COVID-19: More New Zealanders look to charter private jets during pandemic

More New Zealanders look to charter private flights as sector hit by Covid-19.
Photo credit: Getty

By Anan Zaki of RNZ

More New Zealanders are looking to charter private flights as the sector reels from the effect of COVID-19.

Border closures have meant the luxury travel option - estimated by industry insiders to be worth about $100 million a year - has shrivelled following the loss of international visitors.

Operators say rising domestic interest will not fill the gap and the border should open to rich tourists ready to splash out on a private jet.

In Auckland, corporate jet handler Air Center One is used to bringing in premium visitors to New Zealand. During peak travel periods pre- COVID, it used to get about five international flights a week.

Chief executive Robin Leach said that all changed this year.

"The international market took a severe hit with the borders being closed and the numbers of private and business corporate jet arrivals here just fell away dramatically... a 100 percent slow down," he said.

Leach said since then, the only international flights have been a limited number of repatriation trips.

At another operator, Inflite Charters, the company has had to undergo major restructuring due to the fall in international visitors, according to its charter manager Paul Aston.

"It's virtually dried up, certainly anything coming to New Zealand is zero. We've got a lot of inquiries, we got a lot of people wanting to and I am fielding emails from overseas people daily," Aston said.

"Obviously they can't [enter] because of the border restrictions," he said.

Aston said the dwindling international market - coupled with a perceived health risk on big airlines - means the sector is attracting newer domestic customers who want to travel with their own bubble.

Travellers cannot only use private flights, but also terminals, meaning they are separated from the rest of the flying public.

"We have been and currently are lifting the profile and that is one of the things that is very important to us to say; 'hey we are here, we are an option for anyone wanting to move around especially in these uncertain times when people's safety and health is paramount,'" Aston said.

Annabel Toogood, a director at Hawke's Bay-based Skyline Aviation, said it too is seeing more interest from Kiwis wanting secluded domestic travel.

"Look, it certainly changed the clientele," she said.

"Obviously, there's no international tourism coming into the country and we did see a demand for that in our charter markets before Covid, and now we're seeing that change and that clientele to be New Zealanders."

Air Centre One's Robin Leach said the air charter sector would eventually need the borders to reopen to survive, and called on the Government to look at bringing in premium travellers.

"We're incurring some pretty horrendous debt levels here by the Government level and probably at the private enterprise level," he said.

"So we need to earn some income and we need to earn it from the people who can pay the best premium price for travelling to New Zealand," Leach said.

He said premium traveller numbers would be easier to manage, while also benefiting the economy.

Leach said the industry needs these border changes to happen as soon as a new Government is elected.