These private jet players want to make luxury flying more affordable
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Once upon a time, really rich people bought their own planes. Later, other rich people realized they could buy shares in a jet instead of actually owning one. Today, alternatives to commercial air travel are entering the Uber age, making airplane travel an on-demand perk as accessible — and sometimes almost as affordable — as ordering up a car.
In the space pioneered by venerable players such as NetJets and XO, nimble newcomers are redefining what we’ll call affordable private-jet luxury. You no longer have to pony up thousands of dollars; all you need is an app, a few hundred bucks, and, often, a tolerance for tiny aircraft.
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The newer players are capitalizing on two trends. First, elite flyers who typically travel business class are getting fed up with flying commercial. Security lines are growing larger, legroom is shrinking and in-flight entertainment screens are being replaced by personal device holders. Second, airlines are pulling back from less-profitable routes to smaller airports, complicating commercial travel to second-tier destinations. Started as a small charter business in 2007, Linear Air launched its online air-taxi platform in 2013; business has grown by more than 1,600% since then, according to founder William Herp. On sites like Kayak, he said, “we come up as the only nonstop option between places like New York City and Ithaca or Harrisburg and Bar Harbor, Maine.”
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That kind of growth is just the beginning. “The private jet industry is currently booming due to the current health of the world economy,” says Andres Morales, executive vice president of global operations for the aviation consultation company Skyline Group MC. “With more companies and individuals buying private aircraft, there are more jets flying under capacity so they look for different ways to offset their cost of ownership. That has resulted in an increase in the accessibility to flying private through different digital platforms that connect the consumer to a private aircraft.”
With that in mind, let’s look at some of the emerging players in the affordable private-jet luxury space. While some services on this list are not completely private, meaning you may need to share your flight with a small group of other passengers, they all offer the convenience of flying out of smaller airports and private terminals where you can usually avoid long security times and arrive just minutes before your scheduled departure time.
Related reading: The best cards for booking private jet travel
An offshoot of jet-charter company JetSuite, JSX calls itself an “industry disruptor” aiming to “revolutionize the flying experience” with “celeb-worthy flying at an accessible price.” Behind the hype is a straightforward proposition: You’re buying a seat on a private jet rather than chartering the whole plane. JSX’s fleet of Brazilian-made Embraer ERJ-135 regional jets, derived from regional airliners, operates scheduled service seven days a week between Burbank (BUR), Concord (CCR), Las Vegas (LAS), Oakland (OAK), Seattle-Boeing Field (BFI), Santa Ana (SNA), Phoenix (PHX) and Portland (PDX). JSX also says it operates various seasonal destinations and pop-up flights, such as to Mammoth Lakes (MMH).
The jets operate from private hangars and terminals; cutting out lines and bag check is a huge part of its selling proposition. The Points Guy reviewed a JSX flight from Burbank (BUR) to Las Vegas (LAS), noting that the experience was remarkably hassle-free.
Although best known for its continuous helicopter service to airports in New York, Miami and Los Angeles, BLADE offers on-demand charters for helicopters, turboprops and any class of private jet to practically anywhere in the world. As you’d expect, chartering a jet isn’t cheap, but much like JSX, BLADE also lets you book by-the-seat on regularly scheduled flights to popular vacation spots such as Aspen, Miami and Nassau.
BLADE’s New York to Miami service, dubbed BLADEone, flies between Westchester (HPN) and Miami’s Opa Locka airport (OPF) Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays, and Mondays, plus additional flights over the holidays and is operated using uniquely configured Bombardier CRJ200s. This type of aircraft is normally used as a regional commercial passenger jet and can hold up to 50 people, but BLADE’s have been converted into luxury jets for 16. Onboard, passengers enjoy an array of amenities, such as gourmet food provided by BLT restaurants, iPads pre-loaded with a selection of movies, cashmere blankets and specially designed amenity kits with personal care products from boutique brands. Tickets for one seat start at $2,450 each way, or $2,750 including 15-minute helicopter transfers between Manhattan and Westchester. What really ups the value is that if you purchase a set of two round-trip tickets on BLADEone, you’ll also get a room for the weekend at the opulent Faena Hotel Miami Beach.
If you’re new to BLADE, you can receive $50 off your first flight when you sign up with the code THEPOINTSGUY. Those under 28, can get discounts on flights between Manhattan and the Hamptons, Nantucket and Miami with a Blade-GX membership.
What if you could fly as often as you want, whenever you want, for a monthly membership fee? That’s the concept behind Los Angeles-based Surfair, which pioneered “all-you-can fly” in 2013. You can arrive up to 15 minutes before your flight on one of Surfair’s Swiss-built Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprops; New York fashion house Bespoken designed the clubby interiors. Since its U.S. debut, more than 215,000 guests have flown Surfair between about a dozen West Coast destinations, including Los Angeles, Oakland and Santa Barbra. Moving forward, the company plans to improve its operation by honing in on a few key routes, such as the Bay Area to Los Angeles and Dallas to Houston. It will also focus on its Surf Air Express membership, which allows less-frequent fliers to pay $2,500 once per year and then purchase single seats starting at $500 per flight on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Wheels Up has undeniably become a major player in the space since its launch in 2013 and will continue to grow once its combines with Delta Private Jets in the first quarter of 2020. The new combined company will have a fleet of around 200 aircraft. Members can book flights on an on-demand basis, including via an app that allows customers to pool costs with other customers booking overlapping trips.
Wheels Up offers three membership tiers — Connect, Core or Business — with initiation fees ranging from $2,995 for a 12-month Connect membership up to $29,500 for a 12-month Business membership. Connect members get access to some of the most popular Wheels Up features including Hot Flights, where you can book discounted empty-leg flights — when an aircraft is scheduled to fly without any passengers — for as low as $320 for an entire aircraft. Like JSX and BLADE, you can also “fly by the seat” on scheduled shuttle flights or charter flights to popular events. Core and Business members can take advantage of 24- and 48-hour aircraft-type guarantees, and dynamic pricing with rates capped at $4,695 per hour for a King Air 350i or $7,695 per hour for a mid-size partner jet. Members also have access to the Wheels Down program, which includes access to events such as private parties at Art Basel Miami, the Super Bowl and a hospitality house at the Masters Tournament.
As the company tells it, London-based CEO Clive Jackson dreamed up the idea for Victor when a canceled air route curtailed travel to his second home on Mallorca. The concept is simple: Search for and book private jet charter directly, with no intermediary between travelers and operators. Another self-proclaimed “disruptor,” Victor connects well-heeled travelers to 200 “partner-operators” who manage more than 7,000 charter aircraft worldwide.
Planes range from Boeing 767s to to Gulfstream IVs to Embraer EMB 120 Brasilia turboprops. Ordering up a Hawker 1000 jet round-trip from Teterboro, N.J., to West Palm Beach, Fla., a typical route, will run you around $25,000. However, you can score savings of up to 75% by booking empty-leg specials.
This is not an emerging — or necessarily affordable — player, but it’s still the most recognized in this space. If there’s a granddad of the (relative) democratization of private-jet luxury, it’s Netjets, which helped pioneer the concept of fractional jet ownership in 1986. Warren Buffett, an early customer, loved the company so much he bought it in 1998. Its programs target high-net-worth travelers; the pitch is that fractional ownership beats buying your own plane. You can trade up to a bigger, fancier aircraft if you tire of your airborne investment. A 1/16 ownership, or about 50 hours, costs about $600,000. A one-half interest, about 400 flight hours, balloons to $4.5 million.
The company’s Marquis Jet Card, which provides flight time in 25-hour increments on a Hawker 400XP jet, starts at $170,000 a pop. You’ll also pay fees for acquisition, monthly maintenance, and every hour you fly, along with fuel charges and taxes. But with average flying times about half of commercial routes, and with 5,500 airports in the NetJets network, there’s real value — if you are rich or a celebrity.
Founder William Herp calls Linear Air an air taxi for regional trips of 700 or 800 miles, when you don’t want to drive and there’s no good airline option. The company doesn’t own a single plane; like ride-hailing apps, it connects passengers with operators across the U.S., Canada and Caribbean. A very simple interface online lets you request departure and arrival airports by inputting a street address or zip code. The average transaction, Herp told TPG, comes to about $2,000 for a passenger configuration of three to eight seats. “When you fill up the seats and maximize the opportunity, you’re talking about $500-$800 per person,” or less than many commercial flights.
There are a number of services that offer charter subscriptions and private jet-like experiences for less than you might think. Since there aren’t any reasonable ways to book private jet flights with points and miles, be sure to use a credit card that maximizes return on private jet travel because there are some serious points earning opportunities here. The Platinum Card® from American Express is generally an excellent option for booking flights as it earns 5x Membership Rewards points for airfare booked directly with the airline or through American Express Travel and now comes with a number of travel protections. However, private flights often don’t code as airfare, or even travel at all, so you’ll probably be better off using a card with a high return on everyday spending, such as Chase Freedom Unlimited.
Related reading: Gulfstream unveils next generation ultra-long-haul business jet
If you want to learn more about what life is like on a private jet, we’ve got you covered. TPG himself traveled with Editor-at-Large Zach Honig on a Gulfstream G500, and contributor J. Scott zoomed across the United States on a HondaJet Elite.
For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum Card, please click here.
Featured photo courtesy of Andres Morales (Ajetsetter) for The Points Guy.
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