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In a difficult period for commercial airlines, the demand for private flights is skyrocketing as travelers seek safety alongside luxury. Commercial airlines are still seeing passenger traffic 55% below pre-pandemic levels, while small planes—those carrying four to seven passengers—are down only about 10%, as reported by Axios in March 2021. Some are even experiencing a boom; Sentient Jet sold pre-paid Jet Cards worth $450 million in 2020, 50% more than usual. “We went from being a bit of luxury to now being a utility,” Sentient Jet CEO Andrew Collins told the news website.

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Aero is a new semi-private luxury jet startup launched by Uber cofounder Garrett Camp. With small 16-seat jets and white-glove service, Aero promises spacious cabins and crowd-free private airports and lounges for a “low-contact getaway.” The company raised $20 million in Series A funding in March, after its first US flight took off in February. Aero has plans to open new US and European routes later this year.

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Wheels Up

Wheels Up is democratizing private aviation. Dubbed the Airbnb of private flying, the company, which originally launched in 2013, has seen a surge of growth over the past year. In February 2021, Wheels Up went public with a $2.1 billion valuation—more than twice its 2019 value. In November 2020, Wheels Up began selling one-year memberships at Costco and in March this year, it partnered with Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts in one of its largest hotel partnerships to date.

“2020 was the beginning of a big democratization for us,” Kenny Dichter, founder and CEO of Wheels Up, told CNBC. “We saw so many new people who had never flown private before actually pick up and either join Wheels Up or come on to the platform and fly.”

GrandView Aviation is rapidly expanding its private jet service and charter operations. In 2020, the company doubled its fleet of private jets and has also opened several new bases over the past few months to satisfy growing demand. It began operating out of Los Angeles, Atlanta and Boston in March, after opening a new base in Denver in February.

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JetBlue Mint private suites
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Commercial airlines are pivoting to capture some of this activity. Delta loyalty program members may soon be able to redeem points for private jet flights as part of a partnership with Wheels Up launched in 2020. JetBlue is attempting to recreate the privacy and space found on private planes with its new in-sky suites. Unveiled in March, the new Mint class includes 24 private suites, which each feature a sliding door and fully reclining seat that transforms into a bed.

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Private flying may be here to stay. According to a survey by Private Jet Card Comparisons, 96% of first-time private fliers said they planned to continue taking charter flights—at least occasionally, if not for every flight—even after COVID-19 travel restrictions ease. Of those who said they’d continue chartering flights, 41% plan to fly privately on a regular basis from now on.

The rise of private flying points to a new health-luxe class of travel. As Lee Applbaum, chief marketing officer at Wheels Up, told Conde Nast Traveler, “those who previously considered private flying a luxury now see it as a necessary means of travel.”

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