As India slowly and shakily emerges from one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, travel as we have known it is still a way off. And while flying has resumed, it’s severely restricted—and stressful. It’s little wonder then that India’s wealthy are looking at private jets travel as a viable option. In fact, demand shot up nine-fold in the days just prior to lockdown, admits Kanika Tekriwal, CEO and founder of
JetSetGo Aviation, and they’re presently receiving about 20 enquiries every day. What’s more, close to 70 percent of these potential clients are brand new. “For the first time, we are seeing requests coming in from people who don’t always fly First or Business Class.” This sentiment is echoed by other private jet and flight charter companies, including Book My Charters. Founder and CEO Sachit Wadhwa confirms: “We have witnessed a surge of approximately 60 percent in charter inquiries since lockdown, largely driven by first-time private flyers. Most of these flights are one-way, and originate in Mumbai and Delhi.”
Given the confusing environment in India today in regards to aviation, more and more people are considering these expensive but exclusive options. After a strict two-month lockdown, the government allowed domestic flights to operate on 25 May but initial days were plagued with hundreds of cancellations. Even now, states across India are still figuring out how exactly to handle incoming passengers from other parts of the country in terms of screenings and quarantines. And international travel is an even bigger question mark, especially since the US, UAE and France have objected to Air India’s ongoing Vande Bharat flights in and out of their countries, while other airlines are still banned from India operations until at least 15 July. While private jets and charters still have to abide by the same rules as normal flights in terms of mandatory screenings and quarantines, the interest in and usage of them are largely driven by first-time flyers who are prioritising both safety and convenience.
“Private jets are a more dependable option,” elaborates Wadhwa. The obvious advantages: you can arrive at the airport about 30 minutes prior to the flight (versus the two hours required by commercial airlines); you avoid large crowds and long queues at the airport and in the aircraft; you travel only with passengers known to you; you are in charge of your schedule and itinerary, so you can fly non-stop from any destination in India to another at your own time. Prior to lockdown, according to Tekriwal, the majority of requests came in from people who had children studying abroad (especially London, Singapore and Australia) or elsewhere in India. “Eight-five percent of those flights carried just one to three passengers,” she says. Adults who were stranded while travelling for work, or those who were ill and away from their families also formed the early demand. Nowadays, however, Wadhwa explains, the profile of customers has changed. Today, the typical Book My Charters customer is above the age of 50 and looking to travel to a vacation home within India, to visit family, or urgently for business-related daytrip. Some wish to travel with pets. Goa is the number one destination of choice (no surprise there), and Dubai is likely to be the first international city to see traffic from India.
Increasingly, more and more Indians are planning leisure trips to ‘exotic’ international destinations, ready to take off as soon as the law allows. And high-end travel agents are witnessing this shift in demand first-hand. Ashish Chadha, founder & group managing partner of Gurugram-based Leisure Ways, has been busy creating customised trips for his private-jet clients. “Each trip is hand-crafted like a fine suit,” he says. “The surge in enquiries is almost entirely driven by wealthy fliers drawn to flying private because of health concerns, avoiding the crowds and queues involved in flying commercial. There are two predominant reasons—to see family or to escape from wherever they have knuckled down through the pandemic. The leisure queries are coming from nuclear families and small family groups in Delhi and Mumbai, looking to get away for up to a week to remote areas where the impact of the coronavirus has been low. So Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Seychelles and Kenya are high on the list, with Turkey soon making the cut. One particular client is very keen on a charter to Reykjavik in August. With charter companies wanting to make up for the slack, they are offering sops to make the proposition attractive and within the ballpark First Class commercial ticket price range. The major constraint is the absence of a recognised authority that can issue a Covid-free certificate which will be accepted by immigration authorities overseas.” The time from take-off in Mumbai to being in your villa at Soneva Jani is less than three hours!
Sure enough, secluded resorts are seeing tentative bookings from Indians who are eager to fly private and stay somewhere beautiful and comfortable, with an opportunity to enjoy nature and the outdoors. Often, they’re considering having family members from across India reunite at the destination, or to travel as a small group of family and #friendslikefamily. A recent Conde Nast Traveller India survey asked audiences where they most wished to travel to when restrictions were lifted—and a whopping 38 percent voted for the Maldives. Little wonder then, that resorts scattered across these beautiful islands in the Indian Ocean are seeing demands pour in from India (and Russia, of course). “The survey findings co-relate with what we are seeing in terms of demand from India, as travel to Europe and the US seems to be out of bounds,” says Sonu Shivdasani, CEO and joint creative director of Soneva, which has two luxe resorts in the Maldives. “As of writing, we have 75 leads from India. We specifically have eight enquiries for people who would like to travel on a private jet. Flying to our resorts on a private jet is convenient as it halves the overall travel time… The time from take-off in Mumbai to being in your villa at Soneva Jani is less than three hours! There is an international private jet airport on Maafaru Island, built by the ruler of Abu Dhabi as a gift to the Maldives. It accepts his personal Boeing 737 and it has an elaborate airport terminal. The airport is empty as there are very few arrivals, so there is no taxiing time or waiting time to land. You’ll be at Soneva Jani in just seven minutes. We are in discussions with a private jet operator and will be scheduling four return flights between Mumbai to Malé from the end of July through August.’’ As of today, the Maldives is accepting international tourists starting 15 July.
Another destination seeing interest from private-jet travellers from India is Africa, especially in countries with a well-developed wildlife circuit. Iconic safari camps in Kenya, South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, for instance, have always been popular with well-heeled Indian clients—and their focus on privacy makes them particularly suitable for travel in these times when social distancing is crucial. “The desire to travel to areas which reconnect guests to natural surroundings whilst simultaneously limiting the chance of coming into contact with Covid-19 along the way is spurring the demand for private-jet safaris,” says Hilton Walker of Great Plains Conservation. “We are about to launch our first 14-day safari from New York to Kenya, whilst simultaneously working on demand for London to Maun [in Botswana], and India to Kenya safaris too! The beauty of these trips is that they allow for small intimate groups to experience the best that African wildlife destinations have to offer, whilst enjoying seamless, point-to-point service from the moment they leave their home countries to the time they return… We have made adjustments and refinements, and will continue to do so going forward—but, ironically, it hasn’t really needed too much tweaking from what we normally provide because of the abundance of space, the politeness of our staff, and the open-air facilities. Still, we are following procedures taken at the finest hotels of the world, from our fellow colleagues at Relais & Chateaux and National Geographic Unique Lodges, and what Johns Hopkins Medicine and other high-end health facilities across the world recommend. So what you can expect from us is no compromise on our hospitality, and no compromise on your safety. It’s not that difficult; we’ve been doing it forever!”
That said, if flying private has caught your fancy, you needn’t wait until international borders open up: hotels in India are seeing a rising increase in private-jet travellers, especially for Goa, Rajasthan and Kerala. Luxury resorts such as RAAS Devigarh near Udaipur and Suryagarh in Jaisalmer are already in discussions with private jet and flight charter companies to work out special offers and packages, wherein guests could, for instance, share a private jet to fly in and out. “With Covid-19 cases rising, and cities preparing for further lockdown extensions, people want to get out at the very first opportunity. Some want to travel for leisure, but others are looking to temporarily move their work base,” explains Suryagarh’s managing director Manvendra Singh Shekhawat. “Due to the vast desert landscape and scattered, scarce population, the areas of Jaisalmer and Bikaner have been in large measure unscathed by the ravages of the virus. Our teams have been in strict quarantine on-premise for the past few months, and we have used this opportunity to institute best practices and protocols as directed by qualified authorities. With effective communication to our market, we are getting excellent traction with our guests. Private charters have been on the uptick for a while now, and the current situation has only underlined its relevance to the modern-age traveller who seeks sanctuary.”
Vikramaditya Singh, general manager of The Leela Palace, Udaipur, believes that the market for private air travel in India is set to grow exponentially: “Time, convenience, privacy and comfort—and now safety—are the drivers for luxury travel. It’s a no-brainer that private charters will be used much more frequently, not only by those who have ‘arrived’, but also the aspirational. These personas have high expectations and aren’t going to be told ‘no’ for anything. This luxury traveller identifies with our kind of palace hotel where everything is effortlessly bespoke—just a simple thing like breakfast that you can enjoy anywhere, anytime, for instance.” Singh is creating all-inclusive offers for guests (private charter flights for up to six people along with a top suite) for roughly the cost of what one might normally pay for the Presidential suite. “Most enquiries are for six to eight guests needing up to three suites for three nights. That’s the sweet spot in terms of a value proposition.”You’d be amazed at how many Indians don’t ask about the price…
Nature, space and the scenic outdoors are key to what affluent travellers are looking for, but another draw is wellness. Niraamaaya Wellness Retreats has outposts in Kerala, Goa and Kohima, and CEO Manu Rishi Guptha says he’s seeing a disproportionate amount of interest in visits via private jet and charter flights from across India, including smaller cities like Guwahati and Nagpur. “The possibilities are amazing,” he says, “Money isn’t an issue for these guests. They’re happy to pay for the ease of travel—for someone to arrange everything from driving them right to the tarmac, flying them to Kochi or Trivandrum, and taking care of them at a resort where everything is safe, clean and hygienic, where there are only 30 rooms spread over 30 acres of land. You’d be amazed at how many Indians don’t ask about the price; they just charge it to their American Express Black Cards. What is needed though, is a coherent and consistent state border policy from the government—and for them to give people a degree of confidence that they have things under control.”
It boils down to several factors: the number of passengers and travel days, type and size of aircraft, number of services needed, place of travel, layovers, landing and airport charges, etc. In general, prices start at Rs70,000 per hour for a turboprop (like a Falcon 2000/Challenger 605 seating 8 passengers) and go up to Rs6 lakh per hour for a 16-seater jet, to which airport and other landing charges will be added. (These vary dramatically from one airport to another, even within the same country.) Larger private jets can even cost Rs12-15 lakh per hour. Note that the flight duration is calculated from engine-start to engine-stop. So a Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi return flight on the Falcon 2000 would be calculated at a duration of five to six hours, and could cost Rs12-15 lakh. A Delhi-Bengaluru-Delhi return flight would be in between Rs12-18 lakh. A return flight from Mumbai to Malé on a Falcon 2000, for instance, would cost about Rs33 lakh all-inclusive, with two-night halt in Malé. The aircraft typically seats nine passengers and costs Rs3.5 lakh per hour.
If you imagine that flying private is going to become a habit, you could also consider “an all you can fly membership airline”. Sanket Raj Singh is the founder of Prince Air, which charges a monthly subscription fee of Rs1-2 lakh for unlimited flights between Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru. Their second phase will include Pune, Chennai, Hyderabad and thereafter Amritsar, Jaipur, Ahmedabad and Lucknow. Of course, you won’t be the only passenger on the aircraft (which seat 16-20 people) but the fleet is privately managed and operated; you will need to show up only 20 minutes prior to take-off and of course, you’ll avoid the crowds thanks to the private lounges with free Wifi and refreshments. Raj Singh estimates this package is 80-90 percent cheaper than the standard PJ costs—and provides all the desired benefits.
Flying private is definitely one way to get travellers moving again—so we can expect many more hotels to work with operators to create exciting offers and packages. Leisure Ways’ Chadha confirms: “We are expecting a spike [in bookings] in the later part of the year, from passionate travellers looking to celebrate with friends and loved ones—birthdays, weddings, vow renewals, proposals, reunions… or just because!” Travel may look different now than it has in the past, but that feeling of excitement, that unique and immersive experience, those opportunities to make lasting bonds and memories—those will continue, and perhaps feel even more special, whether you’re flying on a PJ or taking a humble road trip.