March 12, 2020 / 7:36 PM / 16 days ago

Business jet operators see demand surge on U.S. travel restrictions, coronavirus

MONTREAL/BEIJING March 12 (Reuters) - New U.S. restrictions on Europeans entering the United States are fueling additional bookings for business jet flights, which were already in higher demand this year because of coronavirus, executives said on Thursday.

Travelers are rushing to return to the United States before a 30-day U.S. ban starts on Friday on foreign citizens entering the country if they have traveled to Europe in recent weeks.

The U.S. order, announced Wednesday to curtail the coronavirus outbreak, applies to citizens of 26 European countries but excludes Britain and Ireland as well as American citizens.

"We're seeing a significant number of requests in the past few hours from Americans currently in Europe, looking to fly back to the U.S.," said Adam Twidell, chief executive of Private Fly, a global booking service for charter flights.

While airlines hit by the outbreak are bracing for a further blow from the new restrictions, Private Fly and others have seen higher demand this year from affluent customers keen to avoid commercial flights and potential coronavirus exposure.

Given market turmoil, it is not yet clear whether demand for private flights will translate into new orders for planes from jet makers like France's Dassault Aviation, Canada's Bombardier and Gulfstream.

"Business aviation follows the economy. If the economy does well, we sell more business jets. If the economy performs badly, we sell less," Dassault Aviation Chief Executive Éric Trappier told reporters earlier this month in Montreal.

But given the outbreak, "one would think that it’s safer to fly in a plane where there are fewer passengers than in a large plane with a lot of passengers," he said.

VistaJet said on Thursday that its total number of flights year-to-date have grown 16% on an annual basis, while private jet operator GlobeAir said on Wednesday its bookings jumped nearly 30% since the coronavirus started spreading widely in Italy and other parts of Europe.

Air Partner said on Thursday it has seen more requests for corporate shuttles due to coronavirus, while Canadian fractional charter company AirSprint has seen a 31% increase in flying in February, compared with the same month in 2019, said Chief Operating Officer James Elian.

Jackie Wu, president of Hong Kong-based JetSolution Aviation Group, said she is seeing more requests from companies and for longer-range travel from the United States.

"People were used to taking the bus. There’s a virus outbreak and now they say they will take a private car." (Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal and Stella Qiu in Beijing. Additional reporting by Jamie Freed in Sydney Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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