While the number of new private jets sold annually since the 2008 recession has remained relatively flat, the number of hours those aircraft have flown has increased steadily since 2014. More fliers are discovering the convenience of private aviation without the burdens of ownership.
Granted, the Covid-19 crisis has temporarily placed business aviation in a deep freeze. But it could ultimately prove a catalyst to increased private-jet flying. “My phone has been ringing off the hook with people looking to buy airplanes” since the start of the pandemic, says Jason Zilberbrand, CEO of private-aircraft valuation and consulting service VREF. That points to post-Covid-19 sunshine amid the current gloom. For those who have decided that now is the time to give private aviation a try, there is no shortage of choices. Here are some to consider:
The most common way to fly privately is simply to charter a whole aircraft for a particular mission from any one of hundreds of providers. This is typically done with the help of a charter broker, or through one of several popular charter or charter broker apps, including PrivateFly, Magellan Jets, or EmptyLegMarket. Chartering has evolved in recent years to include single-seat availability, discounted one-way trips, or prepaid charters.
Prepaid charters can take the form of a “jet card,” whereby you purchase a set number of aircraft hours—typically 25 or less—for a fixed price. Some jet cards require enrollment in a membership program (see below), while others do not. Jet cards can deliver a standardized and often higher level of service than straight charters, because the aircraft tend to be newer and have more amenities. Major fractional companies such as NetJets and Flexjet dominate the sector with their Marquis and Sentient card programs, respectively. Smaller services such as Jet Linx operate from regional hubs and typically charge lower fees.
Companies such as VistaJet, Wheels Up, and Surf Air offer a variety of membership plans that encompass whole, shared, or per-seat flights, either structured like traditional ad hoc charters or with regularly scheduled service between fixed destinations. The Wheels Up annual fee entitles members to charter an aircraft at a guaranteed rate without additional charges for things like aircraft repositioning, and allows members to share flights. Surf Air offers passengers unlimited scheduled, per-seat flights for a fixed monthly fee.
Fractional ownership can make sense for companies or individuals flying 300 hours a year or less who want to offset flying costs with the tax advantages of holding equity in an aircraft. The two largest fractional programs—NetJets and Flexjet—together control 900 aircraft. But there are regional players in the game as well that, while offering a more limited selection of smaller aircraft, can be more cost-effective.
For those looking for more financially flexible options, leasing could be the answer. Multiyear lease programs—including those from NetJets and Flexjet—are now available in annual flight-hour blocks and offer the same level of aircraft access as traditional fractional- ownership programs.
Even if you find your travel justifies owning a plane outright, managing that asset is a major undertaking. Private-jet neophytes often find private-aircraft management companies invaluable as they tackle the issues of crewing, maintenance, insurance, and more. A skilled management company such as TAG, Jet Aviation, Clay Lacy, or Solairus can also help offset ownership costs by enrolling and supervising your aircraft with a reputable charter operator.
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION – MARK HUBER 2020