We are approaching the time of year when private jet travel reaches its peak levels of demand. In the US, the Christmas and New Year holiday season sees the most private flights. Here’s a look at what this means if you plan to charter, or use your jet card or fractional program.
This high demand season really starts with flights around the Thanksgiving holiday, then continues over Christmas and New Year, and sees another surge around Presidents Day weekend in mid-February. On the days around all these holiday periods there are many more flights than normal, so hourly charter prices increase, and jet card and fractional owners need to provide more notice to book their flights.
During normal, non-peak, days the notice period to have guaranteed availability at fixed hourly rates varies from under 4 hours to over 72 hours, depending on which program you use. This call out time increases for peak days and is typically in the range of 48 to 120 hours.
What Are Peak Days?
The number of people who want to fly during the major holidays increases significantly, compared to regular travel days. As a result of this demand, the private aviation companies designate certain days as “Peak Days” or “Peak Travel Days” or “Peak Period Days” or “Heavy Demand Days”. The number of these days varies by program. Some programs have zero peak days. Other may have over 50 days a year.
The days include the busiest days such as the days immediately before and after Thanksgiving, days just before and after Christmas, the first few days or first weekend in the New Year, Presidents Day and the Friday before it. Other days that may be included are further days around Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year and Presidents Day, plus MLK day, Spring Break weekends in March, Easter, Memorial Day, and around the Fourth of July.
Fractional Aircraft Ownership
Fractional ownership programs typically have some of the shortest notice periods for guaranteed access – the amount of time you need to book ahead. They also have fewer peak days than jet card and membership programs. Some example programs are:
NetJets fractional owners have 10 peak days, which require 48 hours advance notice to book a plane. This compares to non-peak days when aircraft can be available with as little as 4 hours’ notice.
Patrick Gallagher at NetJets told us “There is a lot of demand variability by day of week. Thursdays and Sundays are typically our busiest days and a Sunday can see 50% more customer demand than Saturday - typically our lowest volume day. Depending on where a holiday falls, Peak Periods change those demand patterns considerably as a long weekend will push more demand to Monday. The busiest day on our calendar every year is the Sunday after Thanksgiving. This year, we are forecasting a 50% increase over what we would see on a typical Sunday. You can imagine the amount of preparation that it takes to ensure we deliver for our Owners during these periods. It is truly “all hands on deck”.”
The PlaneSense fractional program offers Pilatus PC-12 turboprops and PC-24 light jets, and also has only 10 peak days annually with no blackout dates. “On these peak days, we require just 48 hours’ notice for flight reservations and may need to move departure times by three or four hours,” said George Antoniadis, President & CEO, PlaneSense, Inc. “This allows clients to continue to fly on their schedule on peak days but allows us to meet demand by building in the flexibility of departure times on the most heavily traveled days each year,” he added.
In referring to the upcoming peak holiday season, George Antoniadis stated “Like others in the industry, we saw flight volumes drop significantly in the early weeks of the pandemic. Flight volumes are nearly back to normal, running 85 to 90 percent of this time in 2019. We expect those levels to remain about the same given that coronavirus cases are on the rise in many parts of the country.”
For non-peak days, PlaneSense requires just 12 hour notice periods.
At Airshare there are no specific peak days in their day based fractional ownership program which offers Phenom 100 and Phenom 300 light jets. The program also says to just “notify as soon as possible” for travel on these days.
“In our program, we typically see a 25-30% increase in flights over peak travel days, especially during November and December. The spike is primarily due to customers traveling to their vacation homes during the holidays, along with it being the beginning of ski season as Colorado is one of our most frequented destinations,” said John Owen, President & CEO of Airshare, adding “Of course, we have a lot of customers who prefer to escape to warmer weather in places like Mexico and the Caribbean.”
In terms of expectations for the current busy season John Owen notes “Over the holidays we expect travel for us to be at or above normal levels because not only will our typical leisure customers be vacationing, but our business customers have been traveling a lot more for leisure as well. I talk to many of them frequently and I know they’re antsy. Since the pandemic began, we’ve seen the largest increase in hours associated with leisure travel as customers still want to vacation with their family or friends, but aren’t willing to assume the higher risk of exposure by flying commercially.”
Flexjet also designate 10 days as peak days in their fractional ownership and lease programs, and have a 48 hour notice period to schedule travel on these days. Like other major providers they say they “reserve the right to accelerate or delay your departure time by up to three hours" on these 10 days.
Jet Cards & Memberships
The number of peak days can vary quite a bit between different card and membership providers. Similarly, the notice period required to reserve a plane at guaranteed rates for these peak days also varies from program to program.
For example, flyExclusive offers two “Jet Club” membership programs. They have either 15 or 20 peak days, and the notice periods are 120 hours for guaranteed access at fixed rates on these days.
At WheelsUp the notice periods for members on peak days are also 120 hours, compared to as little as 24 hours on regular days. The number of peak days varies based on the level of membership and the amount of pre-paid deposits. With a Business Membership and $100,00 deposit there are 20 peak days, but there are 35 peak days for those members who pay as they fly and have no pre-paid deposit.
NetJets has a few different jet card programs. The Marquis Card Classic program has a peak day notice period of 120 hours on 30 peak days. The NetJets Elite Card has up to 45 peak days which have a 120 hours notice period and a peak surcharge. Patrick Gallagher told us “Our leisure travel is up year over year and is offsetting a large amount of our business travel. We have experienced a significant increase in new customers joining NetJets since the pandemic - three times as many new customers joining year to date than we saw last year. Most of those leisure travelers are starting with 25-hour NetJets Marquis Cards, which allow for Peak Period travel, but include more restrictions than our shared ownership programs ensuring that we don’t overextend our operations.”
For Flexjet card holders the notice period on the 40 peak and heavy demand days is just 48 hours, so shorter than other providers, but the flipside of this is the peak surcharge that is charged to card holders flying on these days.
At Air Partner, the card holders can reserve planes with 96 hours notice on the 53 peak days, and there is a 5% premium on these days. "We encourage members to book as far in advance as possible to ensure they receive the aircraft of choice for their travel plans. While availability is guaranteed during peak travel season, we highly recommend booking in advance given the increased interest in flying private due to COVID-19," said David McCown, President Air Partner Americas. "If a client wishes to use a larger jet than usual to accommodate more family members, there are no exchange ratios or added fees. Unlike other groups where clients are billed separately for using additional cabin sizes outside of what was originally purchased, all Air Partner flight costs come from the same funds within the account," he added.
David continued "We typically see a 15-20% increase above normal levels; however we expect more this year as a result of Covid-19. Interest in holiday travel has increased substantially due to the lifting of restrictions and consumers’ growing confidence in safety measures."
Sentient jet card programs offer access in as little as 10 hours during normal days, but this rises to 72 hours on the 21 peak days and there’s also a 5% surcharge for travel on these peak days.
For those planning to charter a plane over the holiday period, then expect to pay higher hourly rates and you will have more choices if you look into arranging your flight as early as possible.
“If you’re looking to fly charter it behooves you to plan now and have a conversation” said Brad Blettner, SVP at flyExclusive, one of the largest charter providers. “We’re already seeing an uptick for the November 20th – 29th window, it’s really going up at the moment” he added.
This increase in peak holiday travel for charter aircraft is a consistent pattern, year after year. The demand graph in this earlier article, shows charter requests for light jets, midsize and heavy jets all hitting an annual peak over the Christmas season.
A good overall summation of seasonal expectations came from Patrick Gallagher, who said “Our goal is to make travel on the busiest day of the year feel the same as traveling any other time. That being said, industry infrastructure is put to the test during these times, particularly when the weather doesn’t cooperate. FBOs can get backed up meaning fueling and deicing delays can occur. The air traffic control network can also experience back-ups, though with commercial schedules reduced so significantly this year due to the pandemic, that may not be as big a problem as we have seen in the past. NetJets leverages its scale and experience to plan for all of this, but a little flexibility and patience doesn’t hurt.”
When you’re looking at private aviation programs, the decision as to whether having no peak days works for you, or you are comfortable with 50 peaks days, really depends on your travel plans and on all the other terms of a fractional or card program. In other words, while this is an important item to be aware of and to consider, you need to look at it holistically with all the other terms of the membership program.
But, do be aware that demand increases, so if you are planning to travel, plan ahead and book early. And being flexible on your plans may get you a long way.