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Can you really fly privately for airline prices?
You’ve probably seen ads and articles that suggest you can fly privately for prices that rival first-class airline fares and even coach prices. Last year, for example, Forbes headlined a story “How to Fly Private Jets at Airline Prices,” while The New York Times ran “Try a Private Jet, at Public Prices.”
It’s an enticing prospect, but is it really possible? On some routes in some circumstances such pricing may be available, but not nearly as easily or often as the Forbes and New York Times headlines might suggest. We investigated three methods that stand the best chance of getting you to the holy grail of charter fees: parity with first-class airline fares.
Method #1: Charter a Seat
If you’re willing to travel with strangers on an airliner, why not on a private jet? In the shared-flight model, customers charter a seat rather than an aircraft, making private aviation economically feasible for some passengers who’d otherwise be relegated to airlines.
While conceptually sound, however, the shared-flight idea is logistically and regulatorily complicated. The 2008 implosion of would-be per-seat powerhouse Dayjet remains Exhibit A in the case against the model’s viability.
Greenjets offers a countervailing argument. The Florida-based charter broker focuses on linking a few major U.S. destinations, and plans to reach most major American markets by the end of 2013.
Greenjets’ regular per-seat prices–including $4,700 between New York and Florida and $9,600 for a transcontinental flight–are low but not low enoughto complete with airline fares. However, costs drop with the purchase of additional seats and Greenjets offers annual memberships–for $5,000 for up to six flights or $12,000 for up to 25–that reduce fees even further. Members pay $3,900 for a seat between New York and Florida and $7,700 for transcontinental flights and receive a second seat free on every flight.
Say you and a colleague make 25 flights a year between New York and Florida. With Greenjets, you’ll pay $12,000 for a membership and $3,900 per flight–a total of $109,500. That works out to $2,190 per flight per person. That’s still more than many first-class airline tickets but it’s in the ballpark: A first-class roundtrip from West Palm Beach to New York on Delta or United, quoted 48 hours in advance (Greenjets’ minimum booking window), recently cost $638 to $1,381–and as much as about $2,100 during peak travel season, according to Kayak.com.
California-based JetSuite has also launched a ride-sharing option, enabling customers to solicit other travelers to share their flight. Fees for a flight from L.A. to Las Vegas (which come with some restrictions) are as low as $1,499 for the first passenger booking, and each added traveler brings the initial customer’s cost down: add a second passenger and the fee drops to $750; add a third and it’s $375. Add a fourth and the initial customer flies free. The only airline customers who can equal that “price” are those redeeming frequent-flyer miles.
JumpJet, another California company, recently announced its own per-seat approach. Ten roundtrips per year can cost as little as about $2,350 per month; and if you bring guests, the charge for each can be as low as $1,250 per trip.
Method #2: Use Social Media
If 900 million people will join Facebook, can’t five members of an online community agree to share a chartered flight? That’s the rhetorical question behind the idea of using social media to create air charter communities. Social media is already in the scheduled-flight world with sites like planely.com allowing users to list itineraries and find like-minded travelers. That’s just a few keystrokes from asking who else wants to bolt first class for a private jet.
Some social-media charter portals, such as CoGojets and Jet-It-Together, have foundered. John Ackerman, a Jet-It-Together principal, said a successful venture would require 250,000 members in a given region of the country, a goal that would have taken his group years to reach. Jamie Walker, founder and CEO of CoGojets, said that his service is currently dormant, but he hopes to take another run at the marketplace when the economy improves. Both Ackerman and Walker said they found customers willing to share jets, and viewed creating awareness of the sharing opportunity as the concept’s greatest challenge. Still, online entrepreneurs keep trying.
The carpooling site eRideShare.com, for example, opened a flight-sharing portal for private air travelers about five years ago (erideshare.com/travel.php?group=Flight). Most postings are from small-airplane owners seeking passengers to share expenses, said site founder and CEO Steve Schoeffler. But anyone can post itineraries. List yours, and perhaps a pilot will offer to fly you to your destination for the shared cost of fuel. As always, perform due diligence on the operator.
Socialflights in Smyrna, Tenn., plans to harness social media and networking to create what founder and CEO Jay Deragon calls “the 21st century model for business aviation.” Socialflights’ no-fee site enables members to form and join “Travel Circles” with others seeking to fly to the same area. Any member can initiate or join a flight, with Socialflights handling the bookings. A “seat alert” can be sent to you when preferred departure points or routes are posted. The platform also provides operators with functions that automate back-office tasks such as tracking crew duty time and maintenance records, in an effort to bring more operators into the Socialflights fold.
Socialflights–which says it has 14,000 registered users and 99 charter operators with 600 aircraft on the supply side–lets members reserve seats on flights at prices that often rival first-class airline fares. Recent offerings included a roundtrip seat on a private jet from Greenville, S.C., to Teterboro, N.J., for $423, including federal excise tax. On Kayak.com, first-class airline tickets for the same route recently ran from $703 to $1,216 and required two stops, a clear savings in money and time for charter. Meanwhile, a seat from Chicago to Nashville cost $442 with federal excise tax, vs. a one-way first-class fare of $265 on United.
Just as Hertz or Avis charges you less for an economy car, you can save large sums by downsizing the aircraft you charter. Missions of up to 1,000 nautical miles are within range of many single-engine piston and turbine aircraft and VLJs (very light jets), which have finally found their way into the charter fleet.
Method #3: Opt for a Less Expense Aircraft
JetSuite owns and operates Embraer Phenom 100 four-passenger VLJs and, as noted earlier, charges as little as $999 for L.A.-Las Vegas flights; Oakland-L.A. starts at $1,499. JetSuite also posts $499 “SuiteDeals” on its Facebook page for next-day flights. Nantucket to White Plains, N.Y., and Santa Barbara, Calif., to Reno, Nev., were among one recent day’s offerings.
OpenAir in Gaithersburg, Md., and ImagineAir in Lawrenceville, Ga., operate four-place Cirrus SR-22 single-engine piston aircraft, which can be chartered for about $600 per hour. Tradewind Aviation in Oxford, Conn., charters Pilatus PC-12, Cessna Grand Caravan and Socata TBM 850 single-engine turboprops. For twin-engine reliability, consider Linear Air in Bedford, Mass., which operates Eclipse 500 VLJs for about $1,750 per hour, not including federal excise tax, fuel surcharges and other fees that may apply.
You can search for charter aircraft by type on the Air Charter Guide site to find operators near you that have these economy-class models in their fleets.
Imaginair recently introduced rates for quick-turn roundtrips in its Cirrus SR22s starting as low as $800 in conjunction with select FBOs: Simply fly to one of the approved destinations, have your meeting in a conference room provided by the FBO and depart within two hours. Atlanta to Huntsville, Ala., for example, costs $1,020, and there’s room for three passengers, which means you could pay as little as $340. Delta Air Lines recently charged $824 for one seat in first class on that route, proving that charter for less than first class is possible, if not always as available as discount charter providers would have you believe.
What about ‘empty legs’?
“Empty legs,” also called “deadheads,” are repositioning flights that ordinarily operate with only the crew onboard. Over the last decade, web-based technology has been harnessed to share information about and market empty legs, generating revenue for operators, commissions for brokers and discounts for charter customers.
Empty legs are the by-product of planned charter flights, which are notoriously subject to change. To ensure the widest choice with the least risk of cancellation, you should be looking for trips scheduled for three to 10 days in the future. Air Partner, Air Royale International, Jet Partners and Paramount Business Jets are among brokers that prominently feature empty legs. The National Business Aviation Association posts empty legs on a page on its website that is accessible to members.
Some sites enable you to receive notification when empty legs become available for routes you specify. Since many sites’ listings are populated and powered by the same few platforms, albeit supplemented by inventory from the operator’s or broker’s proprietary sources, duplications abound.
But sites are often not user friendly and the results not encouraging. Also, while some sites will provide estimates, actual prices require manual quoting, and many hours often elapse before you receive a response to a quote request. Moreover, that response often includes only general pricing information, which isn’t comforting when you’re trying to nail down a deal.
I recently searched for a Miami-Teterboro, N.J. empty leg on aggregator site EmptyLegMarket.com with no date set (recommended for maximizing results) and uncovered only two flights in the coming days, both on midsize jets. A call to the operator of one of them revealed that it had already been booked, at about $12,000. The operator didn’t know why the EmptyLegMarket site hadn’t been updated to reflect this.
A call to the second operator was answered by a recording that directed me to a cell number. When I phoned it, I was directed to call yet another number. The person I then reached told me the flight was actually a Part 91 operation (and thus not legally usable for charter), which the aggregator’s software wasn’t able to differentiate from the operator’s Part 135 flights.
However, that operator’s own empty-leg inventory showed a Hawker 800A was available for an empty leg from Fort Lauderdale to Cancun in three days, and another empty leg was open from Cancun to Fort Lauderdale in five days. I asked for a quote and was told it would be emailed to me. Having not received it by the following morning, I called and left a message expressing my eagerness to get a price so I could make plans. I’m still waiting.
“There was never an empty leg,” said Joe Moeggenberg, president and CEO of charter data service ARGUS International in Cincinnati. “Many of the empty legs posted on these sites are not real empty legs,” but simply ways to lure customers, for whom the broker or operator will then try to put a trip together.
Charterauction.com aims to help customers navigate the empty-leg forest. Input your route, date, time and number of travelers and charterauction.com will cull available empty legs, contact its network of operators, solicit bids and report the six best options. The site also has a calculator that estimates starting prices for the trip for appropriate categories of aircraft.
So how much can you save with empty legs? Not nearly enough to make charter competitive with airline fares. In fact, a quote I received for an empty-leg transcontinental flight from one broker was almost 50 percent higher than the published fare of a well-known charter operator.
Typically, though, you can save 15 to 20 percent off regular charter rates, and sometimes more. On my recent discount search, I received an offer of a flight within my three-day window on a Gulfstream GIV from Miami-Opa Locka to Teterboro for “about $13,000 to $14,000,” a very good rate for a large-cabin jet–assuming it’s properly appointed, equipped and crewed. A scheduler at another broker told me she’d sold a one-way from Marco Island, Fla., to Teterboro on a midsize jet that week for $7,500, an outstanding value.
But savings on empty legs are hard to calculate. Hourly rates for specific aircraft are available through some operators’ sites and Air Charter Guide, but these rates vary with the day of the week, time of day, destination, demand trends and other factors. Remember too that empty-leg flights aren’t guaranteed and can disappear if the generating charter trip is cancelled, even if you’ve already paid (in which case, of course, you’d receive a refund).
A myth about empty legs holds that operators consider any income better than no income, and hence empty legs can be had at discounts of 50 percent and more over retail charter prices. Operator attitudes notwithstanding, the charter fleet consists primarily of privately owned aircraft managed by the operator, and the owner has to approve all charter flights. Many owners would indeed rather fly empty than accept an offer they find unreasonably low. You can negotiate the quoted rate, or bargain for service upgrades, but in general don’t expect empty-leg discounts to be more than modest. Moreover, a really good deal bears scrutiny, as it could indicate the owner or operator needs cash, a possible sign that maintenance or other matters relating to safety or quality of the aircraft have been neglected. –J.W.