trying to increase customer safety,” says Andy Priester, president and CEO of Priester Aviation, the Chicago-based charter/management company. “The risk is it feels a little less personal and like less customer service.” Fortunately, he adds, “we find most people appreciate [the safety measures] and find an enhanced experience because they feel safer with the new protocols.”

Many services added in response to COVID—such as comprehensive cleaning programs and safety protocols that keep crews in hotels on overnight trips—are behind the scenes. (Providers often put details of proprietary protocols on their websites). 

Meanwhile, though, some highly visible new COVID-inspired consumer services are appearing. Jet Linx has introduced a jet card “for the consumer looking to experience our guaranteed services on a short-term, 90-day basis” and another for “businesses looking for guaranteed private jet services for their travel strategy,” says Jamie Walker, the company’s president and CEO. Also, Paramount Business Jets now offers expedited pre-trip COVID-19 testing.

These new products and safety protocols are likely to remain in place until well after researchers develop a COVID-19 vaccine or cure.

“I don’t think we understand what ‘after COVID’ is,” says Paul Class, a senior vice president at charter management company Solairus Aviation. He mentions issues such as the need for vaccine booster shots and more accurate testing, and adds, “I don’t envision a world where we’re going to get rid of this anytime soon.”

Moreover, there’s one COVID change that all bizav providers agree could alter the charter world forever: the influx of clients who’ve avoided private aviation because they didn’t feel it was a good value when they could travel first class on the airlines. Many providers report at least a doubling of such customers.

“We cannot overstate the long-term impact of these numbers,” says Brian Hirsh, president of NetJets’ charter management subsidiary Executive Jet Management, which saw a fivefold year-over-year increase in first-time charterers in June. “A good portion of these entry-level, price-sensitive customers will graduate into chartering larger aircraft and increase their flight volume over time.”