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Private jets can cut health risks — but add reputational ones


My only flight on a private plane was in the early 1990s, when I accepted an invitation to interview Rocco Forte, then chairman of the Forte hotels and restaurants group, during his flight from London to Cork for the opening of Ireland’s first Travelodge and Little Chef.

The four passengers — Forte, his communications chief, another journalist and me — lounged on more lavishly upholstered seats than I had experienced on any commercial plane. But coming back to land in London, we were buffeted by a crosswind so gusty that I stepped off with the queasy conviction that private planes were over-rated.

Judging by the headlines, the coronavirus epidemic has persuaded many of the opposite. “Private jets will be the ‘new normal’ for the elite post-lockdown 2.0”, the Telegraph said in November.

It’s true that private flying has been more resilient than commercial during the Covid-19 crisis. In 2021, scheduled aircraft operations were down 50 per cent by February 23 compared with the same period in 2020 — the last time flying was normal. Private aviation was down only 11 per cent, according to WingX, a flight data company. Private flying dropped more sharply in Europe, with its border closures, than in North America.

But many of the private flights were by high-spending tourists rather than business travellers. Richard Koe, WingX’s managing director, says that on one day, January 2, as the Christmas and new year holidays ended, the number of private flights was actually 50 per cent higher than on the same date in 2020, with much of the activity centred around the Caribbean, the Maldives and the Middle East.

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The attractions of private flying are obvious. Even vaccinated flyers, aware that no inoculation is totally effective, will be keen to avoid queueing, milling in the aircraft aisle and sitting next to strangers during flights. As for bumpy private-plane flights, Rohit Jaggi, a former FT colleague and experienced pilot, told me that larger jets provided a smoother journey than I had. “Of the aircraft I’ve flown, big Dassault Falcons, Gulfstreams and Bombardier jets are more stable and give a better ride to the people in the back than little Cessna jets,” he said.

On the other hand, private flights are expensive. Mark Briffa, chief executive of Air Partner, a private-flight company, says the cost of using a small or medium-sized aircraft for a return trip from London to Frankfurt is about £28,000 per plane. London to New York return can cost £100,000. The per-passenger fare would depend on how many people fly in each aircraft, but it would still be steep compared to the average business or even first-class ticket.

Briffa says companies will have to weigh that cost against their duty to protect their employees’ health. Mid-level staff will probably carry on having meetings on Zoom, but he argues that top executives who want to restart business will probably have no choice but to fly.

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Michael Skapinker will be hosting a live discussion on post-Brexit business travel at the FT Weekend Digital Festival in March

Those that fly on private planes will have to be careful about the shareholder and public reaction: recall the criticism when it emerged that Jeff Immelt, former head of General Electric, used to fly with two corporate jets, one following as a back-up. There is the financial extravagance but also the carbon cost — because the number of passengers on a private plane is relatively small, “private air travel is the most energy-intense form of flight”, according to a report in the Global Environmental Change journal in November.

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To minimise reputational risk, companies are more likely to pay for their top executives to travel in independent providers’ private jets than to buy their own. They will try to argue that there is a solid business and health case, although that may not save them from criticism from shareholders, the press or their Zoom-bound underlings. Business travellers will try to keep their private jet flights quiet and large quoted companies may keep them to a minimum — worries that are less likely to trouble cash-rich leisure travellers.

Follow Michael on Twitter @Skapinker or email him at michael.skapinker@ft.com 

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