Light At The End Of The Tunnel: Departing ACA Chief Takes Stock

Dave Edwards
Credit: ACA

At the close of a tumultuous 2020, several private charter specialists paint a picture of positivity around the sector that suggests better times will follow as COVID-19 vaccination programs begin to be rolled out worldwide. 

For example, PrivateFly, in the latest edition of its regular Private Jet Charter Trends report, highlights the sector’s agility—58% of the British-based charter broker’s flights were booked within a week of takeoff in 2020, compared to 48% in 2019. The company has increased its workforce and launched its jet-card scheme during the pandemic. 

VistaJet says it has experienced a 49% increase in “corporate interest globally” during the pandemic and brought new products to market. 

Still, the industry must focus not only on the high points, warns Dave Edwards, who left his post as CEO of the British-based Air Charter Association (ACA) on Dec. 31. 

 Edwards spoke to The Weekly of Business Aviation in late December. He said that with an influx of new customers using private aviation for the first time—and with most sector companies having likely completed their belt-tightening and staff-roster-trimming activities—those still standing should find 2021 a less brutal business environment. But that does not mean that the sector’s problems are now solved. 

“People are talking about percentage increases, but you need to look at the numbers behind all of this,” he says. “Charter is down almost 15-20% on what it was 12 months ago. There’s nothing good in that story at all.”

At the time of the interview, the UK was enduring the temporary closure of air, sea and rail links with more than 50 countries due to the emergence of a new mutation of the COVID-19 virus. Throughout the pandemic, Edwards argues, the role of cargo charter has been vital, and in periods of such extreme—if brief—volatility, its importance only deepens. These moments, he says, can only help improve public understanding of the sector and the value it brings.

“Vaccines are arriving into the country on air charter,” he says. “We did an awful lot of air ambulance work, an awful lot of repatriations. That’s a great story, and hopefully we’ve opened up the accessibility of the air charter industry as a result of COVID.”

Business aviation companies have been bullish regarding their chances of winning repeat business from customers who have flown privately for the first time during the pandemic. Referring to work that the ACA was involved in earlier in 2020 to warn the public about online fraudsters offering nonexistent private charters, Edwards suggests a significant proportion of those customers may not become regular users, regardless of how positive an experience they have had with the sector. 

“‘One and done’ is the term I keep hearing,” he says, “where people were just going to the charter industry because it was the only way of traveling. Certainly, with some of the scams we’ve been aware of, people have spent a big proportion of their life savings paying for that one flight. As long as we’ve looked after them well and educated them, then it’s been a useful sales tool, if you like. But I’m relatively sure that, as the scheduled airlines start doing more of their flights again, more people will return to those.” 

   The ACA has also been preoccupied—not just in 2020, but throughout Edwards’ three-and-a-half years in the role—with helping to ensure the sector is prepared for the UK’s departure from the European Union. Despite the bandwidth Brexit has occupied, he is proud of the work the association has done on illegal charter, networking, and broker training. 

“It’s sometimes difficult for me to detach myself from what we’ve achieved over the past three-and-a-half years compared to what we’ve spent the last 12 months arguing about,” he says. “The glimmers of hope are there on the COVID front. By the middle of next year, business travel will start again—I think we’re all desperate to do it. And hopefully by the end of next year there’ll be much more light at the end of that tunnel.”