This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.
As the Covid-19 pandemic steers a new crop of customers towards private aviation, the National Air Transportation Association is stressing that it's more important than ever for charter brokers, operators, and FBOs to collectively become engaged in efforts to provide a seamless, elevated level of service to be able to retain those travelers.
NATA made that call as it continues to host a series of Air Charter Roundtables, the most recent of which focused on “Forging Ahead” in the new market shaped by the pandemic.
“It’s really challenging to the operators right now because they’re trying to make these new customers that are surging into the market happy,” said Ryan Waguespack, senior v-p of aircraft management, air charter services, and MROs for NATA. One operator noted that, to those companies, charter is “no longer a luxury way of travel. This is an essential form of travel.”
One broker mentioned that it had brought in nearly 300 new customers over the past two months alone, Waguespack added. But for the industry, “this is their proving time. That's why we have to do one thing and do it very, very well.”
This will require the industry to come together, he said, urging operators to get and stay involved in the larger business aviation community. “We need to create an environment where we can bring the charter brokers, the operators, and ground handling all together to bring a high level of competence to the market so we maintain these consumers. We just need to communicate.”
NATA has convened a Part 135 Covid-19 task force to help develop protocols to prepare for the return of traffic and also has delved into the issues on the FBO side through its safety committee. “We actually brought these groups together and created best practices,” he said. Outreach has also involved air charter brokers, which play a pivotal role in direct communications with the consumer, Waguespack said.
The key is to ensure best practices are uniformly applied so the client has a predictable experience from start to finish.
As far as the desire to get involved, Waguespack said, “I think there is definitely a willingness. When we specifically talked about the task force initially, it was incredibly strong.” But as operations have ramped back up as Covid restrictions lifted, remaining engaged becomes more difficult. “People just don't have the bandwidth,” particularly with the inordinate amount of extra time that is going into every flight. Operators are doubling down on their planning time ensuring all the proper precautions are in place, including coordination on the ground.
“They are just trying to keep their head above water. Every day is a dumpster fire. You are having a lot of internal challenges with keeping people safe, working from home,” he said. “A lot of operators have used this time to look inside and say how do we come out of this stronger? What are our weak areas? What do we need to be doing?”
This is where collaboration among the entire industry becomes crucial, he said. And, getting it right is critical because, with new private travelers, there’s “a whole group of people who are very uneducated about this.” Most of those travelers are leisure travelers, he said. “Who knows when we'll get those business flyers back.” Some operators have benefited from the surges in new clients. Others, however, are still not seeing the return of business.
“It behooves the operators to get their houses in order to get this process as seamless as possible to work and share and connect information because this will be their survival,” Waguespack said. “We really do have a golden opportunity. We don't need to mess this up and it starts with good operating procedures and communication chains between all parties, everybody involved.”