Last weekend, I asked my friend Elena, the proprietress of two of San Francisco’s busiest restaurants, how the return to dining was going. She laughed and said, “There are three distinct types of customers right now. First is the petrified diner who refuses human contact and gets takeout delivered to their car. The second is very cautious and exclusively dines outdoors (and summer is cold in San Francisco!). Meanwhile, the third customer type says, 'Get me inside and give me a cocktail! I’m living in the Covid world!'”
Elena’s story makes me wonder if there are three types of business aviation groups in the Covid era. And if so, they might be defined as still locked down and only doing currency flights; flying cautiously, but only for essential business; and getting back to business. I do believe these are a true summary of what we’re seeing.
During a recent discussion I had with Kriya Shortt, Textron Aviation’s senior v-p of parts and programs, she commented that Textron’s pilot/owner group is “done with Covid.” She implied that they’ve moved past the virus and are using their airplanes for business pursuits. “They don’t want to hear about Covid protocols,” Shortt said. “They’re more concerned with access to airspace, airports, etcetera.”
Since Labor Day, I’ve heard of several companies moving toward in-person meetings and activities. Yet many large firms—mainly in the tech industry—are still not flying and have announced work from home well into 2021.
In an effort to find out who’s flying amid Covid, I spoke with a couple of business aviation professionals on the topic. One, a chief pilot for a Midwestern energy company, told me that after six months of Zoom meetings, his board of directors felt it was critical to meet in person. The aviation department, in collaboration with the company’s medical team, provided a safety-focused solution.
Interestingly, a doctor and nurse accompanied every flight, to perform rapid testing prior to boarding. They did so for each of the 10 board members and eight staff. It’s proved so successful that plans are underway for a second in-person board meeting this month.
Another confirmation that post-Labor Day business travel has picked up comes from NetJets president of sales and marketing Patrick Gallagher. Based on conversations he’s having with his client base, he said, “They tell us that they expect to do more flying with NetJets as the state of the airline network and Covid-19 concerns will make it more challenging for them to move their teams around. The type of business travel that customers were doing cannot be permanently replaced by videoconferencing.”
To get essential work done, as well as schedule face-to-face meetings, many organizations are revisiting their business aircraft use policy. One operator I spoke with has put their three-person minimum passenger load on hold. Another company, which is developing new healthcare facilities, has expanded its aircraft users to include real estate and facilities teams.
“You’re not going to get the virus just because you step foot on the airplane,” noted my chief pilot colleague. He’s hoping that his company’s regular business travelers will trust their new Covid safety protocols and feel more confident to travel again.
Despite these stories, the data tell me that there aren’t as many of the second and third types of business aviation traveling groups as I’d hoped. Rollie Vincent, president of Rolland Vincent Associates, shared September data with me that shows Part 135 and 91K fractional traffic is almost back to the same level it was in 2019. However, Part 91 flights are down 39 percent year-over-year, but that’s a 20 percent improvement since May.
I, for one, have tremendous Covid-fatigue and am finding myself moving from type two to three. In fact, for the first time since March, I flew on the airlines to attend a client visit. As I write this, I’m on a completely full United flight, indicating that a good percentage of the public is choosing to embrace life while cautiously navigating Covid.
Perhaps when we land in San Francisco, several passengers will head directly to my friend’s restaurant, Original Joe’s, for “indoor dining and a cocktail!”
Sheryl Barden is the president and CEO of Aviation Personnel Internationa. A thought leader on all things related to business aviation professionals, Barden serves on NBAA’s board of directors and is chair of the NBAA advisory council.