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Flying out of the pandemic

Opting out of the airlines

We’ve all been paying some degree of attention to the TV news stories featuring addled/angered/recalcitrant/inebriated airline passengers acting up on scheduled flights. It’s disturbing to watch.
Arthur Karut

Although there is a certain entertainment value to watching passengers carrying on, yelling, and even growling, there’s nothing acceptable when it comes to assaulting and interfering with a flight crew.

Why are we seeing this relatively recent behavior? Some assert that there’s a higher representation of vacation travelers thanks to pent-up demand, and the peace of mind afforded by greater accessibility to vaccines against the persistent COVID-19 pandemic.

Unlike business travelers who previously made up the bulk of frequent flyers, some vacationers appear less familiar with the mores of passenger behavior. Throw in the emotional debate over mask-wearing and you have a recipe for misbehavior. And if unruly passengers are now being hog-tied with zip ties and duct-taped to their seats, what’s next?

One airline pilot summed it up by telling me, “It’s becoming more Jerry-Springer-esque back there.”

This all feeds into the traditional view that the hassles involving airline travel will prompt more and more individuals and businesses to use private travel, whether via privately owned general aviation airplanes, charter operations, corporate travel departments, or fractional ownership firms.

That view is being confirmed in spades, if membership-based companies like Wheels Up are any example. Wheels Up (NYSE: UP) lets its members fly in its 1,500-strong fleet of turboprops and business jets with just 24 hours’ notice—using an app. In a second-quarter 2021 earnings call, Wheels Up chairman and CEO Kenny Dichter said the company’s first half revenue was just less than $550 million, which was up almost 90 percent year-over-year. Membership grew 50 percent year over year and now exceeds 10,500. Flight legs were up almost 150 percent, to more than 18,000 in the second quarter. That’s a huge uptick, and fractional operations like NetJets have had similar success.

So, it’s no wonder that demand for qualified pilots is rising rapidly in the charter, corporate, and fractional ownership world. Meanwhile, the airlines are also hiring pilots—or calling furloughed pilots back into service. The slump in airline traffic has reversed, and to a significant extent, it’s all those vacationers who have helped create full cabins.

The market for used airplanes—from piston singles to big jets—is also on a tear, with a sky-high asking prices brought on by more prospects, low interest rates, and a shrinking supply of good used airplanes up for sale. And 2021 sales of new turbine airplanes—everything from Citations to Falcons, Gulfstreams, Phenoms, and more—have seen a pronounced boost. It seems we’re in a sort of boom in demand for pilots, private travel, and airplanes. All this, ironically, in the face of a pandemic that has suppressed other economic sectors.

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Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.

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