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This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Jerod Davis, the owner of Southern Jet, a private jet charter company. The conversation has been transcribed and edited for clarity by Molly Olmstead.
We’re a private jet 135 operator, which gives us the right to manage airplanes and sell them for charter. We get clients out of everywhere. It’s mostly people with means, who have wealth and prefer the luxury of private travel. We fly a lot of families to family events, and we do fly a lot of business. A two-night overnight from South Florida to the New York area is roughly going to be in the low $20,000. And that’s for the midsize jet, and then it just goes up from there, I would say from around $4,000 an hour and up.
About two weeks ago, the requests and demands just increased tenfold. We’ve been busy the past three or four years, and that goes with the economy. But we would have to, you know, go out, and our sales forces would have to go find clients and book parties. And now the demand is basically coming to us. We might get five, 10 requests a day. And the request lines are just crazy right now. We’re booking out to where we don’t have any airplanes available. And that is never really the case in private charter. We never before booked out 30 days at max capacity. So it was kind of shocking. I think it was organic. We did put out a press release, saying, “avoid the congestion of airports,” that maybe got us a little more traffic. But the last thing we want to do is instill fear.
We’re seeing people that never flew private before flying private. There’s a lot of people in the country that have the means to fly private. It is expensive, but I think we’re getting a newer clientele into the market. And it’s addictive. Once you fly private and you see how efficient it is, a lot of people don’t go back. So that’s another reason why this could actually help our business.
We’re getting more of our regular customers, even, flying more. Let’s say instead of flying with their family, it’s just the father or the mom that needs to go somewhere, and maybe they’ll [normally] take an airline. And when they have their family, they go private. So instead, now we’re taking that mom or dad by themselves in a jet because they’re fearful of contracting it and passing it along to their family.
There are only 1,800 private jet operators, to my knowledge, in the United States. So believe it or not, sometimes you actually run out of private jets over the holidays. And that’s kind of what’s going on right now: There’s so much demand that they’re actually running out. If you wanted a private jet from New York, you might not be able to get one because they’re all booked up across the area. There might be an airplane available in California, but they’re not going to fly to Florida to pick someone up. So in certain areas, some companies are getting fully booked up.
And oil prices are going way down. So our margins are going to go way up: It’s our No. 1 cost. It’s just higher profits, very simple. So that has definitely helped our business. It’s almost like a perfect storm for us. And it’s a weird feeling, because most other companies are going to get severely hurt if this does get worse.
Let me be completely clear: There is a level of guilt, almost, from capitalizing on this much demand. I mean, nobody wants people to be sick. So it’s a really weird feeling for us. But if we can be an option, we hope to be a good option. We just want to let them know they have the option if they have the means to fly private. That they have the option of having the airplane to themselves. Anyone that has means, that’s maybe a little sicker or elderly, if they need to travel—a lot of them are choosing private travel.
And as a business owner and CEO, I want to get in front of things rather than be reactive and be proactive. So we implemented the highest level of sanitizing. Disinfecting in the airplanes, even though that may not be necessary yet. We’re taking an extra half-hour to an hour [after each flight], just to really clean down the airplane. And then we’re going to also detail the airplane on a more regular basis, just to be ahead of the game.
I’m a full-time pilot as well. I normally don’t fly as much as the rest of our team; I’m normally somewhat of our backup. But we’re so busy right now and of course don’t want to burn guys out. Every plane’s going to be booked up almost every day. So I’ll step in and take trips. Today, I’m in Boston. I land in Florida tonight. And I go back out tomorrow and come back Monday, and then I may have another guy cover me so I may get some days off and so I’m getting in the office and making sure everything is running smoothly. And then I’ll probably have to cover another guy.
The best-case scenario of all this is that it’s a scare. And then it goes away, and all the clients that we picked up because of this stay with us because we did a great job and they realize how great private travel is. We don’t want this to get worse. We have a heart. But it’s a weird situation. We never foresaw something like this happening.
For more on the coronavirus and its impact, listen to a clip from this week’s Political Gabfest.