PORTSMOUTH — A Pease-based charter company saw an uptick in its services this summer as COVID-wary air travelers sought a way to avoid crowded airports and commercial planes.
“I hear people say, ‘Money is no exception, it doesn’t matter.’ They want to make sure that they are on a safe and healthy and sterile and clean aircraft that is essentially their own,” said Krysie Berry, operations manager for Air New England.
Air New England, based at Portsmouth International Airport, has three aircraft available for on-demand charter.
When COVID-19 started to take hold in the U.S. in March, customers canceled charter plans, according to Berry. But as lockdown and quarantine restrictions lifted in the spring and summer, customer interest picked up with a vengeance.
“We did see a drop for a couple of months, then a really big pick up around June and July with people that really wanted to get out of the house,” Berry said.
According to Berry, it wasn’t just vacationers – traveling as couples or as families — who wanted to take advantage of the service that kept them out of commercial flights, but businesspeople as well on day hops to a particular destination.
Privately chartered or owned aircraft is seen as an antidote to the anxiety of pandemic travel. Some travelers see exposure to airport terminals and commercial airlines as being too close for comfort. Because the virus is highly contagious and potentially fatal, social distancing and masks are recommended defenses.
Pease is also home to PlaneSense, which provides fractional ownership of aircraft. Like Air New England, it saw a significant drop in business as COVID throttled nearly every sector of the economy. It, too, has rebounded, according to president and founder George Antoniadis.
“PlaneSense is very fortunate that through our business model, and the attraction of private flying, we have managed to weather this,” Antoniadis said.
With fractional plane ownership, multiple owners share the cost of purchasing, leasing and operating the aircraft. Owners are allocated of time on the plane based on the size of the share.
“The coronavirus has changed operations and business travel,” said Antoniadis, adding that especially for essential personnel “this continues to be needed to move people from point A to B, and we represent one of those solutions.”
A recent CNBC report noted the country’s four largest airlines together lost more than $10 billion in the last quarter, while screenings over the summer by the Transportation Security Administration at U.S. airports were at about 30% of last summer’s levels. Some analysts cited in the report said global airline travel won’t return to 2019 levels until at least 2024.
Air New England’s reach is mostly regional – Nantucket, the Hamptons, upstate New York, Nova Scotia and locations in Maine, in particular Islesboro, a town on an island in Penobscot Bay, accessible by ferry or small plane. Occasionally, according to Berry, flights are chartered for longer hops – Maryland, for example, and Ohio.
While the operation is based at Pease, not all flights originate here. The charter work is like a taxi service. The plane often flies to an airport closest to the customer then takes them to their destination.
Air New England has a COVID protocol it follows for each charter, according to Berry, that includes a deep cleaning before and after every flight, as well as a COVID kit for each passenger that includes a mask, sanitizer, etc.
“We’re doing everything we can to help our passengers – and all of our people – and give them what they may need,” she said.
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