Rich Russians fuel private jet demand to skirt virus lockdown

Moscow (AFP) –


For high-flying Russians used to spending summer holidays at Mediterranean resorts or in London penthouses, coronavirus restrictions that closed borders and grounded flights have made international travel a distant dream.

Yet many of Russia's super-rich who hold second passports or residence permits abroad have discovered an elegant way of bypassing anti-virus measures to reach second homes in London, Cyprus, Monaco or Nice: private jets.

Privately-operated flights from Moscow's airports more than doubled between April and mid-June, the RBK business news portal reported in late June citing sources at two of Moscow's airports.

Soaring from 400 to 850 per month, a majority of the flights were bound for overseas, RBK reported.

Russians skirting the restrictions have to provide evidence that the journey is a necessary work trip or is essential for health reasons, as part of a multi-layered approval process with aviation authorities.

For unlucky Russians who do not own a jet, a handful of companies that rent planes also offer to cut through the red tape of getting permission to fly from the nation's aviation authority, Rosaviatsia.

At the Moscow branch of jet rental agency Leading Charter Technologies (LTC), director Lev Shalayev dressed from head to toe in Gucci, is delighted at the increase in requests to "more than 50" per day.

"Many people who used to fly business class are now our customers," he told AFP.

He said popular destinations include luxury spots like Nice, Malaga, Alicante and Barcelona. Many clients are flocking to Cyprus, a favourite among Russians for business and leisure.

"Right now, most of our travellers are going on vacation," he said.

In planes that seat up to 13, the price of a ticket can start at 4,000 euros ($4,575), he said.

With borders closed, the only way to fly out of Russia is on board flagship carrier Aeroflot, which sells seats on irregular outbound flights returning stranded Russians from abroad.

"Since June, Russians have been allowed to fly for medical reasons ... so some medical tourism is developing," said Russian aviation columnist Anastasiya Dagayeva.

"For example, you can book a treatment at a Spanish clinic and fly to Spain."

- Avoid contact with people -

Russian reality TV star and one-time presidential hopeful Ksenia Sobchak alluded to this workabout when she wrote on Instagram that her friends were escaping Russia for foreign seaside destinations.

"My friends have already left, some on foreign passports, some due to 'medical needs,'" she said.

Shalayev of LCT says the private jet boom could continue even after Russia reopens its borders.

"Lots of people say they are thinking of using our services on a regular basis going forward since they can avoid coming into contact with a lot of people" and reduce the risk of getting infected, he said.

Fears of falling ill have also fuelled helicopter travel for short trips.

Twenty kilometres (12 miles) north of Moscow, the HeliTech company meets and greets clients in a cozy lounge near helicopter hangars.

Director Viktor Martinov says sales have jumped 30 percent since the beginning of the year.

"Clients think of helicopters as a sure method of transport that avoids any risk of getting COVID-19," he said.

Helicopters were already popular among businessmen eager to avoid rush-hour traffic during their morning commutes, he says. But new clients are also looking for safe ways to travel for pleasure.

The company offers models ranging from $50,000 to $1.2 million.

Would-be international travellers can also fly to Minsk, the capital of neighbouring Belarus, or Belgrade in Serbia, where they can venture onwards to countries that accept Russian citizens.

Yet most Russians are at home whether or not they own villas in Europe.

Coronavirus restrictions have kept amateur artist Lina Chaikovskaya from spending the summer at her holiday home on the Spanish coast.

Instead, she is "taking walks and marvelling at the flowers in my garden".

"I heard about the private jet options," she told AFP. "But it's expensive and I don’t have an acute need to fly anywhere."