PRI­VATE JET USE TAK­ING OFF

Busi­ness soar­ing for Chicago char­ter com­pa­nies amid pan­demic

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY AL­ICE BAZERGHI, STAFF RE­PORTER abaz­erghi@sun­times.com | @AliceBaz­erghi

With two young chil­dren, Meghan Leckey couldn’t fathom board­ing a com­mer­cial air­plane for her reg­u­lar trips be­tween homes in Chicago and South Florida dur­ing the coron­avirus pan­demic. Wait­ing in lines, wear­ing a mask and con­stantly wip­ing down sur­faces so her fam­ily could stay safe just didn’t seem fea­si­ble for the 37-yearold restau­rant owner.

So four weeks ago, Leckey and her fam­ily, who or­di­nar­ily would fly first class, bought a pri­vate jet.

“The idea that ev­ery­one was sort of dread­ing it was re­ally the mo­ti­va­tion,” she said of fly­ing on a com­mer­cial air­plane. “In April, when we were in the epi­cen­ter of the pan­demic, no one wanted to make the trek and do all the re­stric­tions that were now im­posed on us.”

Leckey, a fre­quent trav­eler who rou­tinely spends $800-$1,200 per first-class seat, had been char­ter­ing planes on and off for the past 10 years. Be­fore that, her fa­ther owned a pri­vate jet for busi­ness, but he sold it when he sold his com­pany.

Af­ter spend­ing a few months grounded with no end in sight for the coron­avirus pan­demic, Leckey said ev­ery­one in the fam­ily agreed: “It was time to get back to the pri­vate plane life­style.”

“We’re go­ing to be in a pan­demic for at least the fore­see­able fu­ture,” she said. “This isn’t go­ing to go away.”

A pricey propo­si­tion

Leckey’s move to pur­chase a pri­vate jet last month, though still a lux­ury only ac­ces­si­ble to the ul­tra­rich, is in­dica­tive of a larger trend start­ing to ap­pear in the travel in­dus­try. Like Leckey, some peo­ple who once flew in busi­ness or first class are mak­ing the switch to char­ter­ing a pri­vate jet, and those who once char­tered planes are tak­ing the ma­jor step of pur­chas­ing their own plane to avoid crowded air­ports al­to­gether as the coron­avirus pan­demic marches on.

De­pend­ing on the size of a plane, char­ter­ing a jet for a one-way trip from Chicago to Mi­ami can cost any­where from $12,000 to $44,000, while pur­chas­ing one can cost any­where from $3 mil­lion to $90 mil­lion.

Mark Aha­sic, pres­i­dent of Aha­sic Avi­a­tion Ad­vi­sors, said mul­ti­ple fac­tors are driv­ing the sud­den growth he’s seen in the in­dus­try. Not only can wor­ried fly­ers avoid the dis­com­fort in be­ing sar­dined in a com­mer­cial air­liner, fly­ing in pri­vate planes lets them avoid air­port ter­mi­nals, lines and crowds, which have mor­phed from an an­noy­ance to a po­ten­tial health risk for many.

“The other thing that may be driv­ing the in­crease in pri­vate jet use is that there’s re­ally a re­duced sched­ule in the U.S.,” Aha­sic said. “Ob­vi­ously air­lines are op­er­at­ing, but there’s been a lot fewer flights than there have been [in the past], and that means that it may be dif­fi­cult to get a seat in a cer­tain non­stop mar­ket.”

Char­ter busi­ness takes off

This shift bodes well for those in the busi­ness of char­ter­ing and man­ag­ing pri­vate air­craft. Mike Mit­era, who owns Chicago Jet Group, said the pan­demic has been the busiest time in the com­pany’s 18-year his­tory.

Over­all, Mit­era said he’s seen a 30-40% growth in busi­ness since March, push­ing him to make an un­prece­dented in­vest­ment in nearly dou­bling his air­craft in­ven­tory, from seven planes on man­age­ment and char­ter to 11.

“Peo­ple who . . . have the money to ride first class and chose not to char­ter, those peo­ple . . . now no longer wish to ride first class and sit next to some­one they don’t know. And those are the ex­act words that I was told by sev­eral peo­ple,” Mit­era said.

“And those peo­ple who have been char­ter­ing have even stepped up to buy an air­plane be­cause of the fact that they just want the com­fort to know that that’s their air­plane and no­body else has been on it.”

Vince Schide­man, a man­ag­ing part­ner at Tri­umph Jets, also based in Chicago, said pre-pan­demic, his com­pany was do­ing 10-20 trips per month. “Now, we’re eas­ily 10 times that,” he said. The com­pany, which launched in 2016, has seen its most prof­itable months ever from May to

July.

“They don’t want to put their fam­i­lies at risk,” Schide­man said of his clients. “If you can af­ford this way of travel, then it’s com­pletely jus­ti­fi­able at this point. Peo­ple have to travel, the world has to move, and if you’re go­ing to do it, you might as well do it in the safest way pos­si­ble.”

A fam­ily af­fair

Both Mit­era and Schide­man said while there has been a slight rise in cor­po­rate clien­tele, his big­gest growth area has been fam­i­lies or el­derly pas­sen­gers look­ing to avoid COVID-19 ex­po­sure at all costs.

“Our big­gest uptick has been the fam­ily va­ca­tion stuff and then the el­derly, or maybe im­muno­com­pro­mised peo­ple that need to avoid groups of peo­ple right now,” Schide­man said.

Mon­tana, Idaho, Colorado and Arizona have been the most pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions: “There is a lit­tle bit of es­capism right now,” he said.

As for whether he ex­pects busi­ness to re­vert to post-pan­demic lev­els when there’s a COVID-19 vac­cine or treat­ment avail­able, Aha­sic said he thinks it’ll be a mixed bag.

“Once there’s hope­fully a vac­cine and peo­ple feel com­fort­able again trav­el­ing, there’s likely to be less oner­ous re­stric­tions on so­cial dis­tanc­ing and wear­ing a mask, so I think some peo­ple will say, ‘You know what, it’s safe to go back to com­mer­cial air travel . . . the sched­ules are back to where they used to be,’” he said.

“But I wouldn’t be sur­prised if this does con­vince some peo­ple to say, ‘I’m go­ing to use a pri­vate jet in the fu­ture. It’s so con­ve­nient, the kids loved it, and I don’t have to deal with the air­port ex­pe­ri­ence’ . . . I think some peo­ple might re­ally stay with this and re­ally be sold on it.”

Schide­man’s con­fi­dent it’ll be the lat­ter. He said for those who get ac­cus­tomed to the pri­vate jet life­style, it’ll be hard to go back to com­mer­cial air­planes.

“Most of the cus­tomers that end up do­ing this, they don’t want to fly any other way,” he said.

PRO­VIDED

Meghen Leckey’s daugh­ter, Vivi­enne, takes a nap on the fam­ily’s pri­vate jet. The Leckey fam­ily pur­chased the plane four weeks ago to avoid fly­ing on com­mer­cial planes dur­ing the pan­demic.

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