Even as scheduled commercial airlines are struggling to put extra capacity in the air, there's some glimmer of hope in the private charter space. Private charter operators say that the demand for leisure travel within the country has shot up by over 50 per cent compared to pre-COVID period. For instance, if a private charter operator was getting two-three queries per day for leisure travel, the number has gone up to 9-10 now.
Interestingly, most of these queries are coming from first-time travellers. "People who never travelled in private charters are booking seats as they have become wary of travelling in scheduled flights. A lot of people are trying to travel to places which are safe and where they can take a quick holiday that they have been missing out on for the past few months," says an operator.
The travel industry experts have been talking about the concept of "revenge tourism" for quite some time which is essentially the urge of tourists to make short visits to nearby destinations - places where one can reach in three-five hours. But the fresh demand for private charter services highlights that the tourists are willing to travel longer distances if they find those to be safe.
Operators say that most queries are coming for travel to Goa, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Even though there are international travel requests to Dubai, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Thailand as well but those are restricted since it requires permission from MHA (ministry of home affairs) and immigration authorities. These agencies are largely allowing essential travel on international routes.
Despite the rise in leisure travel demand, the charter operators are still nowhere near the number of flights that they were booking prior to the COVID period. For instance, 70 per cent of the demand which used to come from business travel has shrunk by over 50 per cent. Take Delhi-based operator JetSetGo. If it was operating 12 business-related flights prior to COVID, it can manage just about four-five flights now. "Business is down by 40-50 per cent. That's because everyone is doing meetings over video calls like Zoom etc," says Kanika Tekriwal, CEO and founder, JetSetGo Aviation.
For private charter operator, there's a double whammy of COVID and rise in competition from commercial airlines like IndiGo, SpiceJet and Vistara, which have also started private charter operations in order to capture the demand from HNIs (high net-worth individuals) and group corporate travel. "Since a large part of their (commercial airlines) fleet is lying idle, they don't want to turn down any opportunity in this challenging phase," says an aviation consultant.
Most airlines in India are flying at 30-35 per cent capacity due to weak demand for air travel, primarily from the corporate segment. This is despite government asking airlines to deploy 45 per cent of the approved capacity in the Summer schedule.
"Customers prefer smaller charters because of the better experience that they offer as compared to IndiGo and others who are flying narrow-body aircraft (A320s etc) for private fights," says JetSetGo's Tekriwal.
The business aviation segment has a fleet of over 350 aircraft, and most of which are still grounded due to low demand and flying restrictions across different states.