While the travel industry has taken a massive hit from the coronavirus pandemic, the number of people using Aussie private jet startup Airly has risen.
Airly, which launched in 2016, is an app-based service where members can book flights on a private jet – either by opting-in to an existing flight, or initiating a new one.
Co-founder Luke Hampshire told Business Insider Australia the service had been busy during the fourth quarter of 2019 until the bushfires hit and travel started declining. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, initially causing a decline in usage.
But, in recent months, that has changed. Hampshire said usage on the app is up 80%, with the company doubling its membership numbers over the last three months.
The pandemic threw a very large spanner in the works for airlines both internationally and in Australia. In March, Qantas suspended all international flights, around 60% of domestic flights and stood down around 20,000 workers. Meanwhile, in April, Virgin Australia collapsed into voluntary administration.
Hampshire said flights over the past two weeks have been above average with June “looking very busy”.
“We’re in one of the best positions globally from the COVID perspective,” Hampshire said. “We’re very nimble. We’re able to move quickly, we see the demand, we see the interest [and] we can apply that model to what’s required. Whereas the airlines are slow-moving. They have a lot of assets, they have a lot of moving parts that take time to scale up.”
How Airly works
Hampshire describes Airly as a service that merges the perks of private travel with the predictability of commercial flights. “The big goal has always been how can we make private [flights] accessible and affordable to more sophisticated travellers,” he said.
Airly doesn’t require users to pay ongoing membership fees.
“We don’t want people paying for not using us,” Hampshire said. “So basically we can get members in now with no ongoing fees, let them check the app out, let them initiate a flight risk-free, get them on board and get them flying.” It was a decision the company made once the coronavirus pandemic set in, as a new way to provide value for its members.
Once you download the app and apply for membership, you get to either opt in for an existing flight or initiate a flight.
“What happens is that it sends out a notification to all the other members that the flight’s been initiated,” Hampshire explained. “The big difference for us is that you’re not paying for the whole jet, you’re just paying for what you need. And then we rely on other members to get on board, get involved and to book as well.”
Cost-wise, a flight from Melbourne to Sydney or Sydney to the Gold Coast flight costs $1295 a seat each way.
Most of Airly’s customers are business owners
Airly isn’t a scheduled operation. The company had considered it as a business model in the past but never went ahead with it.
“What we feel is the best option is to let our members decide when they need to go,” he said. “Ironically, they tend to be at similar times, which is helpful. It means you can get more than one group of members on a round trip.”
“Members who didn’t know each other prior to the flight actually become strong connections by the end of the flight,” Hampshire added.
Most of Airly’s current customer base are business owners. “Essential travel hasn’t stopped,” Hampshire said.
He explained that there was a period of time during the start of the pandemic when everyone was isolating – something Airly was advocating for as well. No one was flying through March and part of April before travellers started returning, especially business owners who have to travel to each of their business locations.
“It’s quite a contrast to everyone expecting work from home and Zoom to take over,” Hampshire said. “We’re still seeing those business owners needing to get from A to B.”
As a charter flight company, Airly is capable of doing global flights, including repatriation trips all the way from Europe. However, the company’s core focus is its shared flights – mainly from Sydney to Melbourne.
While Airly can provide charter flights for one-off destinations, its shared flights aim to capture the most popular routes. They do seasonal flights to destinations like Byron Bay and the Sunshine Coast, as well as options later in June for the snow season.
The company considers itself a supplementary service rather than a competitor to commercial airlines
Airly has coronavirus preventative measures in place
Airly uses the Embraer range of aircraft – a four-seat option called a Phenom 100 and the eight-seater Phenom 300. Hampshire said having these planes provides consistency for passengers because “we don’t want to be throwing 10 different aircraft at members.”
“They’re the perfect jet for us,” Hampshire said. “They’re capable of carrying a lot of luggage, they’re extremely economical, they’re the most carbon efficient jet available in Australia and it’s just a very comfortable ride for your one to two to three-hour flights.”
Hampshire also went through the measures Airly is taking to prevent coronavirus on flights.
Each passenger is required to provide a 14-day travel history before the flight. On the day of the flight, there are temperature checks at the door, and passengers are encouraged to use hand sanitiser. On shared flights, you’ll be required to use face masks, especially when there’s more than one group of members boarding.
While Airly had under 100 members for “a long period of time” through 2019, it now has more than 180 members. It wants to become the first point of call for people looking for a flight.
“The big goal now is to aggressively expand with our investors and keep increasing flights and as borders open we get Australia moving,” Hampshire said. “Right now it’s business travellers [and] we can’t wait until we can start moving leisure travellers around again.”