DC-area private jet travel is way up. Where are they going?

Private jet travel has always been a lifestyle of the rich and often famous, but the majority of people who can actually afford traveling by private jet typically don’t opt to use it.

The pandemic has changed that.

“There has been a big increase in interest in private aviation as a solution over commercial fights because of the pandemic, with people looking for a safer and quicker way to move around. The interest in our industry has been massive,” said Gregg Brunson-Pitts, founder of Arlington, Virginia-based private jet broker Advanced Aviation Team.

For all of 2021, there were 28,510 general aviation arrivals at Dulles Airport (and presumably the same number of departures, or close to it), according to data provided by a private aviation dispatcher, compared to 19,390 general aviation arrivals in 2020. Considering the huge pullback in corporate travel because of the pandemic, a good share of those flights were leisure travelers.

Air traffic site FlightAware, which tracks charter flights and timeshare flights such as NetJets and Jet Linx, but not flights of private jets used solely by their owners or companies, noted a more than 50% increase in takeoffs and landings at Dulles from December 2020 to December 2021.

The year-over-year percentage increase in general aviation at Reagan National Airport was similar last year, though private jet departures and arrivals at DCA are limited by requirements for a special TSA-issued and FAA-approved waiver, which requires several steps, and therefore most private flyers opt for Dulles.

Advanced Aviation Team founder Greg Brunson-Pitts. (Courtesy Advanced Aviation Team)

Brunson-Pitts, a former White House Travel Office director, and his six-person boutique firm do not own or operate aircraft, but rather source available aircraft and customize the flight experience based on customer needs.

Advanced Aviation Team has seen a 40% increase in demand in each of the past two years for D.C.-area travelers. And much of the increase has been from those who could afford it, but never have flown private.

“The typical Advanced Aviation Team customer historically has been more your typical D.C.-centric political and government-type customer. However, with the pandemic, we’ve taken on different kinds of customers like families. People have just come off the sidelines,” Brunson-Pitts said.

While there’s been a huge increase in private jet travel by those new to it, the cost is likely never going to be comparable to flying on a commercial plane. But there are many factors that go into the cost, including the day of travel, travel flexibility, the type of aircraft and whether the client is looking for a luxurious experience with nice catering or a barebones travel experience.

Depending on those factors, and how many passengers may be sharing the expense, it may be closer to last-minute first-class commercial travel costs, though Brunson-Pitts said just throwing out a few ballpark figures wasn’t possible, because of all the variables.

Demand for private jets has meant a surge in sales for companies that make them. Reston, Virginia-based General Dynamics saw the order backlog in its aerospace division in the fourth quarter of 2021 grow 40% compared to a year ago, to $16.3 billion, led by the strongest order-year for its Gulfstream jets since 2008.

So, where are those well-heeled D.C. area leisure travelers heading to in private charter jets?

“Destinations like Miami and the Caribbean, especially now in the winter months. Also, they’re traveling to the mountains like Aspen for ski season. And a lot of times in the summer, we’re arranging charters to Nantucket and the Hamptons,” Brunson-Pitts said.

Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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