The cheapest ways to get the private jet experience
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Once upon a time, wealthy people bought their own planes. Later, other rich people realized they could buy shares in a jet instead of 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 pay 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 latest wave of growth is just the beginning. “The private jet industry is currently booming,” 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, more jets are 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.”
The newer players are capitalizing on three trends. First, cautious travelers are seeking ways to avoid crowded airport terminals and pressurized aircraft cabins following the coronavirus outbreak. Second, airlines are pulling back from less-profitable routes to smaller airports, complicating commercial travel to second-tier destinations. And third, elite flyers who typically travel business class are getting fed up with flying commercial. Security lines have grown significantly pre-coronavirus, legroom is shrinking and personal device holders are replacing in-flight entertainment screens.
Private jet operators are seeing a dramatic rise in demand as a result of the pandemic. “Unsurprisingly, we have witnessed a substantial increase in the demand for private aviation — both from new members of XO and current members — during this sensitive time triggered by the coronavirus,” Ron Silverman, Chief Commercial Officer of California-based on-demand private jet charter company XO told us.
“We expect demand to continue to grow as the situation remains unsettled and we are committed to meeting these requests.” Plus, thanks to the $50 billion U.S. airline bailout, private jet operators will enjoy a significant tax holiday through the end of the year. They won’t need to tack on the usual 7.5% Federal Excise Tax on airfare, translating into lower prices for consumers.
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 entirely private, they all offer the convenience of flying out of smaller airports and private terminals where you can usually arrive just minutes before your scheduled departure time and avoid long security lines.
An offshoot of jet-charter company JetSuite, JSX calls itself an “industry disrupter” 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), Reno-Tahoe (RNO) and Dallas (DAL). 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 baggage checks is a huge part of its selling proposition. The Points Guy reviewed a JSX flight from Las Vegas (LAS) to Burbank (BUR), 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 plane 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 also recently launched a new feature called “FlightTilt,” that allows you to propose a shared charter on your schedule. The flight is confirmed once four other seats are sold. Alternatively, if you’re looking to fly between New York to Florida and want to guarantee your shared charter at the time of booking, you can reserve a minimum of two seats for $3,750 each and allow Blade to sell the remaining seats on your flight.
Blade’s scheduled New York to Miami service, dubbed BLADEone, is operated using uniquely configured Bombardier CRJ200s that fly between Westchester (HPN) and Miami’s Opa Locka Airport (OPF). This type of aircraft is typically 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 preloaded with entertainment, cashmere blankets and specially designed amenity kits with personal care products from boutique brands.
One-way tickets start at $2,450 each, or $2,750 for 15-minute helicopter transfers between Manhattan and Westchester. What 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. I recently got to experience this service and it was truly A-list from beginning to end.
If you’re new to Blade, you can receive $50 off your first flight when you sign up with the code BRIANF&F. 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.
The company will also focus on its Surf Air Express membership. This pay-as-you-go option allows less-frequent fliers to pay $2,500 per year and then purchase single seats starting at $500 per flight. You can unlock preferred pricing and flight credits with a FoundersCard membership.
Wheels Up has undeniably become a major player in the space since its launch in 2013 and will continue to grow now that it has acquired Delta Private Jets. The new combined company has a fleet of around 300 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 and Business. Initiation fees range from $2,995 in year one for a Connect membership, to upwards of $29,500 in year one for the Business membership. Annual dues drop to $2,495 and $14,500, respectively, in year two.
Connect members get access to some of the most popular Wheels Up features, including Hot Flights, which allows you to book discounted empty leg flights — when an aircraft is scheduled to fly without any passengers — for as low as $320 for an entire plane.
Like JSX and Blade, you can also “fly by the seat” on scheduled shuttle or charter flights to popular events. Core and Business members can take advantage of 24 and 48-hour aircraft-type guarantees, plus dynamic pricing with rates capped at $4,695 per hour for a King Air 350i. A mid-sized partner jet will set you back $7,695 per hour.
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. FoundersCard members can get a flight credit upon purchasing Wheels Up Membership.
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 a private jet charter directly, with no intermediary between travelers and operators. Another self-proclaimed “disrupter,” Victor connects well-heeled travelers to 200 “partner-operators” who manage more than 7,000 charter aircraft worldwide.
Planes range from Boeing 767s to Gulfstream IVs to Embraer EMB 120 Brasilia turboprops. Ordering up a Hawker 1000 jet round-trip from Teterboro, NJ to West Palm Beach, FL will run you around $25,000. However, you can score savings of about 50%-75% by booking empty leg specials. Just remember that empty legs require you to be flexible and have a back-up option in case your flight is canceled.
NetJets 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 around $600,000. Meanwhile, a one-half interest – about 400 flight hours – balloons to $4.5 million.
The company also offers the Marquis Jet Card, which provides flight time in 25-hour increments, starting at around $150,000 for a light jet inclusive of fuel charges and taxes. But with average flying times being around half of commercial routes and access to nearly any airport, there’s real value — if you are wealthy or a celebrity.
Founder William Herp calls Linear Air an air taxi for regional trips of 700-800 miles, when you don’t want to drive and there’s no good airline option. 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.”
The company was founded in 2004 and has grown by more than 1,600% since then. It doesn’t own a single plane; like ride-hailing apps, the company partners with operators across the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. A straightforward 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 several companies offering 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 the 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. It earns 5x Membership Rewards points for airfare booked directly with the airline or American Express Travel (starting Jan. 1, 2021, earn 5x points on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year) and now comes with numerous 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.
For more on private jet travel and exclusive travel experiences, see:
- How travelers are using private jets to avoid coronavirus exposure
- What it’s like to fly BLADEone from NYC to Miami
- Flying Embraer’s super posh, quiet $10 million private jet
- Flying (Almost) Private (Almost) to Telluride and Back: A Review of Boutique Air
- Inside PS (The Private Suite) at LAX
- My very first flight on a private jet, Gulfstream’s G500
- The best cards for booking private jet travel
Featured photo courtesy of Andres Morales (Ajetsetter) for The Points Guy.
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