“Get me out,” were the three words messaged to Charles Robinson. Their author was one of many wealthy Indians attempting to flee the country’s worsening Covid-19 pandemic by any means.
“This gentleman didn’t mind where to or how and even requested we look into helicopter options to shuttle him across the border where he could then transit through and head elsewhere,” says Robinson, the founder of private jet charter company Just Jet.
As India reported a record number of Covid-19 cases over the weekend, those with enough money are rushing to charter jets or helicopters to fly them out of the country.
Many don’t mind where they end up, as long as it is somewhere with good healthcare, and preferably a decent vaccination program. At home, hospitals are running out of oxygen to treat Covid-19 patients and vaccine stocks are dangerously low.
But a growing list of countries are now closing their borders to Indians, meaning travel for even the richest Indians is highly restricted.
Robinson was able to find a jet to fly his client to Abu Dhabi, just before the UAE suspended all incoming flights from India on Sunday (25 April).
There was a similar rush to London before the U.K. added India to its ‘Red List’, meaning any new arrivals would have to quarantine in a government-approved hotel for ten days.
Pakistan has also closed its border with India. The country is witnessing a rising number of Covid-19 cases, and doctors fear a crisis similar to India’s as ventilator and oxygen supplies run low.
Not Just The Ultra Rich
“It’s not only the ultra rich. Whoever can afford to take a private jet are taking private jets,” Rajan Mehra, CEO of New Delhi-based Club One Air, told Bloomberg.
Given the extortionate cost of flying private (a one-way flight from Delhi to Abu Dhabi can cost as much as $20,000), many of the not-quite-so-wealthy Indians are flying to the nearest country that will take them.
Some are transiting through or finding refuge in the Maldives, the island nation off India’s south coast. WingX, which collects data on private aviation, says private jet connections to and from the Maldives are up 360% this year.
Not only is the Maldives an idyllic holiday destination, but the country says it will soon offer Covid-19 vaccines to anyone going there on holiday, just as soon as it has finished vaccinating its own population.
However, this is unlikely to be widely available to all Indians: As of Tuesday (27 April), the Maldives Ministry of Tourism suspended Indian tourists from staying at “hotels and guest houses in inhabited islands.”
This means that only the Maldives’ most expensive resorts on standalone or private islands will be available to fleeing Indians.
Private Jet Travel Takes Off
The scramble to private jets in the face of rising Covid-19 cases and travel restrictions is nothing new though.
As parts of Europe entered their first lockdown in March last year, many travelers or expats cut short their sojourns and chartered jets home.
Repatriation flights prevented the private aviation sector from following the fate of its commercial cousin. Charter firms, such as Air Charter Service, launched special 24-hour inquiries lines to assist travelers looking to urgently return home.
Now many are flying private simply to avoid congested commercial routes. Private jet charter companies now deep-clean their aircraft between trips and regularly test pilots and cabin crew for Covid-19.
Today the private aviation sector is 18% busier than this time last year, while scheduled airlines are down 29% according to WingX.
Nor are things in private aviation likely to quieten down any time soon, says Robinson: “Hopefully India will be back on track soon and the nationals who have fled for safety can return home.”
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