Virus could send charter, corporate aviation use skyward
There are not many people who can claim a ringside seat to aviation history, let alone two, but Troy Hogue is one such person. The Henderson State University graduate was a commercial airline pilot on 9/11, an event that so severely damaged the airline industry, it resulted in thousands of layoffs, Hogue included.
In 2020, as director of the Department of Aviation at his alma mater, he witnessed the arrival of the coronavirus in the United States, another landmark event that has already dried up commercial traffic and sent the airlines clamoring for federal aid. It also raises the possibility that one of the lasting changes of the pandemic could very well be an unprecedented consumer migration from commercial airlines to on-demand flights, be they charter or corporate.
“I think that’s a possibility, depending upon the variable we don’t know yet, and that is the recovery time from this pandemic,” Hogue said. “I think if this is a shorter duration, we might not see as much of a spike.
“But so long as this goes on, with social distancing we’re not going to want to rub shoulders with someone for good health reasons. The longer that’s prolonged I think the more likely you would see a spike in charter.”
The 2020 nosedive of commercial airlines has been steep and precipitous. According to data by OAG Aviation Worldwide, global-scheduled flight capacity the week of Jan. 27 was essentially flat compared to the same week one year prior. One week later, it was off 4 percent. One month later, 10 percent. By mid-March, scheduled flight capacity was off 12.4 percent, losing roughly 20 million seats around the world.
The U.S. airlines had actually gained capacity since the week of March 5 when year-over-year scheduled flights bottomed out at 2.1 percent below 2019. However, dark days lie ahead. VisualCapitalist.com reported March 18 – shortly after President Donald Trump announced a travel ban to Europe — that 40 percent of flights impacted by the ban are U.S. based.
Domestically, the news is equally grim, as carriers slash flights in a manner unprecedented since the blackout days following 9/11. USA Today reported March 18 the big three airlines gutted service across the board. United Airlines suspended 70 routes and cut six out of 10 flights in April, 40 percent of which were to U.S. and Canada destinations. Delta Air Lines, reeling from a $2 billion loss in March fares alone, cut 70 percent of flights and parked 600 planes, more than half its fleet. American Airlines followed suit with its competitors, grounding 450 planes — including regional jets, one-third of its fleet — and suspending 30 percent of April domestic flights with more expected for May.
By late March, as lawmakers quibbled over an industry bailout of some $50 billion, some experts predicted even that wouldn’t be enough to rescue the crippled giants.
These staggering numbers are one reason to speculate that the longer the pandemic goes on — and perhaps even after the tide has been turned — passengers may not automatically return to major carriers, opting instead for private flights.
“The market for this type of flight is steadily increasing,” said Summer Fallen, airport services manager for Fayetteville Executive Airport. “Companies are considering the value of their time more than ever. Charter options are more readily accessible, which opens the opportunity for those who have been considering the option.”
Even as a decidedly pricier ticket, corporate flying and charter flights deliver convenience that justify the higher fare to many, she said.
“About 50 percent of our traffic is corporate or private charter, with the primary benefits being convenience and customization,” she noted. “There are few limitations in this mode of travel. You choose where you would like to travel, when you’d like to arrive and depart, and the rest is taken care of. Obviously, this mode of air travel does come at a higher cost, but those who are able [to afford it] do see the benefit.”
Mark Haggenmacher, president of Air South Aviation Services, a Little Rock-based aircraft brokerage and acquisition firm, says on-demand flights were already enjoying a growth in popularity, especially in the corporate sector, prior to
“We certainly are all aware of the primary disadvantage of flying airlines — scheduling and crowds,” he said. “That notwithstanding, one of the most important reasons to have corporate airplanes is the ability to reach the airports that the airlines don’t reach — the small, the mid-sized; the Jonesboro, Arkansas; the Springdale, Arkansas, and Rogers, Arkansas.
“Corporate aviation allows you to reach something like 20,000 airports in the United States that aren’t serviced by the airlines … [where] you may be 100 miles from an airport that’s serviced by the airlines.”
Haggenmacher, noting aircraft sales had rebounded healthily since the market crash a decade ago, says on-demand flying also supports many businesses in Arkansas providing ancillary services. These include everything from flight schools to aircraft customization shops to fixed base operations (FBO) that provide a range of services such as fuel, hangars, maintenance and pilot amenities. An additional boost in on-demand traffic, he says, would bring its own set of challenges, namely personnel which is already in short supply.
“Qualified people are becoming harder and harder to find,” he said. “There is no good high school [aviation] program that I’m aware of. There are some good college programs such as in Arkadelphia that turn out pilots who are suitable to enter the commercial flying field basically the day they come out. But I would still say the biggest challenge we face in general aviation today is qualified pilots.”
Hogue agreed with that labor market assessment, even as his program at Henderson State has doubled enrollment in just the past few years. He said while graduates can’t walk into a corporate or charter pilot job right out of college due to the flying hours required in such jobs, more are entering college with such a career as their goal.
“[Corporate/charter is] becoming more of a destination for our students, and I think one of the reasons is the overall growth in aviation,” he says. “What I’m seeing is more of our students becoming interested in corporate aviation simply as they’re becoming more aware that aviation is a good career field.