The pandemic has sent demand for commercial airline flights into a tailspin, but business is soaring for the private jet companies that fly corporate bigwigs and deep-pocketed travelers looking to wing away to an exclusive getaway.
The trend demonstrates once again that the outbreak of COVID-19 is having vastly different effects on Americans depending on the size of their bank accounts.
Despite the pandemic's severe blow to flying and the economy, private jet companies such as XO Jets, NetJets and Surf Air report that they are booking about 80% as many flights and hours in the air as they had before the pandemic struck the U.S. And many of those fliers are new to the private jet scene.
Meanwhile, demand for flights on traditional airlines has sunk to as low as 10% of pre-pandemic levels -- a drop so severe that United Airlines recently served notice that it may furlough up to 36,000 employees.
The reason is clear: Fliers who charter a plane usually get an entire jet to themselves, avoiding a crowded airport terminal and a cramped airline cabin with hundreds of potential virus sources.
"It's people's health concerns," said Patrick Gallagher, president of sales and marketing for NetJets, a jet charter business owned by Berkshire Hathaway. "People are fearful of a commercial terminal with a hundred-plus strangers. They don't want to deal with the protocols involved in that."
Gallagher and others in the private jet industry say many of their new bookings and membership accounts are from travelers who previously flew first- or business-class on traditional airlines and are now switching to lower their risk of contracting COVID-19.
Another reason for the shift is that hard-hit commercial airlines have cut service to many mid-size cities. Fliers with fat wallets are booking private jets to fly to small and mid-size cities where they own a vacation home or a ski condo.
Because the pandemic has brought most in-person business meetings to a halt, most of the flights taken on private jets have been for leisure, according to private jet operators.
Among the most popular routes for aviation company VistaJet are New York to Palm Beach, Fla., and Los Angeles to Aspen, Colo.