Private aviation group Vista Global expects demand for high-end travel to grow this year, led by Dubai, as customers seek alternatives to commercial flights during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Dubai group is recording "new highs" in membership subscriptions, Thomas Flohr, Vista Global's founder and chairman, told The National.
It expects the growth to continue during the year as clients seek flexible flight schedules and greater social distancing.
“What corporations found was that this is the most efficient way to use their executives’ time, so we are seeing a great stickiness rate of our clients,” said Mr Flohr.
“Once you use business jets and see the advantages, it is very difficult to go back to commercial flying, so we are seeing unprecedented demand of new subscriptions, in some segments up to three times more, so it is a booming infrastructure.”
Global business aviation activity has more than tripled in the first half of April compared to the same period in 2020, compared to the same period last year, according to data research and consulting company WingX Advance.
Since the start of the year to mid-April, business jet movements rose by 10 per cent from a year ago, it said.
By contrast, scheduled airline activity is down 33 per cent compared with last year.
The UAE’s business jet traffic is up 95 per cent this year, compared to the same period last year.
Dubai has become the company’s top departure and destination airport globally for the first time, driven by corporate travellers and the emirate’s open borders.
It should retain its position for the next six months, said Mr Flohr.
Vista Global was formed in 2018 as a holding company for several business aviation companies, including VistaJet and charter service XO. The group operates a fleet of 160 silver-and-red business aircraft.
Mr Flohr founded VistaJet in 2004 as a start-up with only two jets. Since then, the company has grown into a global operator of 70 medium- and long-haul aircraft that fly to 187 countries.
VistaJet’s business model gives clients access to its full fleet of Bombardier planes while charging them only for the hours they fly — allowing them to sidestep the cost, responsibility and risk of aircraft ownership.
VistaJet recorded a 23 per cent increase in subscription hours sold in the first quarter of this year, compared to the same quarter last year, said Mr Flohr.
The number of new members rose by 90 per cent in the same period and growth is expected to continue throughout the year, he said.
“There is nothing slowing [us] down at this point, so to be cautiously optimistic, we are seeing significant growth in 2021,” he said.
The pandemic has changed consumer behaviour: companies are less willing to bear the large cost of acquiring and maintaining an aircraft on their balance sheets but are more likely to pay for the specific number of flying hours required ever year, he said.
“That is really to the strength of our business model that we just simply ask the client to subscribe for the hours they need and they can basically get going tomorrow,” he said.
VistaJet took delivery this month of the first two of its Bombardier Global 7500 business jets on order, making it the only commercial operator of the aircraft and filling the ultra-long haul gap in its existing fleet.
A flight on the new Global 7500 jet costs between $20,000 and $25,000 an hour. The aircraft carries up to 15 people.
So far, VistaJet has sold 2,000 flying hours on the aircraft, with the most popular routes being the Middle East to the US, the US to Asia, South-East Asia to Europe and Japan to Australia, he said.
Mr Flohr does not expect prices to decline and the subscription programme works on a three-year agreement with fixed prices.
Journeys on the Bombardier Global 6000 model cost $15,000 to $17,000 an hour while trips on the Bombardier Challenger series cost between $13,000 and $15,000.
Mr Flohr is set on making private jet travel cheaper and accessible to more people through the use of technology.
Using the app, clients can create their own jet, pick seats, crowd-source the flight and if there are enough passengers onboard, prices are driven down as with an Uber Share ride, he said.
“With our technology, we further democratise business aviation, which still has the stigma of being so exclusive and expensive,” he said.
This will enable VistaJet to attract more first and business class travellers to more efficient flights and allow the company to secure additional market share from airlines, he said.
While some business travel can be replaced by video-conferencing technology, executives will still need to meet in person to seal important deals or build new partnerships, he said.
Demand for private jet travel should continue to grow over the next few years as the pandemic has hurt commercial aviation, said Mr Flohr.
VistaJet last year recorded a 29 per cent annual increase in new subscription memberships globally, with Europe accounting for 43 per cent of new members, North America for 25 per cent, Asia for 18 per cent and the Middle East for 10 per cent.
VistaJet expects to this year's new subscriptions to exceed last year's, he said.