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Flights of fancy: inside the world of air charter

The use of private jets is becoming more commonplace among acts of all sizes amidst concerns over Covid and festival schedules

By James Hanley on 02 Dec 2022


They’re the time machines that historically have made A-lister international touring possible, but as James Hanley finds out, the use of private jets is becoming more commonplace among acts of all sizes amidst concerns over Covid and festival schedules that require something faster than ground transport.

Private jets are as embedded in rock & roll lore as Jack Daniel’s & coke and TVs flying out of hotel room windows. Most emblematic of all was The Starship – a former United Airlines Boeing 720 passenger jet used by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Elton John, Alice Cooper, and most famously Led Zeppelin, who shelled out $30,000 to hire it for their 1973 tour.

Half a century later and The Starship might be consigned to music history, but the flight club is still bursting at the seams.

“Over the past ten years, the amount of air charter broker companies, agents, and similar services have increased considerably,” Justin Marshall, VIP charter manager for Chapman Freeborn, tells IQ. “Currently, the market is saturated with brokers, and the business is highly competitive. Before this, there was only a handful of experienced broker companies in the business.”

“Business aviation has experienced a turbulent couple of years, but one thing that is clear: flyers crave flexibility more than ever before”

Part of Avia Solutions Group, Chapman Freeborn boasts 29 strategically positioned offices worldwide from New York to New Delhi. The company, which will celebrate its 50th year of global aircraft charter in 2023, has built up countless long-standing customer relationships since its first music charter for David Bowie’s 1987 Glass Spider tour in 1987. It has gone on to work with household names such as the Stones, U2, and Coldplay, and is in the ascendancy again following the Covid lull.

“We are already quoting for and confirming a substantial amount of music tours for 2023,” says Marshall. “At present, we are experiencing an increase in the number of artists and bands chartering in South America for Q4 of 2022 and Q1 of 2023.”

Toby Edwards, co-CEO of on-demand jet charter platform Victor, the world’s first carbon negative aviation company, echoes the view of an increasingly crowded industry. “During Covid, the benefits of flying privately were exaggerated, which has attracted even more people and investment to what was already a highly competitive sector,” he says. “Like most sectors, business aviation has experienced a turbulent couple of years, but one thing that is clear: flyers crave flexibility more than ever before.”

Edwards cites a recent tour with a “massive international rock band” across three months, originating and finishing in LA, as evidence of Victor’s commitment to going the extra mile. “There were 13 passengers, 55 pieces of luggage, and critically – due to Covid – the added complications of multiple members of the band contracting Covid, meaning that concerts were cancelled and rescheduled at very short notice,” he recalls. “Our team utilised nine different jets and various helicopters to move all of the band members and their families around in a way that would maintain a Covid-free environment for the majority.

“Extra due diligence on the aircrafts and from crew was required, with strict protocol required from third parties assisting with moving the band around. This was all to ensure the band was able to attend all their scheduled commitments and maintain a Covid safe bubble.”

“On any one day, we could have had ten to 12 flights going around Europe or the US at the height of summer”

London-headquartered Premier Aviation has been operating for almost 30 years, working on five of the top ten biggest tours in history. More than 95% of its business is dedicated to music, and the company ran more than 20 tour charters over the summer, varying from two weeks to eight weeks in duration.

“On any one day, we could have had ten to 12 flights going around Europe or the US at the height of summer,” reveals broking manager Lizzy Templer. “At the moment, you’re averaging two or three flights a day. It’s tough out there, but that’s good for the client – they know they’re getting the best prices.

“Over the last ten years, we’ve seen more and more tours out in South America. They all kick off in August, September, October, and then the Middle East, Asia, from Christmas to January, February. But without doubt, summer is the height because everybody comes to Europe to do their summer tours. There are so many more festivals around than there were ten to 12 years ago, so that’s given us a lot more business.”

Templer suggests the personal touch offered by Premier helps set it apart. “We’re there 24/7 from the day they ask for a quote,” she says. “You build up a relationship, and it’s remembered.”

“For musicians, time is money. They can have a concert every two days and some even do it every day”

Also part of Avia Solutions Group, Vilnius, Lithuania-based Skyllence has flown everyone from Dua Lipa to the Rolling Stones and is in the process of plotting a Shakira tour of Latin America for late summer 2023.

“For musicians, time is money,” notes broker Oleg Markov. “They can have a concert every two days and some even do it every day, but it can be hard. If you are on tour in Europe, for example, there might not be a connecting flight between two cities on a particular date. If you travel by bus and the cities are near, then it’s okay, but if it’s in a different direction, then sometimes you need to fly.

“You can also take a bus and travel between cities, but then your tour will be not three months, but five or six. So you spend more time and earn less. Our service provides a fast solution.”

Markov indicates that practicality is a greater priority for music clients than luxury, as higher costs ultimately lead to higher priced concert tickets. “If you fly alone in a super-expensive jet and your team flies on another charter flight, it’s a lot of money,” he notes.

“You’re probably achieving two or three more gigs than you would do if you were trying to do it on a scheduled flight”

“People charter because of convenience and being able to achieve much more than you ever could on a scheduled flight,” chips in Templer. “They can get to airports that scheduled flights don’t service and they’re obviously on their own timetable. You’re probably achieving two or three more gigs than you would do if you were trying to do it on a scheduled flight.”

Victor’s Edwards estimates the cost of chartering a jet at roughly €10,000 per hour. “We believe on-demand jet charter is the most cost-effective way to fly privately,” he says. “For an artist or band going on tour, chartering an aircraft for the A, B and C parties can be a more effective way of travelling around the globe.

“Flying commercially for a tour simply isn’t feasible for many artists who have demanding travel schedules and who also require discretion and downtime between concerts. For some bands, the transportation of instruments alone would mean that flying commercially would involve a huge cost and complex coordination – which commercial airlines do not have the infrastructure to support with.

“From a welfare perspective, flying private means there is also no need to be dictated to by the commercial schedule. Concerts finish late in the evening, and the artists are usually full of adrenalin. It often makes sense for them to fly directly on to the next city for some downtime ahead of the next concert.”

Other benefits include shorter check-in times (“ten minutes versus two hours”) and access to more local airports.

“The bigger picture is that there is a lot of value to be had from chartering aircraft rather than just the price of the plane”

“For those who charter a jet, it is possible to fly to multiple destinations in one day,” sums up Edwards. “Such itineraries are not possible flying commercially, and therefore one must factor other costs such as hotels and people’s time into the bigger equation. The bigger picture is that there is a lot of value to be had from chartering aircraft rather than just the price of the plane.”

Chapman Freeborn’s Marshall contends that, in some instances, chartering an aircraft can actually be more cost-effective than a commercial flight. “This can only be determined on a case-by-case basis with aircraft availability, demand, time of year, fuel prices, chosen route, and various other factors playing important roles in measuring the overall cost-effectiveness of a charter,” he says.

Marshall notes that many charterers have begun to view private jet travel as no longer just a luxurious experience but a necessity to ensure their safe travel in the wake of the pandemic. “A busy day can pan out in different ways,” he adds. “Often an urgent flight request will get myself and the team buzzing around to find a quick solution, and we will all be working together to get a flight organised with just a couple of hours’ notice! It’s hard to give a flavour of a ‘typical day’ as things are rarely typical, and we know to expect the unexpected.”

Sustainability is another increasing area of concern. Victor recently partnered with Neste, the world-leading producer of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which provides a solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions of private jet charter by up to 80%.

“We also provide accurate fuel burn and carbon emission data for each flight at the point of quotation – another way in which transparency guides our high-touch customer service,” says Edwards. “Sustainability will continue to play an increasingly important role in shaping how the market develops, as celebrities and artists become more conscious of their carbon emissions.”

“The charter market has started to cool off since its peak in 2021, driven by the Covid rebound”

Looking ahead, Markov reports that as busy as 2022’s return to action has been for the business, next year is shaping up to be busier still. “A lot of major names moved their tours to next year because of the problems getting equipment and staff,” he says. “Private aviation is growing. In the pandemic, it was the only way to travel.”

Edwards points out that economic conditions have been unstable for a number of years now, whether from the pandemic or the war in Ukraine. As a result, all participants need to be extra attentive and agile in delivering services and planning ahead.

“The charter market has started to cool off since its peak in 2021, driven by the Covid rebound,” he explains. “In addition, the economic headwinds, environmental regulation, and climate optics are causing declines in activity. No industry is completely immune to the high energy costs, rising interest rates, and inflation.”

The effects of Covid-19 threaten to continue to linger for some time yet, however, warns Templer. “You’re up against delays because of staff shortages left over from Covid,” she says. “And a lot of operators are preferring ad hoc charters over chartering their aircraft for a whole tour, which makes it a bit more difficult.

“More bands also seem to be travelling with their road crew and admin staff post-Covid. They still want business seats for some, but there are only a limited amount in the summer because they’re all tied up with scheduled flights. So it can be a mad scramble.”

“We see the focus on more sustainable private aviation as a massive opportunity”

Indeed, supply and demand is a significant issue, with more people wanting to fly private than aircraft are available.

“This high demand also means that aircraft are being heavily used with tighter schedules, resulting in less flexibility for passengers – where historically flexibility was seen as an advantage of chartering aircraft,” elaborates Marshall. “However, this is where Chapman Freeborn has a distinct advantage for our clients – not only do we have access to services provided by our sister companies in the Avia Solutions Group family, but unlike some other providers, we are not affiliated with any specific airlines, meaning we have access to the entire market.”

With an eye on what happens next, Templer paints a positive short-term picture but feels some apprehension about the state of the economy in the longer term. “With the whole financial crisis globally at the moment and the cost of fuel, prices are escalating, and you wonder if people will be buying tickets for as many concerts, and will that affect how many tours there are going to be?” she ponders. “But so far, everything’s looking just as busy for next summer.”

“Covid-19 changed the music industry for sure, although there are still a large number of tours ongoing and planned for 2023, and we don’t expect this to slow down in the future,” offers Marshall.

“Like most aviation businesses, we have been impacted by the jet fuel price increases, which has meant that the cost of chartering has risen, too.” concludes Edwards. “Many operators who purchase large quantities of fuel have effectively had to lock in for at least six months, and this means that any positive fluctuations are not being passed on to the customer as the market varies. Setting expectations with customers is therefore also a challenge.

“That all said, with the strong US dollar, it also provides opportunities, and likewise, we see the focus on more sustainable private aviation as a massive opportunity, so it’s not all bad news.”

 


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