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The pandemic made almost every business change the way it operates. But for many executives, COVID-19 also changed the way they travel to conduct business. And the aviation industry in Southwest Florida is still growing to deal with those changes.

“The guys that have always flown first class, they could probably not buy an airplane, but they can certainly charter one a couple times a year. During COVID, that was their only option; to do a fractional share or to do a charter in order to travel,” says Joseph McCabe, owner and founder of Naples Jet Sales. “The people who have always traveled in their lives, they want to keep that mobility, and COVID-19 was the push for those individuals who could probably afford to break into the aviation world to do so. And demand absolutely skyrocketed on the pre-owned (aircraft) market.”

While McCabe noted that the market for business aircraft leveled out once supply increased, there are still plenty of companies and executives who have decided purchasing their own plane makes sense. However, given that purchasing a used aircraft is more complex than buying a used car, aviation-focused financing is a growing niche, as well.

“The U.S. controls about 65% of the business jets around the world, and Florida is now the fourth or fifth largest (business jet) market in the United States. Naples is one of the 10 busiest business jet airports in the country,” says Jim Crowley, managing director of Cogent Bank’s new Business Aviation Finance division. “We just think there’s a tremendous untapped marketplace. There was this thought process that [Cogent] developed that I’m going to call a ‘boutique approach’ to aviation lending. With what’s going on at the airport in Naples and up the coast, we think our products, expertise and ability to execute gives us the chance to be a dynamic, new entrant into that market.”

The increased demand for business aircraft also has created a greater need for private pilots. Though pandemic-related furloughs temporarily eased the nation’s ongoing pilot shortage, as air travel has returned to normal, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the need for more than 18,000 new pilots a year for the next 10 years. That demand has created another business boom for Southwest Florida’s flight training schools. For Fort Myers-based Paragon Flight Training, that increase has led to expanded facilities, additional staff and the purchase of 50 new planes over the next five years.

“We started in 2006 focusing on the recreational pilot, like the local business owner that wanted to learn to fly—maybe fly to Jacksonville, to Key West. Maybe do it for business, maybe do it for pleasure, but that was really the core of our business,” says Paragon Flight Training President Chris Schoensee. “The pilot shortage has been a long time coming. But we started seeing this uptick in people who want to be commercial pilots. Now, approximately 45% of our business is commercial pilot training for people who want to be airline pilots or private jet pilots. And as the commercial pilot market has grown and there’s more demand, you’re seeing more and more people invest in the sector more significantly because there’s money to be made and there’s plenty of students to go around.”

Although many flight schools cater to foreign students, Paragon’s focus has traditionally been on the domestic market, with most of its clients coming from the Northeast and Midwest, Schoensee said. But along with greater demand for flight training, he’s also noted a big increase in clients hailing from Southwest Florida.

“More and more of our students are coming from the 239 area code. Maybe 12% of our clients are local now, which is unheard of for the kind of numbers we’re doing,” Schoensee says. “It’s becoming more and more local … a lot more than what I thought it would be for 2023.”

For those businesses or executives who aren’t buying their own planes or flying themselves, chartering a plane is still an option. And as flying charter has grown in popularity, more travelers are taking the opportunity to mix business with pleasure.

“During COVID, it was the year of the Zoom call. It was the year of remote work. Now businesses are finding out that, while that’s OK, it’s not the same as an in-person meeting,” says Stephen Myers, executive vice president with Naples-based private jet charter company Elite Jets. “Due to COVID, our society has been moving more toward what’s called ‘bleisure,’ a mixture of business and leisure. People are going for business, but they’re also taking a day on the front [or] the back and doing leisure stuff, as well. It’s always kind of been part of it, but it’s almost all the time now.”

As commercial air carriers still struggle to reach pre-COVID-19 traffic levels, McCabe believes more companies and executives ultimately will turn toward private aviation for their business travel. And that will likely spur additional expansion in the aviation industry across Southwest Florida.

“Definitely, it’s happening. You’re going to have all those ancillary types of businesses related to aviation support and maintenance coming around. I see it getting better, more professional, with better airplanes and less impact on everybody,” McCabe says. “What Naples and Florida have, with regard to private aviation as a convenience, is something a lot of people are recognizing.”

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