It’s Sunday afternoon and Adel Mardini is moving around the reception area of a VIP terminal at Dubai World Central, attending to the needs of his well-heeled clients.
With its plush lounges, secluded relaxation zones and fully stocked entertainment area, the Jetex Flight Support terminal, which caters exclusively to private jet travellers, feels more like a five-star hotel reception than an airport building.
“It’s a busy day today,” Mardini tells me, settling down on a sofa as a group of children play table tennis nearby. “And it’s been like this for the past few months.”
Since the UAE and other countries began opening their borders in the wake of coronavirus-related restrictions, the private jet industry has experienced an unprecedented boom, according to industry insiders. Mardini, founder and chief executive of Jetex Flight Support, says passenger numbers jumped more than 100 per cent in the third quarter of 2020, compared to the same period last year.
He expects to top 200 per cent growth by the end of the year. “2019 was a perfect year. And to see this much growth at this time is very encouraging,” says Mardini, whose company manages about 30 to 40 flights a day from Dubai World Central.
The reasons for this growth are probably obvious: a reduced number of commercial flights around the globe and safety concerns in the Covid-19 era. “There was a recent report by McKinsey & Company that said if you are travelling on a commercial flight, you are exposed to about 700 touch points compared to just 20 to 30 if you are travelling on a private jet,” Mardini points out.
"The beauty of our business is it's not just about the airline, it's also the terminal," Mardini explains. "For example, if you are coming here, you are exposed to a maximum of two to three employees and within 15 minutes you will be on board. Plus, on a private jet, you select who sits next to you."Jetex Flight Support, referred to as a fixed-based operator in the aviation industry, began operations in 2005 in the UAE, providing logistics and support for private planes. It opened its first terminal, one of the biggest in the world at 3,000 square metres, in Dubai in 2009. Currently, it operates 33 terminals around the world.
The growth in demand for private air travel, once the preserve of millionaires and celebrities, is being fuelled by a new category of flyers. “It is sad what’s happening to commercial aviation right now. But what’s happening to private aviation is quite positive,” says Sam Chui, one of the world’s most-followed aviation vloggers, with more than 2.3 million subscribers on his YouTube channel.
“It has enabled people to travel. People who used to fly business and first class are now chartering private jets. And it’s not just the affordability, it’s also for safety. They don’t have to share anything with people and every step of their journey is taken care of. In this sense, private aviation is literally thriving at the expense of commercial aviation.
“Right now, if you go to Dubai World Central, you will see 50 private jets parked and they are in and out every day. There is a high volume of flights going all over the world.”
Aziz Ghorbani, general manager of Dubai’s Delta World Charter, which provides private and charter services, is experiencing the same trend. “Prior to the pandemic, we were dealing with high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth clients either for business or leisure. However, after the pandemic, we see a lot of demand from passengers who have never flown private in the past,” he says. “There is also huge demand from ‘necessity travellers’, people who have to travel for medical emergencies or diplomats.”
How much does private jet travel cost?
Prices are also getting competitive, adds Jetex’s Mardini. “Flying a private jet from Dubai to Europe will cost almost $30,000 for 10 passengers. That’s roughly $3,000 per passenger. If you’re flying the same destination one way in first class on a commercial airline, you will be paying around $60,000 for 10 passengers. So it’s very accessible.”
An increasing number of flights are coming from Europe because of current restrictions in countries there, says Mardini. “The great system that the UAE government has set up has increased travel into the country and has had a major effect. Apart from Europe, we have high demand for flights from Russia and India, as well as Lebanon and Iraq.
“The major route right now is Europe-Dubai-Maldives-Dubai-Europe. We already have a lot of bookings for the New Year on this route, mostly from European countries.”
Comlux's 'flying apartment'
Last month in Dubai, aviation company Comlux, which specialises in luxury air travel, showcased its Boeing Business Jet 767, dubbed the SkyLady, after a four-month refurbishment. The 51-seat “flying apartment” comes with a luxurious suite fitted with an ultra-king-size bed and walk-in shower, among other things. There’s also an on-board ionisation system that kills pathogens in the air, so passengers don’t have to wear masks.
“It’s our flagship plane and it was popular with world leaders, but we wanted to upgrade it so we can cater to more people who want to travel in groups,” explains Andrea Zanetto, chief executive of Comlux. “For example, we used to have a presidential suite where presidents would have meetings. Now we’ve redesigned it for family and friends and turned it into a lounge.
“We made these changes to respond to client needs and also to try to target new clients. It’s like staying at home. And now you can fly around in it with a group of friends in a safe environment without being exposed to health risks.”
Ghorbani is positive there will be a further increase in demand for private jets in the next year. “We will see more new passengers who could afford private jets in the past, but were not using them, and didn’t know about the facilities or the availability,” he says. “Commercial airlines will take some time to recover. This gap will be filled by private jets.”
It remains unclear whether demand for private air travel will remain robust once commercial travel recovers and passenger confidence returns. One Dubai resident, who has his own pilot’s license, but wanted to remain anonymous, is not convinced.
“I think the party will continue until mid-2021 or the end of 2021. Once a Covid-19 vaccine is available and things start returning to normal, most of the travel will be taken over by the commercial airliners,” says the investor, who recently chartered a plane for a friend and his family of 10 for $100,000.
“Having said that, it’s also possible that a small set of clientele will end up sticking to private jet travel even after a vaccine is available, as they will have gotten used to a certain travel lifestyle by then and may find it tougher to return to a commercial airliner. So the private jet industry may end up retaining a small set of clients.”
But many private aviation companies are taking a longer-term view. Last month Comlux signed a deal to design the interiors of the first 15 of Airbus’s new ACJ TwoTwenty business jets, which come with six living zones and room for 18. The first flight of the TwoTwenty is set for 2023.
“Airbus decided to invest in this even during the coronavirus pandemic because they see the opportunity in the future,” says Zanetto. “The post-crisis period is always full of opportunities. I am pretty sure that business aviation can be the solution for many. There will be a huge demand,” he adds. “The only limits now are restrictions, which are correctly made. But once these are lifted, there will be a boom.
“People will need to travel. They will want to travel in a safe environment. For those who have the financial capability, they now have a solution they probably didn’t consider before.”