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Silver lining to Europe ash cloud for private jets

Now that air restrictions are slowly being lifted as a result of the volcano ash cloud, the private jet industry is banking on the airlines' backlog to pick up travelers willing to pay almost any price to get home or make that crucial meeting.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For those with deep pockets, there was one way to beat the ash cloud hovering over Europe: hire a private jet.

Seizing their chance, operators — who had been suffering from a slump in demand due to the global economic crisis — tried to meet a surge in flight requests and make a bundle using their privileged access to the few airports that remained open.

Now that restrictions are slowly being lifted across the continent, the industry is banking on the backlog that passengers face on regular airlines to pick up travelers willing to pay almost any price to get home or make that crucial meeting.

And it's not just executives who've scrambled to the exclusive end of the aviation market. Athletes, opera singers and even holiday makers booked themselves onto private jets when all else failed.

"We've had calls from 6 a.m. to midnight," said Eymeric Segard, founder of Geneva-based LunaJets SA. "It's been absolutely hectic."

The company saw a 50 percent rise in demand during the airspace shutdown compared with the previous week, he said. A one-way journey Wednesday from London Luton to Teterboro, N.J., cost $33,400 for the entire 15-seater jet, while 12 seats on the lesser-traveled route from Boston to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, could be had for $53,500.

Companies deny they are asking for higher prices because of increased demand — but say that when supply runs low customers may find themselves bidding on the few remaining seats available.

Among the discrete world of private aviation no names were mention. But those who had to resort to its services included Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru, who said organizers of the London Marathon have arranged for a jet to fly him and two other Kenyan runners to Europe in time for Sunday's race. Segard said his company flew an opera singer to Moscow, but declined to provide details.

Faced with many of the same airspace restrictions as larger rivals like British Airways and Lufthansa, private jet companies took advantage of far-flung airfields and unusual routes to get around Europe while staying within the boundaries of the law.

Some European countries allowed planes to fly beneath the clouds under so-called "visual flight rules," while others only permitted non-commercial flights — a tempting business opportunity for airplane owners willing to bend the rules by taking paying customers.

"Clearly, no reputable private jet charter operator would take risks that a commercial airline wouldn't take," said David E. Anderson of aviation consultants SH&E in New York. Still, charter companies have much greater flexibility because of the premium they can demand to make the seemingly impossible happen, he said.

Among LunaJet's customers were 10 desperate pharmaceutical executives who drove from Vienna to Montpellier, France, where they were then able to catch a private jet back to Boston.

"It was a beautiful plane as well, but they would have flown in anything," said Segard.

Antonia Tomkova of Grossmann Jet Service, a Czech company that operates three business jets, said its planes were able to fly people to destinations that big aircraft couldn't reach during the height of the grounding last Friday.

Private charter company Hangar8, based in Oxford, England, said it too was able to accommodate many flight requests. Other operators complained they were hampered by the wide variation in airspace restrictions from country to country.

Premiair, which offers helicopter charters, said it was able to fly customers around Britain, to Ireland and the Netherlands, but not France because authorities there only allowed non-commercial flights.

Dan Ene, director of Dasson Helicopters Romania said demand rose sharply over the weekend, with some requests coming from as far away as the Spanish island of Tenerife. "But we could not fly," he said. "The same control tower that gives the go ahead for planes deals with helicopters too."

Anderson, the consultant at SH&E, said the private jet bonanza will likely be short-lived and won't benefit all of Europe's 200 operators, who have been suffering the effects of high fuel costs and the economic downturn over the past two years.

The high cost of private air travel is also likely to dampen demand as European skies return to normal. A Transatlantic flight can be two to five times as expensive as equivalent business class seats according to Anderson.

For now, the industry is operating flat out, matching stranded clients with free seats on planes wherever possible, said LunaJet's Segard.

In some cases that involves a little haggling.

"It's still a luxury service because there's a very high demand," he said. "There are some passengers chartering a flight from New York to Nice, and we told them there's one stranded executive who wants to go back home. He was willing to pay euro10,000 and they took it."

Some requests however are simply too hot to handle, said Segard. "You do have people who are desperately keen and adventurous and willing to take risks. They called us and ask us if we know somebody who can fly at low altitude, but we just said no. If you're stuck somewhere just get a book and relax."