Next month in Las Vegas over 25,000 business aviation professionals will come together for their biggest conference of the year. There will be about a million square feet of exhibits at the convention center with some stands towering two and three floors high. At Henderson Airport nearby there will be around 100 private jets in a static display. Warren Buffett has been known to pop in and order a few billion dollars in airplanes for NetJets, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. It’s a big industry that contributes 1.1 million jobs and $219 billion to the U.S. economy. Normally, the convention is a hectic week, but this year, the hustle and bustle may seem like a vacation for many of the attendees.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, plus a magnitude 8.1 earthquake in Mexico in the span of days, revealed a side of the private jet industry politicians and media usually don’t spotlight. In what is a routine before, during and after natural disasters, business aviation is playing a critical role in helping out. While it may be more popular to paint an image of highly paid investment bankers and trophy companions jetting around, and yes, they certainly do have the money and do fly privately, the industry’s truth is much more grounded.
As Harvey was bearing down on Houston and commercial airlines were canceling flights and winding down scheduled operations, the lights were staying on at Million Air, an FBO located at Hobby Airport. “In theory, there was no reason to stay open,” said Roger Woolsey, CEO of the private jet terminal chain, adding, “The airport closed. We never closed. We got 51 inches of rain and there was up to two feet of water on the taxiways.”
However, the ramp in front of Million Air’s terminal did not flood, and one Blackhawk helicopter ended up using it as a diversion from Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base where most of the Air National Guard, Army, Coast Guard and other operations were based. After getting fueled up, toweled down, literally, and stocked with supplies of food Woolsey’s team had provisioned, word got out and within an hour eight more helicopters showed up alleviating the backlog at Ellington and getting them fueled and back out for rescue missions life-saving minutes faster. The pace continued around the clock for the next several days.
Woolsey said the plan was for the initial team to stay for 48 hours, but that turned into four days as access to the terminal was cut off, and then a relief team of employees went the next 48 hours nonstop. By making the choice to stay open, Million Air also ended up being an early arrivals point for critical medical supplies, including doctors and dialysis nurses who were being flown in to cover for local staff who couldn’t make it to their hospitals.
Woolsey said even as charter flights started arriving to take displaced residents out of the area, the owners and operators of those private jets sent them “loaded with supplies – with sheets and pillows, bleach, water, anything and everything people needed.” He said several jet owners who were out of town during the storm sent their jets in simply to bring supplies to their neighbors in need.
“Newspapers, magazines, and politicians frequently portray business aircraft as mere indulgences of the rich,” said Jeff Burger, editor of Business Jet Traveler magazine. “In fact, they are not only essential tools for countless large and small companies but also lifesavers in a crisis. Charities like Corporate Angel Network routinely fly cancer patients to care facilities on business jets, for example. And when a natural disaster strikes—like the Haitian earthquake in 2010 or this year’s hurricanes Harvey and Irma—business aviation is always ready to lend a hand, delivering supplies, aiding in evacuations, and transporting the injured to hospitals. This work seems to get relatively little media coverage.”
While still working on local recovery efforts, Woolsey said his Chief Business Officer Sandy Nelson was busy reaching out to colleagues at FBOs in the Caribbean and Florida, sharing with them Million Air’s operations and response playbook so that they could use it as Irma approached. Both were at the FBO during the initial impact of Harvey.
“The BizAv community has always been big in disaster relief and has mostly operated below the radar scope…The big advantage to using general aviation aircraft is that they are quite nimble, operators can respond more rapidly and they have access to far more airports than the commercial airliners. While the payload may not be as large, you would be surprised how much you can move en masse and how you can deliver highly targeted relief, particularly to hard to reach, hard hit rural areas,” said Janine K. Iannarelli, CEO of Par Avion, Ltd., a Houston-based consultancy that works with buyers and sellers of private aircraft.
“At Sentient Jet and Skyjet, we have donated to the Houston Foodbank, asked our cardholders and clients to do the same, and have also done an outreach across all of our social media platforms to suggest to our followers they might consider same. We are also in process of thinking through a relevant drive, be it food, clothing, supplies, or other items of true need. We want to make sure what we do really helps and translates,” said Andrew Collins, CEO of both companies.
Houston-based Universal Weather and Aviation Inc. raised more than $115,000 to help employees and their families who have been affected by Harvey, and the company will match each dollar up to $250,000 for the effort, according to a posting on the National Business Aviation Association website. During the storm, the company continued operations despite the fact about 10 percent of its nearly 700 Houston-based employees were severely affected by the storm, with many of them losing their homes, its chairman Greg Evans said.
There have been plentiful local media stories about different BizAv efforts. According to The Orange County Register, one private jet owner donated her plane to fly 34 dogs from Houston area shelters to Southern California to make room for animals made homeless by Harvey. Some of the canines will go to the Paws for Life program which provides dogs to military veterans suffering from PTSD.
The Aspen Times reported one jet owner using his aircraft to send relief generators to Texas. A medical newsletter reported volunteer nurses were being flown in from New Jersey via donated private jets.
Private jet manufacturer Dassault Falcon found a way to help, according to details on the NBAA site. The trade group coordinates relief efforts. Dassault’s Falcon Response aircraft, which normally is used to fly parts and maintenance personnel to support its worldwide fleet and transport clients when needed was put into service in the relief effort. Andrew Ponzoni, senior manager for communications at Dassault Falcon, said, the company took the plane out of service to fly relief missions. “We’re loading as much we can into this jet,” Ponzoni told NBAA. “After we offload these critically-needed supplies, the plan is then to fly evacuees to Austin.”
While commercial airlines had to be prompted by consumer advocates to curtail price gouging ahead of Irma, private aviation companies are working until the last minute to get customers out of South Florida. Bobby Yampolsky, CEO of ECJ Luxe Aviation, a South Florida broker said several jet owners who had already evacuated sent their jets back to bring other people out. “We were able to fly out some families who couldn’t get airline tickets and couldn’t afford to charter a jet. We flew out several widows and other elderly people who wouldn’t have been able to get out any other way,” Yampolsky said.
“We’ve asked members who had extra seats on their flights if they would take extra passengers, and the answer has been yes. We’ve had members calling us and telling us they had extra seats if anyone needed one. It really makes you feel good,” said Joshua Hebert, CEO of Magellan Jets.
This afternoon, Don Moss, CEO at Sportflight Airways, said he is waiting for the airport in St. Maarten to re-open where there are about 300 people waiting to get out and recovery supplies are much needed. He hopes to get the call Monday or Tuesday. “I have the planes lined up. It’s just waiting,” he said.
Doug Gollan is Editor-in-Chief of DG Amazing Experiences, a weekly e-newsletter for private jet owners and Private Jet Card Comparisons, a buyer’s guide comparing over 100 jet card programs.