Oct. 18, 2023

Following the near-collapse in business flying in the early days of COVID-19, business aviation flight departments demonstrated remarkable resilience and even thrived after adapting to the “new normal” of a post-pandemic world. An education session at the 2023 NBAA Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (NBAA-BACE) offered insights on how these operations survived the pandemic and what’s changed for them in its aftermath.

Craig Olson, vice president of aviation for Starbucks, said one of his earliest challenges during the pandemic was keeping flight crews current. “We had to reinvent ourselves and keep the airplanes flying from campus and also from a training and currency standpoint,” he said.

To accomplish that, the company shifted its flying to support humanitarian missions.

“We didn’t advertise it, but we performed care package flights to Guam, where the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt was stricken by COVID,” he continued. “The planes were empty in terms of people and our employees, but it kept our crews flying.”

While the eventual rebound in business flight activity lagged behind surges within charter flying, most business aircraft operations have since returned to near-pre-COVID levels. That said, the nature of their operations may have changed.

“When you look at flight hours, we’re at 85% of 2019 [levels],” said JD Witzig, vice president of corporate aviation at Pfizer and NBAA board vice chair. “However, several members of my team would quickly advise me that we are much busier, as our international/domestic [balance] has changed. If you aren’t doing as many international trips, your hours are going to come down but that certainly doesn’t mean your legs come down. From an activity basis, we’re probably 15% higher.”

“Our international travel is coming back now,” added Steve Ohmstede, director of Richardson Aviation. “I think we would’ve come back in 2022, but a part of our fleet was grounded due to flight control software, so [our passengers] decided to do those trips [the] next year. So, this year, they’re doing all those trips. And so, we’re doing a lot more traveling, and I think we’re back to our pre-pandemic flying levels.”

Post-COVID, flight operations must also be mindful of proper use of aircraft assets. John Gale, vice president of aviation for American Express, noted that “managing expectations” was a significant conversation topic at the recent NBAA Tax, Regulatory and Risk Management Conference.

“We’re transitioning back from what the expectations [of aircraft use] had become during COVID, and how we use these assets now and what reporting requirements are,” he said. “[Flight operations] may need to have a little bit different conversation now about how, when and to where we’re using the assets.”

Even as the industry weathered COVID-19 well, flight department managers noted other looming challenges, such as workforce concerns, economic turmoil and increasing geopolitical instability, may upend that progress.

Moderator Don Dwyer, with Guardian Jet, pointed to continued supply chain shortages as one potential crisis point for the industry. “We’re coming up on our fourth year of this situation,” he said. “We’re asking all the OEMs, ‘Please build more parts!'”

Any person who attends an NBAA convention, conference, seminar or other program grants permission to NBAA, its employees and agents (collectively "NBAA") to record his or her visual/audio images, including, but not limited to, photographs, digital images, voices, sound or video recordings, audio clips, or accompanying written descriptions, and, without notifying such person, to use his or her name and such images for any purpose of NBAA, including advertisements for NBAA and its programs.

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