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Private jets surge in popularity while commercial airlines struggle

Commercial airlines might be struggling, but small private jets are busier than ever, especially in Florida and other Sunbelt destinations.

The big picture: Untethered to their homes and offices during the pandemic, the wealthy are escaping to vacation homes and ski resorts — and paying handsomely to avoid commercial flights.

  • The private COVID getaways helped offset a collapse in corporate flights over the past year.
  • Now private jet companies are hoping those leisure travelers will be hooked on the convenience even after the pandemic subsides.

Why it matters: Layered on top of a resumption in corporate flights, the leisure boom could mean a big growth spurt ahead for the typically stable private aviation sector.

Driving the news: Investors see plenty of promise in private jet travel, otherwise known as business aviation, and experts predict more consolidation ahead for the fragmented industry. A few examples:

  • Wheels Up, an on-demand service that matches fliers with available aircraft, is going public in a SPAC deal that values the company at $2 billion — more than twice its 2019 value.
  • Vista Global, parent of subscription-based XO jet service, is acquiring Apollo Jets, a leading air charter provider.
  • Aero Technologies, a "semi-private" luxury jet startup from Uber co-founder Garrett Camp, raised $20 million in Series A funding earlier this month. It's offering $1,250 one-way flights from Los Angeles to Aspen and plans to add more routes soon.

Between the lines: Small planes — four to seven passengers — are the busiest, with fourth quarter departures down only about 10% from pre-pandemic levels, according to David Wireman, head of Alix Partners' aviation practice. "That's people flying their families around."

  • Flights on larger jets — the 10- or more seaters used by corporations — are down as much as 26%. Commercial airlines, by comparison, are still seeing passenger traffic 55% below pre-pandemic levels.
  • "We went from being a bit of luxury to now being a utility," Sentient Jet CEO Andrew Collins tells Axios. His company sold $450 million worth of its pre-paid Jet Cards in 2020, 50% more than usual.

The intrigue: It hasn't yet translated into increased deliveries for plane manufacturers, but sales of preowned business jets soared 13% in 2020, notes independent aviation consultant Brian Foley.

What to watch: Innovations like the on-demand apps that have made booking a private flight almost as easy as hailing an Uber will continue, predicts Wireman.

Yes, but: The popularity could be short-lived for those whose wallets stretched in order to book private planes in 2020, counters Foley.

  • "I feel that as soon as the airlines are perceived as safe again, a lot of those people will run back and look for their Economy Plus upgrade."

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