Around the world, air traffic has nearly ground to a halt. Commercial planes sit lined up on the tarmac, grounded by canceled routes and closed borders. The airline industry is forecasting slow business for the coming year, and some companies may not survive the downturn at all.
But some planes are still flying, and they are carrying precious cargo: For the past few months, charter planes have been shipping people and possessions to where they’re needed most. Charter planes provide a shadow world of transportation, moving essential cargo like personal protective equipment and medical staff, alongside less-than-essential cargo for the mega-rich. When a global pandemic shuts down much of society, you begin to realize what’s important to people by the kind of things they try to move around the world.
Justin Lancaster, chief commercial officer at Air Charter Service, a charter airline broker that normally arranges 23,000 flights per year, began to see business pick up in early March, as the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. Lancaster fielded panicked calls as countries began locking down their borders. Italy, then the worst-hit country before being overtaken by the United States in April, closed its borders entirely on March 9, setting off a chain reaction at airports worldwide. “People were trying to get back to where they needed to be for lockdown,” Lancaster said.
Frantic requests were coming in for private jets — which seat fewer than 19 people — as well as berths on commercial planes. Governments needed huge numbers of repatriation flights to airlift citizens out of locked-down countries. In a single week in late April, repatriation flights returned Britons from Peru, Americans from Switzerland, Greeks from Germany, Russians from Italy, and UAE nationals from India. In March alone, Germany repatriated 42,000 of its citizens on 60 flights. Individuals often had to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a seat on one of these planes. (One couple profiled in the New York Times for being…