February 13, 2020 / 4:19 AM / 2 months ago

Interest in private jets surges as coronavirus keeps airlines away from China

MONTREAL/BEIJING/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - A drop in airline flights from China and Hong Kong due to the coronavirus is increasing demand for private jets as wealthy passengers try to get out, executives say, but travel bans and nervous crew have kept that from translating to more business.

FILE PHOTO: A passenger wears a protective mask as he walks through Hong Kong International Airport,following the coronavirus outbreak in Hong Kong, China, February 7, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo

The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 1,300 people in China, has led premium Asian airlines like Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd (0293.HK) and Singapore Airlines Ltd (SIAL.SI) to drastically cuts their flight schedules.

UK-based consultancy Ascend by Cirium said the number of flights scheduled to operate to, from and within China had dropped by 34% from Jan. 23 through Feb. 11.

Those cuts have left stranded passengers to rely on government-led evacuations. For those who can afford it, there are private jet charters carrying smaller groups and promising less risk of exposure to the virus, executives said.

Strict quarantine requirements, travel bans on Chinese citizens and concerns for crew safety have left only a limited pool of private jet operators willing to fly to China compared with the situation during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003, operators said.

“This time the operators and countries have put lots of restrictions on the usage of private jets to the countries affected by this virus,” said Logan Ravishkansar, chief executive of Singapore-based charter operator MyJet Asia Pte Ltd. “Business leaders are scared and confused to go in and out of Asia. Flight crews are afraid to fly as well.”

Private jet companies VistaJet and NetJets said they have suspended their China operations, while manufacturers Gulfstream and Bombardier Inc (BBDb.TO) canceled plans to market jets at this week’s Singapore Airshow.

“While we are receiving an uptick in inquiries, it has not amounted to more flights,” said Patrick Gallagher, president sales and marketing for Berkshire Hathaway Inc’s (BRKa.N) NetJets.

A South American government asked PrivateFly, a global booking service for charter flights, to set up four flights out of Wuhan, the Chinese city at the center of the coronavirus outbreak, although the request might not be possible, chief executive Adam Twidell told Reuters.

Onboard a private jet carrying passengers away from coronavirus outbreaks, the volunteer flight crew and passengers would wear masks that they change every hour, and a medical crew would be dressed in full protective gear, he said. After the flight, the crew get three weeks of paid leave but must stay close to home.

Unlike a regular business jet flight, passengers would serve themselves food from a spread laid out in the cabin. 

“Movement during the flight is kept to a minimum and there is very little interaction between anyone onboard to reduce any chance of infection,” Twidell said.

Jackie Wu, president of Hong Kong-based JetSolution Aviation Group, said her company had received a “significant increase of private flight charter requests,” from Asia.

The requests are mostly for flights departing from Hong Kong or China to destinations like Auckland, Taipei, Phnom Penh, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

She said she cannot fulfill about half of those requests because of travel bans on visitors from China.

Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal, Stella Qiu in Beijing and Jamie Freed in Singapore. Editing by Gerry Doyle

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