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VIRUS OUTBREAK

Wealthy turn to private jets to cut infection risk

Business travellers who still need to get around are also seeking out jet charter operators to fill the void of suspended flights

London

GROWING fear over the Covid-19 outbreak is battering commercial airline stocks, but private jet operators are seeing a spike in demand as well-heeled travellers look to minimise their public exposure and find alternatives to suspended flights.

"There's undoubtedly been a rise in demand for short-notice, on-demand charter," said Adam Twidell, chief executive officer of jet charter provider PrivateFly. "We've had a very significant number of inquiries, for group evacuations, and from corporates and individuals."

Requests have included a decontamination team looking for transport within Asia and a family travelling to Bali from Hong Kong who wanted to avoid exposure to other people on a commercial flight. Charter company Victor recently had a film studio ask about flying 50 people to Los Angeles from Tokyo to limit interaction with other travellers.

Such inquiries are becoming more common after the novel coronavirus, which first emerged in central China in December, has since spread to six continents, operators say.

"The number of private jet requests have gone up - especially on long-haul flights," said Richard Lewis, US president of Insignia Group, which organises travel for wealthy clients. "They're not willing to share the cabin with other people."

It's not cheap, but can be relatively competitive with luxury commercial travel.

The cost of flying round-trip from New York to London on a 12-seat Gulfstream IV is about US$140,000, although squeezing that many people onboard removes some of the comfort factor. That compares with US$10,000 for a first-class ticket flying commercial, complete with a lie-flat bed.

For individuals and companies willing to pay extra, it's a way to minimise the risk of infection.

JetSet Group, a New York-based charter company that books roughly 150 flights a month, has seen business spike about 25 per cent in the last few weeks. Fear of the virus appears to be driving the demand, said founder and CEO Steve Orfali, based on customer feedback.

Many of his clients have medium-sized businesses and have to travel to see factories or stores. Others are considering it for family vacations.

People who don't normally fly private are also calling. Mr Orfali said he hopes they will become regular clients after experiencing the convenience and time savings of such travel.

Most operators realise that the extra demand generated from the coronavirus may be temporary, especially if the outbreak continues to pummel stocks.

Travellers who still need to get around are seeking out private jet operators to fill the void of suspended flights.

Vimana Private Jets, which charters trips for the uber-wealthy, has helped clients with business meetings in Beijing in recent weeks. The jets don't typically stay long on the ground in China. Instead they fly to Vietnam while they wait for the return leg to mitigate the risk of infection to crew.

Still, the logistics of flying into high-risk virus areas are becoming increasingly complicated, said PrivateFly's Mr Twidell. For one thing, it's often hard to find the aircraft or sufficient crew to fill all the requests.

"Operational protocols are changing daily," said Mr Twidell. "It's a very fluid situation."

Paramount Business Jets is getting a lot of requests to fly people out of Asia, said founder and CEO Richard Zaher. It's not easy. There are difficulties finding available aircraft and complying with new restrictions such as making sure passengers who have visited China have been out of the country and observed for 14 days without showing symptoms.

"Our clients are requesting aircraft that haven't flown to mainland China, for example, and are asking for a crew that has been temperature-checked," said Mr Zaher, whose Leesburg, Virginia company arranges about 500 flights a year.

Planes and their passengers must still respect any quarantined areas, and must undergo additional screening procedures for trips to and from risk areas.

Flights coming into the UK from such locations are subject to inspections by port authorities, whose powers include "detention of the aircraft, passengers, stores, equipment and cargo" if they constitute a danger to public health, according to the Association of Port Health Authorities' website. BLOOMBERG