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Gulf’s thriving private jet industry uncowed by eco concerns

A 19-seater operated by VistaJet, one of the Gulf's private jet companies Reuters/Christinne Muschi
Inside a 19-seat Bombardier Global 7500 jet, 18 of which are operated by Dubai's VistaJet
  • Record number of flights
  • Boost from influx of wealthy
  • But bans in Europe loom

The Gulf’s private aviation industry is buoyant as executives, ruling family members and other wealthy individuals use its services to travel across the region and beyond.

In the first half of 2023, there were 7,300 private flights to or from Mohammed bin Rashid Aerospace Hub, which is part of Dubai’s Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC).

The full-year total is likely to reach 17,000 flights, Tahnoon Saif, CEO of Mohammed bin Rashid Aerospace Hub, told AGBI.

That compares with 15,400 private jet flights to or from the hub in 2022. It opened a 5,600-sq-m VIP terminal in 2016 and includes what it describes as one of the world’s largest private jet lounges.

“We expect further growth in 2024 due to the prosperity of the economy and the outstanding number of visitors to Dubai,” said Saif.

He said other factors propelling the increase in private jet traffic in the emirate included government initiatives to attract tourists and an influx of wealthy foreigners, plus the staging of Dubai Airshow and the UAE’s hosting of Cop28.

Vista Global Holding’s VistaJet subscription service has a fleet of 360 aircraft, including 18 Bombardier Global 7500 planes that have a range of 14,260 kilometres and can carry 19 passengers. Dubai-based Vista provides private flights ranging from 30 minutes to 17 hours nonstop.

Subscribers can “fly from anywhere at any time” with guaranteed availability within 24 hours, “without having the hassle of [owning] the aircraft, the maintenance, all that comes with it”, Youssef Mouallem, executive vice president of VistaJet, told AGBI.

The number of flying hours sold to VistaJet’s GCC subscribers in the third quarter were up 74 percent year on year. Intra-GCC flights are the most popular routes.

Rival carrier Gulfwings, a unit of Jordan’s Arab Wings, has a fleet of three planes available for charter. Their maximum range is 7.5 hours and they can seat up to 12 passengers.

Gulfwings’ clients include members of the region’s ruling families, wealthy individuals and executives.

Events such as the World Cup and Formula One races create sizeable demand for private jets, said Ramila Tandel, Gulfwings charter sales manager.

The Gulf’s major airlines also offer private jet services. Emirates Executive is a A319 plane with 15 beds and a range of up to 7,000 kilometres.

In July Emirates launched another private jet service using Phenom 100 twin-engine aircraft, which can seat up to four passengers. The airline says the service from DWC is for customers “who want to make short trips in the GCC”.

Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways launched charter services in December 2020, although it had already flown more than 500 charters that year.

Carbon impact – and a European ban

About 1 percent of people are responsible for half of aviation’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, estimates the non-profit group Transport & Environment. Private plane users cause emissions of up to 7,500 tonnes of CO2 every year, it says, compared with the average traveller, who emits 130kg a year.

Asked whether his clients were concerned about environmental impact, VistaJet’s Mouallem said 85 percent of customers had bought additional carbon offsets as part of their subscriptions.

Beyond the Gulf, the global private jet industry is also expanding. It was worth $28.1 billion in 2022 and will grow at a CAGR of 16.2 percent from 2023-2033, according to Visiongain Reports. 

There are efforts in Europe to curb non-public aviation. Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, the world’s fifth-busiest airport by international passengers, announced in April that it would ban private jets by 2026.

Yet in June, a European Union policymaker rejected a proposal from five member states including France and the Netherlands to curb the use of private jets within the bloc.

“Europe is at the beginning of restricting private jet use – that was the first time the subject was even discussed at this level,” said Herwig Schuster, a Vienna-based Greenpeace strategist.

Greenpeace advocates banning private jets if there are alternative means of transport, whether regular commercial flights or overland transport such as trains.

Private jets are unlikely to be banned entirely in Europe within the next three years, he said, but more restrictions were probable such as prohibiting flights below a certain distance.

Additional taxes are also likely and although extra costs will do little to deter the ultra-rich, the money raised could be spent on sustainable public transport, which would help offset the environmental impact of luxury aviation, Schuster added. 

For now, such initiatives are unlikely in the Gulf, although Gulfwings’ Tandel acknowledged that restrictions on private jet use in Europe could affect her company and the wider regional industry.

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