Is swine flu spurring private-jet rentals in the Gulf region?

Demand for private jets is soaring in Saudi Arabia as Ramadan begins in a phenomenon which some experts are attributing to the swine flu.

One of the world's leading private-jet operators, International Air Charter, based in the United Arab Emirates, is reporting a 50 percent increase in demand over Ramadan for flights in Saudi Arabia. The King Abdul Aziz International Airport, which is the main airport in Saudi Arabia's financial hub Jeddah and the main gate for pilgrims arriving to perform the Umrah, has been packed in recent days, according to local newspapers. A statement from International Air Charter said the surge in demand was due to "clients recogniz[ing] the strategic benefits of charter jet services, particularly in terms of convenience and time saving." But with more-frequent media reports of swine flu-related deaths, are clients choosing private jets over commercial flights for financial or health reasons? "Whenever there is a global health scare there is a short-term boost to private-jet usage amongst the 'well-heeled' and their families, and this is the case at the moment," David J. Bentley, an analyst with Big Pond Aviation, told The Media Line. The Umrah is the part of the annual Hajj pilgrimage preformed during Ramadan, while the main Hajj is not until later this year. But many prefer to preform the trip during Ramadan. So far, four Saudi nationals have died of swine flu, and reports of people who have been diagnosed with the virus when returning home after a visit to Saudi Arabia are increasing. While the effect of swine flu on the private-jet market has been positive, the same cannot be said for the commercial-flight industry. On August 10, Iran Air, the national airline, announced it was canceling all its flights to Saudi Arabia over Ramadan due to swine flu. The decision affected some 300,000 passengers and represents a large part of the people who travel on Iran Air's international routes. But the increases in demand appear to be concentrated to Saudi Arabia, as jet charter companies in the UAE are "not experiencing an increased demand," according to Rafat Hamdani, a salesperson with Worldwide Air Charter, a UAE-based private-jet company. The chief executive officer of UAE-based, low-cost airline Air Arabia was quoted as saying, "Swine flu is a bigger threat than the economy" to the airline industry. (The Media Line)