plane silhouette landing at the airport during sunset.

Wealthy UK flyers opt for private jets to evade Covid and lockdowns

Wealthy flyers in the UK are opting for private jets and charter flights to evade Covid-19 and beat sudden lockdowns, new data shows.

While the number of commercial flights from the UK has dropped by three-quarters since the start of the pandemic, private flights are down only 42% compared with 2019, according to the aviation consultancy WingX.

In August, demand for private jets was back to 93% of normal flying levels while scheduled flights were down 65%. Another increase could be seen around Christmas, with private flights operating at around 70% of pre-pandemic levels in December.

The relative resilience of the private jet sector – also referred to as “business aviation” – is all the more surprising given that business conferences around the world have been cancelled because of the pandemic.

Richard Koe, managing director of WingX, said business aviation offered “an on-call and convenient means of connectivity, essential as gaps appear in the scheduled networks”. He added that, nonetheless, the UK’s private jet business had declined more than any other country in Europe.

An analysis of private flights leaving the UK in December showed a strong decline in traditional European destinations such as France, Italy or Austria, which are keeping their ski resorts closed this season or opening their slopes for local people only. However, private trips from the UK to sunnier destinations, including the Maldives, the United Arab Emirates and various Caribbean islands, grew in volume compared with December 2019.

While corporate travel around the world is largely on hold, private jet operators are reporting an influx of first-time leisure clients hoping to avoid busy terminals and crowded aeroplanes.

NetJets, an American company that sells fractional ownership in private jets, said leisure travel now accounts for 80% of its flights, up from 60% before the pandemic.

And Flexjet, based in the US, which offers a similar fractional ownership model, reported a similar trend. “Personal travel has been the biggest driver of private aviation activity since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Marine Eugène, the company’s European managing director. “We have seen an increased number of first-time flyers, attracted by the fact that private jets limit the opportunities for exposure to the coronavirus.”

Some private jet brokers sold more flights in 2020 than in 2019, including the Swiss-based company LunaJets, which closed the year up 15%. Its CEO, Eymeric Segard, said the company had received up to 200 flight requests a day in March as clients hastily returned from abroad or, conversely, escaped lockdown measures in their home countries. Towards the end of the year there was a “surge” of European, Russian and American clients escaping to destinations such as the Maldives or the Caribbean, Segard said.

A short-haul charter flight can cost several times the monthly income of the average UK household. One broker, EvoJets, based in the US, gives an estimated starting price of $6,400 (about £4,700) for a one-way flight from London to Nice. Many operators offer heavily discounted “empty legs” on planes that need to be moved between airports and that would otherwise carry no passengers.

A recent industry report from the aviation firm Honeywell Aerospace suggests business jet usage will fully rebound by the middle of 2021. The report found that operators’ five-year purchase plans for new business jets were down less than one percentage point in 2020.

A traveller flying alone in the lightest class of private jet is responsible for up to 20 times the carbon emissions of an economy passenger on a commercial flight, a Guardian analysis suggests.