Hurricane Irma's threat to Florida boosts demand for private aviation charters

By Transportation FOXBusiness

A Gulfstream G550 jet comes in to land behind a Bombardier CRJ900 jet ahead of the Farnborough Airshow 2012 in southern England. (Reuters)

As Hurricane Irma approaches landfall in Florida, the demand for private aviation services in the Sunshine State is skyrocketing.

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Wealthy Floridians looking to escape the storm’s wrath are turning to corporate jet services to take them out of harm’s way, as major airlines cancel flights, airports close and Amtrak train service to the southern portion of the state (and to Savannah, Ga.) has been suspended until at least Sept. 13. As a result, private aviation companies have seen a surge in flight activity—some double to triple the norm for this time of year.

“The top 10, top 15 demand-driving days of the year tend to be around holidays and massive events like the Super Bowl, national championship college football, Masters, things like that. It has this weekend … a feel very much like those days, where everybody’s scrambling,” XOJET CEO Bradley Stewart told FOX Business.

The average cost of a flight from Florida to New York City operated by XOJET can range from $10,000 to $20,000, depending upon the type of aircraft used, according to Stewart. While a flight on a commercial airliner (in economy class, one-way) would cost $100-150 on average, some private jet charters are 20-30% more than the seasonal average.

A large majority of chartered flights leaving Florida are headed to the Northeast, where many members have second homes or friends and family. As a result of the surging demand, the cost to charter an aircraft in some cases has increased, while some companies even brought in other aircraft to get their members out of areas in the state.

“We chartered a [Boeing] 737 to make sure that we had the extra ‘lift’ in there flying out of Fort Lauderdale … to Newark. Some extra lift to accommodate every last member that needed lift out of there,” Wheels Up CEO Kenny Dichter told FOX Business, adding that despite the weather conditions, the company isn’t surging prices.

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Due to the limited availability of aircraft, as flight operations in other parts of the country not affected by the hurricane must continue, charter companies have seen members join forces, sharing spaces on their aircraft to transport others to safety.

“In some sense I would say this [situation in Florida] is like more than anything I’ve ever seen because it’s so compacted, there’s so many sort of demands on our fleets and on our partner fleets to get something done,” said Stewart, who added that the affected area is still a “relatively small geography” when compared to the company’s overall operations.

While motorists have seen fuel prices increase due to the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey on refineries in Texas, which left many pipelines starved of fuel, the issue in Florida isn’t necessarily the price of jet fuel (which did spike after Harvey), but rather access to the pumps, according to Stewart and Dichter. Currently, Jet A fuel at Fort Lauderdale airport ranges from $4.50 to about $6.50 per gallon, while the nationwide average is approximately $4.26 a gallon, according to AirNav.com, as of Sept. 9.

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