This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.
While the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on business aviation are still being felt, XOJet Aviation executives decided from the onset of the virus in the U.S. that the charter operator would not idle hundreds of workers. Many of them were new to the company, which right before the pandemic was adding new jobs and completing a cross-country headquarters relocation. Instead, the privately held on-demand charter provider opted to hang onto its 600 employees, diversify its flight operations, and fight for as many charter bookings as it could.
March and April were critical months for XOJet, which was concluding its move from Sacramento, California to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “We felt that during this period it was important that we not start to train [new employees], then lay them off or furlough them…wait a couple of months, bring them back, and start the whole process over,” XOJet president and COO Kevin Thomas told AIN. “As a business, we decided we were going to use this time…to focus on the training and reorganization of the structure and do everything we could to diversify our operations and capture every available flight hour that was in the market at the time.”
One thing that did fall victim to the effects of the pandemic was the company’s plans for the construction of a new, 40,000-sq-ft building at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (FXE). Those plans have been put on hold and, for now, it will remain in leased space at FXE. “Once operations start to settle back to normal and we’ve got some better long-term visibility as to how this recovery is going to take hold, we will begin to reopen those internal discussions,” he said. “But it’s still very much a part of the plan.”
Financially, XOJet was strong before the Covid crisis, Thomas said. Between that position of strength as well as increasing its freight flights and efforts to book as many charters as it could, it succeeded in retaining employees at XOJet, as well as its wholly-owned subsidiary GMJ, a corporate air shuttle service for Fortune 500 companies. “In that diversification, it really got us through what I would say was a significant low period—a stretch of time in April—and it kept the entire fleet flying and kept the entire organization on its toes,” he said. “Now it wasn’t normal flying as anyone can attest, but we did in connection with our [retail and wholesale charter sales] team do a fantastic job capturing any available flight hours that were in the market.”
XOJet also was able to avoid layoffs by freezing hiring and reassigning some of its workers, mostly in its talent recruitment department, to work in other areas of the business to support administration, maintenance, training, and operations. He noted that some in the talent recruitment area have since moved back to their original positions, specifically for the recruitment of pilots.
While the reassignment of workers was largely limited to talent recruitment, XOJet already planned for some restructuring of the business so Thomas said there were some employees who were permanently reassigned new jobs within the company. “That was part of our plan anyway,” he explained. “That was not directly related to the downturn in the market.”
Employees have been appreciative of the company’s efforts to avoid layoffs and furloughs, with much of the credit going to the “ownership group’s decision to muscle through this downtime and keep the operation running,” Thomas added. Its owners include a small group of shareholders with a 51 percent stake in the company, as well as a 49 percent stake held by Vista Global Holdings.
Recently, business has been picking up at XOJet, which operates a fleet of 43 owned aircraft—primarily Bombardier Challenger 300s and Cessna Citation Xs—with access to another 116 aircraft through Vista Global. Thomas explained that the short-term booking space is where XOJet has seen new customers, whom he described as a combination of people new to XOJet or new to charter flying. “We have seen a significant short-term booking curve and we’re operating day in day out at an average of 85 percent capacity compared to where we were pre-Covid-19,” he said. “And our long-term booking curve, while still not where it has been historically, is starting to come back.”