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Greenville Business Magazine

General Aviation becoming a more attractive option for air travel

By L. C. Leach III

While coronavirus (Covid-19) has affected revenue and passenger traffic at most commercial U.S. airports, the disease has turned into almost a blessing in disguise in the last few months to the world of general and business aviation.

Flight instruction for new pilots is up, first-time U.S. charters are reaching new highs, and, going forward, industry officials are poised to see the industry take off in ways that previously appealed to only a certain segment of people.

“Covid-19 has made travel by business jets a more attractive option than ever before,” said Joe Frasher, director of Greenville Downtown Airport (GMU). “We have definitely seen an increase in the use of charter aircraft.”

Prior to Covid-19, GMU had the distinction of being the busiest general aviation airport in South Carolina, with 63,477 operations in 2019, and flights to and from all 50 U.S. states.

And while GMU, like other general aviation airports, suffered a downturn in April and May in the early days of coronavirus, its traffic counts for July 2020 numbered 5,803 – more than 500 above the traffic count for July 2019.

“A good bit of this traffic can be attributed to our five flight schools, all of which are busy,” Frasher said. “And I would estimate that flight school activity makes up about 50 percent of our total traffic.”

Part of GMU’s increase in service is due to more first-time fliers and inquiries. While local general aviation charters can be expensive – with average costs ranging from $750–$5,000 per flight hour – they can also be cost-effective for on-demand fliers.

For example, Venture Aviation Group LLC, in Greer, which services GMU, experienced only a brief slowdown in its operations in the spring before returning to almost normal levels by August.

Company president David Knoblauch said the quick rebound had less to do with coronavirus plane safety than “the cost-saving of time-critical trips.”

“Suppose you just found out that you and two other people in your company need to be in Raleigh tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. for an important client meeting,” Knoblauch said. “Last minute, full-fare coach seats for three people on the airlines from here to Raleigh would cost $4,886. But we could fly everyone from Greenville Downtown Airport non-stop to Raleigh and back for just $1,700 in our Beech Baron. That’s a savings of 65 percent over the airlines.”

He added that even though commercial flights are usually cheaper when booked in advance or on a discount, private charters are becoming more attractive to clients who need to fly somewhere immediately, without risking their health on a commercial plane full of people.

“You’d be surprised how often we’re competitive with the airlines,” Knoblauch said. “We fly to 5,500 airports across the U.S., most of it non-stop – and in 22 years, we’ve never even lost a suitcase.”

Other general aviation companies in South Carolina also have bounced back with almost the same resiliency as Venture.

Signature Flight Support in Hilton Head, for instance, saw only a 10 percent drop in its operations from March-July 2020.

Beach Aviation Services in Myrtle Beach reported that by June of this year, the number of aircraft operations to and from the airport was down only 8 percent compared to June 2019.

And even Precision Air Inc., in Florence, which saw a drop of 85 percent in its traffic from March through June 2020, is seeing similar signs of recovery.

“We are not operating at 100 percent staffing, but are continuing to see an upward trend in the market,” said Todd Gibson, fixed base operator services manager for Precision Air.

And with first-time charter inquiries and demand on the rise, all three companies are anticipating a new and better future.

Eagle Aviation in Columbia has already taken a step toward that future by adding a Citation X – the fastest business jet in its class on the market – to its charter line for what company president Lee Thomas believes will be better times ahead.

“We have a lot (and I mean a lot) of ground to make up,” Thomas said. “But we have seen a 15 percent increase in new clients for 2020 versus 2019. And we are prepared for the coast-to-coast and East Coast demand we are anticipating later this year and next year.”

Until this demand happens, many general aviation companies across the U.S. have applied for the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, originally a $349 billion loan program backed by the Small Business Administration, and originating on April 3, 2020, from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

An additional $320 billion was approved three weeks later by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump to support Americans impacted by coronavirus.

Based on reports from the Small Business Association in Washington, D.C., almost 230,000 industries in the transportation and warehousing sector have applied for CARES relief – including Special Services Corporation (SSC), which routinely provides flight charters from both Greenville Downtown Airport and Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport.

“We have been able to retain all our employees during this very difficult time,” said Doug Goldstrom, SSC president of sales and marketing. “And over the past two to three months we have seen…about a 10 percent increase in new business. The third and fourth quarters of 2020 will be critical times since that is typically our busiest time of the year.”

In some parts of the U.S., that time has already begun.

New York City-based evoJets, for example, which provides private jet brokerage services to any destination in the world, reported that from January through July 2020, the company had surpassed its entire new client total for all of 2019.

And as autumn begins pressing close to the holiday season, and Upstate businesses eventually return to normal operations, Greenville Downtown Airport and all the charter services are hopeful to emerge from Covid-19 in 2021 better than they could have envisioned just a short time ago.

“I use charter services twice a month because in terms of time and money, it’s more efficient,” said Carl Stecker, founder of Net Profit, an asset-based lending company in Greenville. “And with health concerns regarding coronavirus, it’s even more of an incentive for me to use private flights.”

Frasher added, “Our traffic count for July 2020 was surprisingly a little higher than July 2019. And we expect our numbers to go up even more when businesses reopen and Covid-19 no longer impacts all travel destinations.”