It should come as no surprise that throughout the pandemic, due to self-isolation, travel restrictions, and even American travelers being barred from other countries, the airline industry has seen a noticeable downturn. One study recently showed private air travel over Memorial Day weekend at the start of this summer down 42% from 2019.
Thanks to Westchester County Airport, residents have long been able to avoid the congestion and hassle of flying out of New York City, but frequent travelers of HPN may also be familiar with another of the terminal’s big draws: The private jet community. Out of sheer necessity, as essential business carried on and travelers needed to get home, Westchester’s private air travel industry was one of the first to learn how it had to adapt to the changing environment.
“Million Air was one of the first in the industry to retool our operation to address COVID-19 concerns and our customers have noticed and appreciated the steps we’ve taken to keep them safe,’’ says Roger Woolsey, CEO of Million Air, a Dallas-based aviation company that operates the Million Air terminal at HPN. “As a result, we are seeing more people consider private travel as an alternative to commercial flights, as safety and service become more important factors to consumers.’’
Quickly, the company pivoted to employing most of its essential workforce from home, while on-site, maintenance, and flight crews implemented increased sanitization precautions and decreased contact with other employees and passengers.
“We are committed to the health and safety of our customers, partners, and employees to ensure our customers’ travel plans and experiences are as worry-free as possible,’’ Woolsey says. “Our role takes on a whole new meaning in these times of uncertainty. We are ready to serve and to protect health and safety during their travels.”
As much of the Northeast moved through its reopening programs at a comparable pace, Lauren Rones-Payne, General Manager of the White Plains Million Air terminal, says a large percentage of travelers this summer have been heading out to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, a sentiment shared by Tradewind Aviation Founder and Vice President David Zipkin.
“Very soon after this started there was a rush for private travel,” Zipkin says. “People were just using private travel to get the heck out of wherever they were and get home or get somewhere where they were going to be bunkering down.”
Tradewind offers private charter flights from HPN to major vacation destinations like Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Stowe, VT, where the entire plane is booked by only one party. A similar charter shuttle at set times is also available that functions something like an UberPool, with a few small groups sharing a flight but with far less social contact than a traditional public flight. And since Tradewind’s customers routinely buy seats not per trip but by flight time, booking one of these jaunts is no different than booking any other trip.
“More people are looking to private travel for the obvious reason,” he says, “you’re away from crowds. In some cases, you can drive right up to the airplane. It’s just peace of mind. You’re not in a crowded airport or a crowded airplane, and we’re seeing a very strong increase in demand in just the last couple of weeks.”
According to Zipkin, Tradewind booked twice as many trips the second week of June as it did the first, which was already double the amount from the last week of May. As Zipkin puts it, “What didn’t happen in April is starting to happen now.”
“What may end up being the case is that we’re super busy right now, but it gets quieter in the middle part of the summer when usually we’re very busy,” he cautions, as travelers isolate with their families and work from home. “They don’t have to go to an office. They may have to travel here and there, but they’re not doing the commuting back to Westchester because they don’t need to.”
“The other interesting thing that we’re seeing right now,” Zipkin adds, “is that we’re seeing new people come to us for information about private travel and I suspect that many of them are actually new to private travel.”
Andrew Collins, President & CEO of Sentient Jet concurs. “The pandemic is driving demand for private aviation from first-time users who want to avoid touch points associated with mass transit.” The Boston-based company has a large presence at Westchester County Airport and, by Collins’ figures, Sentient Jet booked around 8,000 hours of flight time in private jet between May and June, and more than 50% were purchased by first-time customers.
“Sentient Jet is also seeing blended flyers, those who usually fly both private and commercial, now skew more towards private as they can better control their flying environment.” Sentient specializes in selling Jet Cards that customers fill with flight hours from upwards of eight different partner services, typically around 25 hours at a time. Collins believes this is a sign that “customers are making long-term commitments to fly private versus just a one-off trip, and we expect this to continue throughout and even after the pandemic ends.”
Sentient Jets has also seen a dramatic reversal in the reasons customers are choosing air travel. “Pre-COVID, 60% of our customers traveled for business and only 40% was personal travel,” he says. Since the start of the pandemic, “nearly 70% of travel is for personal reasons such as going to a second home in a remote area.”
Travel destinations clearly support this: Sentient Jet customers flying out of Westchester County Airport are most frequently landing at — in descending order — West Palm Beach, FL; Naples, FL; San Jose, CA; Punta Gorda, FL; and Aspen, CO.
This trend of more departures and fewer return flights may lead to a second slump in business as summer bleeds into fall, but Tradewind’s David Zipkin believes this may result in a seismic reimagination of long-distance commuting similar to how the work-from-home movement has cemented itself during the course of the pandemic.
“What we’re starting to see is a spreading out effect where Fridays and Sundays aren’t as critical anymore,” he says of busy execs who routinely used to fly out Sunday evening and fly home Friday night. “They may travel on a Tuesday or a Wednesday because they can. They’re working from wherever they are.”