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The world of private travel offers social distancing in the sky — at a premium


(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Lengthy lines, surly TSA agents, barely edible meals — ah, the notorious pitfalls of commercial aviation. After months of staying at home, many would eagerly embrace those annoyances for the opportunity to safely go somewhere — anywhere. For a small segment of the population, however, it’s a trade-off they don’t even have to consider.

Perhaps you’ve never heard of an FBO, but to business moguls and A-list celebrities, they are as familiar as the check-in counter at your local airport. And in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, they’re becoming more than mere luxury.

“Fixed-base operators are private terminals which allow passengers to skip the main airport, drive up to an entrance and walk onto the tarmac straight to their plane,” explains Alex Wilcox, CEO of JSX, a “hop-on” private jet service. “They are crowd-free places that allow people to avoid the main terminal and all the hassles and herding associated with that experience.” Social distancing, at a premium.

In corporate aviation — an industry that generates $150 billion per year — these are the one-stop shops catering to all of the logistics associated with well-heeled travel. Here you’ll find everything from gyms and spas to public notaries and dedicated concierge staff. And they have grown considerably over the past decade. Signature Aviation, the world’s largest FBO, now counts more than 370 locations across five continents.

The exclusive environment is about what you would expect of any playground for the 1 percent. Sometimes it even serves as a backdrop for those wanting to depict a lavish lifestyle.

“I’ve had rappers show up before a flight in fully tinted SUVs and shoot scenes for a music video before boarding,” says Bob Olson, who has been a corporate pilot for 18 years. “The people I fly couldn’t possibly burn through all of their money. Time and efficiency is more valuable to them than the dollar. I once got a call from Adam Sandler’s [handler]. He wanted to go to Hawaii and wanted to be airborne in an hour and a half.”

As an on-call captain at the time, Olson would typically live near airports in case of lucrative last-minute contracts like these. Ninety minutes later, he had the comedian in the air. Approximate cost: “About $85,000, each way.”

Passing through a commercial terminal that quickly is next to impossible. FBOs enable time-crunched passengers to transition from car to jet without ever slowing down.

But at Los Angeles International Airport, you can opt for a comparable red carpet rollout without a dedicated pilot, plane or paparazzi.

“Travelers are aware of the commercial vs. private flight trade-off, [and we offer] a layer in between,” says Amina Belouizdad, co-CEO of PS, a quasi-FBO that allows clients to bypass the main terminals before departures and after arrivals. “Our travelers can benefit from the safety and cost of flying commercial, while having the privacy and comfort of a very elevated on-the-ground experience.”

That means a suite stuffed with limitless amenities — from adapters and neck pillows to chef-prepared meals and DIY cocktails. Travelers enjoy a dedicated TSA checkpoint before a black car shuttles them across the runway directly to the jet bridge. It will set you back $4,500 a year just for the membership. Then you’ll have to cough up an additional $3,150 every time you make a reservation of up to four people.

And for those with the means, the service now seems less like decadence and more like a necessary precaution. “In cases where travel is essential, we provide a unique solution — away from crowds and with minimal interactions,” notes Belouizdad. “We’ve welcomed many new members and their families during the past two months who see the value in PS now more than ever.”

Private aviation, just like its commercial counterparts, has suffered from an unprecedented lull in demand due to the coronavirus pandemic. Activity levels for business aircraft are only a third of what they were at the same time last year, according to WingX Advance, an aviation research firm. Long-range business jets were the hardest hit, down 40 percent year over year.

As a result, Olson sees aggressive bidding among corporate providers to secure the action that remains. “It’s probably the cheapest it’s ever been to fly private,” he contends. Still, he pegs a one-way flight from Teterboro, N.J., (the mecca of corporate travel) to Los Angeles at about $40,000 aboard a Gulfstream G500. Not exactly competitive pricing.

And prominent charter services such as NetJets have been stalling since mid-March. The private aviation group recently slashed its planned new aircraft deliveries from 60 to 25. On April 16, competitor JetSuite grounded its entire fleet and furloughed staff.

Yet more than 190,000 private flights are still taking off monthly. To sustain that clientele, companies are enhancing sanitizing protocols and implementing strict social distancing guidelines. NetJets now treats its cabin interiors with an antimicrobial product before each flight and moves crews between departure points using its own aircraft, to avoid exposure in commercial terminals.

JSX caps passengers at 20 across its fleet of Embraer aircraft, which typically max out at 30. This week, it became the first U.S. carrier to implement SafePointe TSS, a thermal screening system that takes body temperatures without customers having to stop and look at a camera or device.

The company has held on to customers through the pandemic with a model that eschews much of the indulgences of FBOs in favor of a semiprivate experience — offered at prices on par with commercial fares. For example, customers can travel regionally between its West Coast hubs for as little as $89 per flight. “The champagne and caviar you might see on a private jet in the movies is a bit of a fiction,” Wilcox says. “Most flights are about speed and convenience.”

Matt Morley, a corporate pilot currently on furlough, says, “There are large chain FBOs like Signature and Atlantic, or there are mom-and-pop shops. Most chain FBOs have a certain standard … but you don’t always get what you pay for. Usually the big-chain places nickel and dime you with ramp fees, security fees, handling fees, infrastructure fees.”

Nonetheless, he tracks an appeal among a new segment of travelers who might never have considered them before. He is happy to see more folks making use of his local FBO — spread apart at a safe distance, of course.

“The only reason I think people would start flying private is because they think it’s safer than being on a plane with lots of people,” he says. “I hope for my sake that’s true. I’m eager to get back to work.”

Read more:

The private jet industry wants its own coronavirus bailout

More people are flying again. Here’s what to expect at airports and on planes.

3 ways to invest in travel now for more perks in the future

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