‘People have to get home some way’: The flights still running during a global lockdown

The last time I was on a plane was five weeks ago.

The aircraft was an Egyptair Boeing 777 from Cairo to Heathrow; the ticket, bought a couple of hours before departure, reflected “distress purchase” rates. I paid nearly £700 for four airborne hours between the Egyptian capital and London.

The foreign secretary had just warned against overseas travel because of the coronavirus crisis. I did not begrudge Egypt’s national carrier the cash: it was providing an essential service. And since my northwest, homebound trip across Europe, the whole aviation enterprise has been heading south, financially speaking.

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Or has it?

“Our passenger division has been moving people around on private jets, on aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and even some 777-300s,” says Matt Purton.

“We’ve been flying to every continent and with every kind of passenger you can imagine.”

Mr Purton is in his office in Surbiton, southwest London. As commercial director of Air Charter Service (ACS), he is indisputably a key worker.

The bread-and-butter work of ACS is finding the right planes for organisations who need them. Sports teams, political campaigners and musicians often need a bit of extra lift beyond the standard commercial airlines.

In 2015, the firm took the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra on a European tour by Airbus A319, followed a year later by flying Iron Maiden around the world in a Boeing 747 branded Ed Force One.

Those gigs have ceased for a while, but the need urgently to move people thousands of miles at short notice has never been stronger.

Purton and his colleagues have spent the past few weeks helping people who, through misfortune rather than misadventure, inadvertently find themselves on the wrong side of the world.

“We’ve done some 777s out of southern Africa back into the US, into Brazil for a mining company, and also we’ve just done a Virgin Australia 777 out of New Zealand via Hong Kong to Paris.

“If you’re a planespotter it’s been quite an interesting time, but if you’re a passenger I imagine you’ve just been glad to get home.”

While some flights have been organised on behalf of governments, most are privately chartered.

“We’ve taken some people out of India and repatriated them via Cairo to Salt Lake City. That flight took just under 14 hours, nonstop, on a brand new Dreamliner. That’s the longest charter we have ever done.”

ACS has also been working with the cruise industry: repatriating passengers whose vessels have ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, due to ports refusing to allow them ashore. 

The firm has also been flying cruise line crew to their destinations. “They have to get home some way. The normal way they would use is commercial flights and connect through one of the hubs in the Middle East or on the west coast of America or in Asia. They just don’t exist, so we’re chartering planes flying nonstop.”

According to Eamonn Brennan, the director general of the air traffic coordinator, Eurocontrol: “Charter and business aviation had the biggest share of flights on Monday 13 April with 42 per cent of the overall movements.

As you might imagine, seeking a large passenger aircraft is something of a buyer’s market right now. Mr Purton says: “It’s been great to be able to get people to where they want to go using aircraft that aren’t normally available to us, or that normally cost a lot more than they do right now.”

Some of the planes he has been using belong to Egyptair. I hope he negotiated a better deal than I did.

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