Charter Flights are the Secret Transportation of the Rich and Powerful

With commercial flights grounded, the well-connected rely on these planes to move their precious cargo — from PPE to gold bullion

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 stranded on their honeymoon in the Maldives balked at spending $100,000 on a charter flight home to South Africa.) Charter flights also allow private companies to get workers out of sticky situations: Air Charter Service has arranged transport home for South Americans working at a mine in Africa and cruise ship passengers escaping lockdown in the Caribbean.

The challenge Lancaster and his staff encountered during those early days wasn’t necessarily finding space on flights, which was plentiful, or getting flights out of airports that were still open, but figuring out how to navigate the sometimes confusing intricacies of worldwide travel restrictions. Some countries, like the United Kingdom, continued to have open borders; others, like Italy, had firmly locked them down. Australia wouldn’t let passengers layover in the country, and France only allowed its own citizens to return home.

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.

After Donald Trump closed the U.S. border to European nationals on March 11, the reality of lockdown truly sunk in, and the passenger airlines scrapped their normal schedules. Today, two in every three planes worldwide are currently grounded, according to consultants Ascend by Cirium. Across Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, almost all flights remain on the ground. Journeys across Asia-Pacific and North America have continued, buoyed by domestic travel, albeit at a much lower level than before Covid-19 struck.

By now, most people have returned to where they need to be, and the overwhelming majority of people aren’t traveling for business or pleasure anymore. (Unless you’re an essential worker, like the 150 Romanian vegetable pickers who were flown to the U.K. on a $50,000 charter flight in April.)

But you can still attempt to travel — if you can afford it. A private jet chartered by a Croatian businessman with 10 people on board, the men in their forties and fifties and all the women in their early twenties, was turned back to London from France’s Côte d’Azur after landing there in early April. (France, along with the greater European Union, has restricted nonessential travel.) All but one of the passengers returned to the U.K., according to French TV, with the tenth instead taking another charter flight to Berlin, Germany — according to Lancaster, chartering this aircraft would have cost around $11,000.

While tourism and travel have stopped for all but the rich and famous, the need for vital medicines and supplies hasn’t. Grounding passenger planes has a huge knock-on effect for the ability to ship items in our interconnected world.

Significant amounts of the world’s stuff gets placed into cargo holds alongside passengers’ suitcases on commercial flights. While this cargo accounts for around 2% of an airline’s total revenue, it has an outsized impact on the global freight industry. “Wide-bodied aircraft with two aisles can carry 20 tons or more of cargo,” explains John Strickland, an aviation analyst. “Now, as we’ve seen massive quantities, sometimes 90% or 100% of these flights canceled, suddenly all this cargo capacity has disappeared out of the market, because there’s basically no regular passenger scheduled flights operating.”

Every year, 52 million metric tons of cargo is transported by plane, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), accounting for 35% of global trade by value. Early indications show there’s a crunch in space: Belly capacity for international air cargo shrank by 44% in March compared to a year before because of the lack of passenger flights. “At present, we don’t have enough capacity to meet the remaining demand for air cargo,” warned Alexandre de Juniac, director general and CEO at the IATA. “The gap must be addressed quickly, because vital supplies must get to where they are needed most.”

Airlines that have grounded fleets because of a lack of passengers are rapidly retooling their planes to deliver cargo alone. Some airlines have stripped out the seats in their cabins to make room for boxes full of cargo. Lufthansa and El-Al are two operators that have boosted their cargo capacity per flight from around 20 tons to 50 tons. Other airlines have taken a low-tech approach, piling boxes of PPE onto passenger seats and strapping them in with netting covering the entire cabin to keep them sturdy.

The movements of the world’s largest cargo aircraft, an Antonov AN-225 with the code name UR-82060, are the best indication of what is being moved where during the coronavirus crisis: Often these shipments are pharmaceutical supplies destined for those sick with Covid-19 — demand for drug shipments worldwide has doubled, says the IATA — or food. One source in the fresh produce industry says the cost of shipping it via charter flights has tripled. The plane, which can store more than 250 tons of cargo in its hold, has yo-yoed from Tianjin, China, to destinations in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, France, and Germany in the past two weeks. (It’s due to land in the United States in the coming weeks, too.) Other, slightly smaller planes carrying cargo have been contracted from Antonov, a Ukrainian airline, to countries as varied as Canada, Qatar, Kuwait, and Slovakia in the past two months. Air Charter Service had moved 11,000 tons of cargo by the middle of last week, the majority of it PPE.

What little space isn’t reserved for personal protective equipment, ventilators, or life-saving drugs to tackle the effects of Covid-19 is being taken up by another precious cargo: bars of gold.

“The logistics of gold usually is done by commercial flights,” says Simon Mikhailovich, founder of the Bullion Reserve, a gold investment company with offices in New York, Zurich, and Singapore. “Gold is very dense and malleable. You can easily move millions of dollars of gold in a cargo hold of a plane, and it doesn’t need much space and doesn’t weigh that much for the value being transferred. But since there has been a huge decline in flights, you can appreciate how it would be much more difficult to get cargo across.”

This restricted movement has been compounded with material changes in the gold supply chain worldwide: Three major Swiss gold refineries, staffed mostly by Italians who crossed the short distance over the border to go to work, closed when Italy totally locked down on March 20. Overnight, companies supplying a third of the global gold supply stopped operating.

In early April, some refineries reopened but at less than 50% capacity, pushing the price of gold higher. U.S. prices are currently at an eight-year high; U.K. and European gold prices have never been higher. The evacuation of mines like those Air Charter Service helped to broker also means production capacity has dropped around 10%. “The Covid crisis has thrown a wrench in moving metal around really quickly, easily, and at low cost,” says Adrian Ash of BullionVault, an online gold and silver bullion market.

This crisis has generated a time-honored reaction to periods of great turmoil: people abandoning currency and taking solace in commodities. BullionVault has seen a record number of new accounts in March and April, all wanting gold delivered. The London Bullion Market Association, which operates the world’s major trading market for gold, has noted a huge uptick in the number of charter flights shipping gold worldwide. It’s a costly business: Flying 100 tons of anything from Europe to China will now cost $1 million, reckons Lancaster.

But there are some things more important than money — tasks need to be done at any cost. This includes bringing the bodies of those who have died back to their families.

Daniel Sebuliba was 30 years old when he collapsed in his bathroom in Qatar, where he was working. His body was loaded onto a cargo plane and flown back to Entebbe, Uganda, where he arrived on April 19. There is some uncertainty as to whether Sebuliba died of Covid-19 or something else; the Ugandan Red Cross claims he was not Covid-positive. Sebuliba’s body was taken 70 miles from Entebbe to Kayunga, Uganda, where he was buried. Eight people accompanying his body after it landed in Uganda are now in quarantine.

Sebuliba is not the only one to return home via cargo hold during the coronavirus crisis, at least not according to one analysis. For the first three Sundays in April, a Gulfstream jet took off from Republic Airport in East Farmingdale, New York, flying 10 hours to Tel Aviv, Israel, arriving around dawn on Monday morning. The plane, a charter flight operated by Talon Air, generally stayed on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International for a couple of hours before taking off, destination Marseille, France. There, the plane and its pilot remained for the better part of a day before returning to East Farmingdale.

The London Bullion Market Association, which operates the world’s major trading market for gold, has noted a huge uptick in the number of charter flights shipping gold worldwide.

The pattern of flights was unusual, not least because for months beforehand the plane had done most of its flying within the United States. From small hops of a few hours maximum, scattered in a random manner, it suddenly started undertaking a 22-hour round-trip flight, with a daylong layover, from one side of the world to the other. (Talon Air did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) The reason for the plane’s journeys, according to one airline blogger, is obvious: They’re transporting dead Jews for burial in their homeland. The charter flights began a week and a half after United, which often carries bodies from New York to Israel, announced it was suspending this practice.

The estimated cost of the Talon Air charter flight is close to $200,000, but when there’s no other alternative — as there is in the U.K., where Jews wanting to be buried in the Holy Land have been able to hop a ride on a nightly cargo flight leaving from London’s Heathrow Airport for a comparatively cheap $5,600 — money is no object. A total of 151 bodies were flown on private or commercial flights into Israel between mid-March and mid-April, according to Israel’s Ministry of Religion.

While baggage carousels at airports across the globe stand still, taxi lines normally crushed with tourists are empty, and huge numbers of pilots and cabin crew have been furloughed or fired, people persist in moving items around the globe. Sometimes it’s vital pieces of PPE or stocks of lifesaving drugs; other times it’s commodities from which traders hope to profit by seizing on a gap in a market. For a handful of doleful, desperate souls, it’s been to move relatives closer to home, alive or dead. But while the majority of our air traffic dropped out of the sky in an instant, the charter airline industry will always be there when we need it — for the right price.

Photo sources: Aaron Foster/Getty Images, farakos/Getty Images, Alessandro De Carli/EyeEm/Getty Images, Aleksandr Zubkov/Getty Images

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store