Due to the global slowdown, a new trend is gaining popularity among the world's jet setters – plane pooling.
Faced with the growing challenges of an uncertain economy and the desire to appear more prudent in the face of an international financial unease, the well-heeled are rallying around and coming up with ways to cut costs without forfeiting the luxury and comfort they have been accustomed to.
And sharing private jet spaces, it seems, is the way to go.
This is how it works: An executive joins a network of jet users who share a passion for private aviation. They exchange trip details. Together, they come up with ways to share cabin space on set dates and to particular destinations. This way, they can keep their budgets down while still enjoying the luxury of private air travel.
One company encouraging this trend is London-based PrivateJetShare.com, which is all set to launch its first bookable flight to Dubai from London. A private jet club, the firm's USP is selling individual seats on chartered private jet flights, according to its managing director, Alex Hunter. "This works very well when a lot of people are moving from one location to another especially for an event or party," he says. "It's a good way to reduce cost yet maintain the benefits of private travel. It's all about comfort and convenience, not really ultra exclusive, but not too far from the price of a first class commercial airline ticket with the exclusivity of your own jet."
Although not an entirely new concept, Hunter says the trend is catching on, spurred by current economic conditions.
"There are already forum-style websites dedicated to this purpose in the US. We launched our service last October in the midst of the financial mayhem and have had a very good response," he says.
"We have five to ten new members every day and at least 40 per cent of them have chartered private jets before."
While a majority of registered members are based in Europe where the system has worked well, Hunter says his company is looking to expand its database.
"At the moment, 50 per cent of our members are UK-based, about 30 per cent from other European countries, 15 from the US and the rest five per cent from the rest of the world. It works well in Europe because of the distance but we are looking at Middle East bound business and leisure travellers."
According to global market research firm Euromonitor International, the Middle East and Africa represent the second fastest growing region after Asia in terms of arrivals. High levels of economic and demographic growth coupled with the increased consolidation of business activity within the region is set to attract a large quantity of tourists in the near future, it said in its global travel and tourism study released in November last year.
The research also estimated that by 2012, more than 200 million people would have made their way into the region. Last year, there were more than 8.9million business and leisure travellers to the UAE.
John Morgan, Vice-President Commercial, for Royal Jet, an Abu Dhabi-based business aviation company partly owned by Amiri Flight, the personal private jet service of Abu Dhabi's Royal Family, says the concept of plane pooling does not exist yet in the UAE or Middle East.
"One of the reasons people hire private jets here is for the privacy and confidentiality it affords, as well as convenience," he says. "Private business travel is specifically tailored for clients such as royalty, government officials, VIPs and the business and corporate community etc who prefer privacy and attention to detail.
"It also ensures a cost-effective option for businesses which value time being used productively in a confidential environment."
While Morgan does not rule out the possibility of the plane pooling trend catching up, he says the need for security and privacy of clients here would far outweigh the cost benefits associated with jet pooling.
"It could yet be a possibility for the corporate market, especially for intra-regional flights due to restricted schedules and the difficulty to complete a business trip in one day on commercial airlines," he says.
"But jet pooling relies on the ability for clients to have co-ordinated schedules. VIP clients are often willing to pay a premium for a service that provides exactly what they want, when they want it and in the manner that they want it."
The region's booming private jet industry is expected to be valued at about Dh3 billion by 2012, according to the Middle East Business Aviation Association (Mebaa).
Morgan says his company has defied the financial crisis, with a "year-on-year growth in the order of 20 to 30 per cent for the past three years and no sign of that abating".
"Today Royal Jet 'owns' 16 per cent of the Gulf's charter market and it has the largest private jet fleet in the region," he adds.
Hunter's company, which began operations in 2007, started off as a charter broker for private jets. "We realised we had to find a niche. We noticed a lot of our clients fell between first class and private jet travel and that many of them were willing to pay a little more for the comfort and exclusivity."
PrivateJetShare.com is now accepting bookings for a return flight to the 2009 Dubai World Cup horse races departing from Farnborough in London to Dubai on March 26. The current price is £7,900 (Dh41,800). A first class ticket between London and Dubai costs about Dh24,000 on www.emirates.com.
"The more people on the flight, the cheaper it gets," says Hunter, who adds that the trend is gathering momentum and that it is here to stay, long after the world's financial woes have been remedied. "I think we will still be in a great position. When the economy starts to recover, people are still going to be prudent. They don't want to fall in the trap again."
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