Coronavirus In India: Super-rich left stranded as private jet operators say no to travel

By Anurag Kotoky

Private jet operators are turning away wealthy clients as coronavirus-related travel bans restrict their ability to operate, despite a surge in requests from people willing to shell out as much as $150,000 to secure a spot on their planes.

Inquiries for international flights on private jets have shot up ninefold, said Kanika Tekriwal, founder of New Delhi-based JetSetGo, as individuals with vast financial means try to escape virus hot spots. One of her clients, an Indian tycoon, tried to book a jet to fly with his family to New Delhi from London last weekend, but he remains stranded in the U.K. after a sudden travel suspension in a stopover country came in just half an hour before they were due to depart.

India then announced a ban on flights from Europe and the U.K. on Monday, potentially leaving the tycoon stranded in London indefinitely. The India ban comes into effect Wednesday.

“Rules are changing every half an hour,” Tekriwal said in an interview Monday, declining to identify the tycoon because of client confidentiality. “No one knows who’s changing what, some countries are suddenly not allowing pilots of some countries, some countries are not allowing aircraft of some countries.”

India extended its ban to countries including Malaysia and the Philippines on Tuesday, as confirmed coronavirus cases in the country rose to 125.

The pandemic, which has killed more than 7,000 people and infected over 1,82,000, has driven aviation into an unprecedented crisis that, according to Sydney-based CAPA Centre for Aviation, could push most of the world’s airlines into bankruptcy by the end of May as governments hastily impose entry and quarantine rules. The private jet industry isn’t immune to those restrictions, even as inquiries surge about bookings, including from Americans in Europe.

“There is a new directive or advisory coming out every day,” said Rajan Mehra, who heads business aviation company Club One Air. “Tourism is practically frozen for the time being and corporates are not traveling at all unless they have to.”

JetSetGo’s Tekriwal, who oversees a fleet of 28 private aircraft, said the surge in inquiries is essentially for one-time flights back home so it doesn’t reflect healthy demand. Overall, 87% of scheduled bookings with her company have been canceled, she said. Mehra’s company, which operates 10 planes, has seen travel decline as much as 70%.

“We are extremely worried as to what the future holds, how we’re going to pay salaries,” Tekriwal said. “It’s a ripple effect. If industries and corporates don’t do well, where will they get money to pay for us? We’re considered a luxury, a high-cost industry, so we get hit first.”

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