In the four decades it’s been in existence, Omni Air Charter has withstood economic ups and downs, stepped-up regulatory presence and rising equipment and fuel costs. But 2020 was something altogether different, according to Toni Finkbeiner, co-owner.
“Initially, when we started out, we were of the mindset that people aren’t going to want to fly commercial, so this might actually pick up our business,” she said. “But that didn’t happen because everything just came to a halt. People found ways to connect with Zoom or whatever. They just did not go anywhere.”
Finkbeiner said losing the corporate traveler cost the Little Rock charter service, which serves a market area predominantly in Arkansas and adjoining states, roughly 80 percent of its business. And even as other parts of society started to come back, such was not the case for aviation.
“I wouldn’t say it’s improved even now,” she said. “Even since things are kind of getting back to normal, it’s almost like those [virtual meeting] things are in place, and it’s not as urgent to deal with people in person because we’ve got all of these new ways to communicate now that weren’t really utilized before. Our business really hasn’t picked up as much as we would have hoped at this point.
“We still have the occasional same type of charters that we’ve always had, like taking a family on their vacation for a week or so. They’re filling up the whole plane, and they’re still doing those kinds of things, but nothing like it was.”
Across the country, the story has been largely the same for aviation in general and charter outfits in particular. Fearful of the spread of COVID-19, corporations curtailed business trips in favor of virtual meetings. In some cases, the business has returned; in others not so much.
Dick Holbert, CEO of Central Flying Service in Little Rock, said corporate business was down by about half. “I think about 47 percent to be more precise,” he said. “It’s starting to show signs of picking up now, but we’ve got a long way to go before we get back to pre-pandemic levels.
“It was obviously pandemic-related, and it was kind of interesting because you would have people who wanted to go somewhere, but then they’d cancel the trip because they found out that the location they were going, the hotel for example, was shuttered, and there was no place to stay. You had situations like in the Northeast where they had a two-week quarantine if you entered or left the state. So, that was a chilling situation for travelers.”
Corporately owned aircraft also logged fewer miles in 2020, but signs are that this segment of the market is coming back.
“From a business side of it, you had Zoom meetings, and the need or desire to go someplace during the pandemic was muted,” Holbert said. “You had the whole issue of where can I go? Do I need to go that badly? That’s even true of the people that own the airplane and didn’t have to worry about the transit. They just had to worry about what are they going to do when they got there.
“Now, I’m privy to fuel sales of other operators in our business around the country, and they have seen their fuel sales reach back up. I think maybe they’re, on balance, maybe 10 percent down from pre-pandemic. So that’s a pretty good rebound. That shows that people are flying.”
Not unlike the virus itself, seemingly no one was immune to the market forces the pandemic wrought. Flight Global magazine reported in September 2020 that industry giant NetJets, the world’s largest business aircraft operator with a fleet of more than 750 jets, plummeted 90 percent from 400 daily North American flights to 40 year-over-year between mid-March and mid-April. Rival Flexjet hit a similar wall with only about 20 percent of flight volume compared to 2019.
Holbert said regulatory entities didn’t help the situation, in part due to their own challenges with COVID, but also due to a bureaucracy that has stymied the recovery.
“I’ve got an airplane that we are putting on our charter certificate; that means the FAA has inspected it and blessed it and said you can fly this for hire,” he said. “It’s a larger jet, and it requires approval by the TSA [Transportation Security Administration], because we have to check the no-fly list. We get five passengers on board; we have to know who they are, and we have to check to make sure they’re not on the no-fly list.
“TSA has to approve the individuals who will actually make those calls to see if the passengers are on the no-fly list, and they’re our pilots, basically. Our pilots had to go to Memphis to get fingerprinted. We have had all our paperwork in to the TSA for at least, I’m going to say two months. There is one person that we’re dealing with in Washington, D.C., who cannot seem to get around to approving us. So, we’ve got a large jet that is not available for charter because we’re waiting on the TSA to say go. I can’t imagine an excuse why they haven’t said it.”
The cruelest trick of all is that the industry began 2020 at its healthiest in some time. Chad Cox, president and director of aviation for Summit Aviation/Runway Group, said that was the case for the Bentonville outfit.
“Until mid-March, we thought this would be the year to eclipse all years in terms of operations,” he said. “Then, bam! COVID comes along, and we stopped all of our in-house flying from March 14 until May 4. When we did get back to flying, masks became mandatory, and sanitation of the planes was added as part of our pre-flight/post-flight.”
As a fixed base of operations (FBO), Cox said the company had other revenue streams upon which it could rely.
“We did see some of our club members and flight students take a pause, but those spots were filled with others who were on the waitlist,” he said. “At the end of the day, 2020 was our best year in terms of hours of instruction and fuel sold.”
Cox said creative management and adjustment of existing services also helped take the edge off of the pandemic-related slowdown.
“We split our maintenance department into two distinct teams to prevent a potential full shutdown on maintenance,” he said. “The business jet traffic was down but filled with more sales of smaller aircraft. Charter needs increased, so we spent much of the year overhauling our charter program to put us in a better position to provide more charter services in 2021 and beyond.
“OZ1 Flying Club is a part of our ecosystem, and club events became less about getting together in the club lounge and more about fly-out events where people can distance. We continued to grow the club to a membership now beyond 250 aviation enthusiasts.
“The overall view is positive. Because of the adversity experienced last year, aviation companies have found ways to adapt. We think we are in a better position to succeed than ever.”
Despite the stagnation in her business, Omni’s Finkbeiner shares such optimism for the future. In many ways, her only option is to think positively, she said.
“I’m always optimistic. I mean what else can you do?” she said with a laugh. “It’s just the two of us, my husband, Chris, and I, and we have two aircraft on charter. We’re getting more calls, more interest anyway. So, we’re hopeful, is the best I can say.”