“Let me be straight with you. What I'd rather have is an airplane. We just had a third kid. I don't like flying commercial. I like to take my family to Hawaii. When I go east, I'd like to have pilots I know. ”
Each of the major companies in the fractional-share business claims to be number one at something, the point being that it is the smartest choice for you. We investigated some of these claims–all of which we found on the providers' Web sites–to see how well they stand up to scrutiny. What we learned is that most of them hold up pretty well–but also that there are about as many ways to justifiably say you're number one as there are companies in the business.
The claim: Avantair has "the industry's lowest hourly operating costs." The company promises first-year savings that range from 32 percent (compared with a Flight Options Embraer Phenom 300 share) to 58 percent (compared with a NetJets Hawker 900XP share).
The facts: When we asked Avantair about its claim, the company supplied us with a chart that showed all operating costs as of May 2011 for its Piaggio Avanti aircraft and for eight models offered by CitationAir, Flexjet, Flight Options and NetJets. Avantair's total cost per hour ($3,026) does indeed appear to be 32 to 58 percent less than what you'd pay the other providers for the models listed.
The other side of the story: Avantair's chart doesn't account for acquisition costs or buyback provisions (and Avantair is the only major provider that offers no buyback guarantee). Moreover, it doesn't include PlaneSense, which offers the most comparable aircraft; and the models it compares with are not particularly comparable. For example, Avantair says hourly costs are 58 percent less on its Avanti P180 than on a NetJets 900XP–but the Avanti is a $6.4 million turboprop with a 375-cubic-foot cabin and a range of 980 nautical miles while the 900XP is a $16 million jet with a 604-cubic-foot cabin and a range of 2,733 nautical miles. It's no wonder costs are lower for the Avanti.
The claim: CitationAir boasts that "all we fly" are Cessna Citations–"the world's most popular private jets."
The facts: CitationAir–which Cessna owns–is the only fractional provider to offer nothing but Cessna Citations. And you could certainly argue that these are the world's most popular private jets. Cessna has produced about a third of the approximately 16,000 private jets now operating.
The other side of the story: You can also get Citations from other providers and an exclusive focus on one aircraft type isn't a plus if another company's model would better suit your needs or preferences.
The claim: Flexjet has "the youngest closed fleet in the industry" and "pilots and crews in the managed fleet lead their field in experience, training and service."
The facts: Flexjet's fleet has an average age of 5.2 years, according to data supplier JetNet–younger than the fleets of Avantair (6.4 years), CitationAir (6.2 years), Flight Options (9.2 years) and NetJets (8.1 years). (The PlaneSense fleet averages 5.0 years, but Flexjet said it doesn't compare itself with PlaneSense, which operates only turboprops.)
As for the claim that Flexjet's crews and fleet "lead the field," the company notes that it trains its captains to 200 percent of FAA requirements and is the only fractional provider to receive the FAA Diamond award for maintenance training 12 years in a row and the only one to earn the Air Charter Safety Foundation's Industry Audit Standard.
The other side of the story: New is nice but it's questionable whether the small age differences among these fleets affect share owners' experience in any significant way. Also, there are lots of ways to calculate a stat: JetNet's figures include only fractionally owned aircraft; if you also consider managed airplanes used to fly fractional owners, CitationAir, for example, has an average fleet age of less than four years.
Moreover, while Flexjet's FAA award and ACSF audit (the latter a new program) are impressive, the other fractional operators have won other awards and all face thorough audits, usually from Argus or Wyvern. The bottom line is that you should be quite safe and comfortable on jets from any of the major fractional providers, all of which adhere to high standards.
The claim: "Flight Options' common sense approach can save you hundreds of thousands of dollars over the five-year term, as compared to other fractional ownership programs."
The facts: Hard to say. We asked Flight Options several times for the documentation for this statement and were finally told by a spokeswoman that the company "is working on some new initiatives and won't be able to address this particular inquiry of yours." However, she added, "with your vast and deep knowledge of the industry, I'm sure you can probably figure out how they arrived at this conclusion."
The other side of the story: Flight Options' "common sense approach" may or may not make sense for you. Just don't base your decision on unsubstantiated statements.
The claim: "NetJets leads in everything from service, safety and financial stability to the size and variety of our fleet. It is no surprise that NetJets sells more jets than everyone else combined."
The facts: NetJets has the lion's share of the market–and more aircraft than the combined total operated by all five of its leading competitors. Service and safety are harder to quantify, however, and as noted earlier, all the major providers deserve high marks on these counts. As for its finances, NetJets' financial troubles in 2009 are well known, but so is its ownership by Berkshire Hathaway, which arguably means it has a more solid foundation than any other firm in the business. And it posted a $200 million profit in 2010.
The other side of the story: Big has its advantages, but big isn't always better. You might get more personalized attention at a smaller firm that is trying hard to win business and focusing on fewer customers.
The claim: PlaneSense offers "fractional plane ownership at a fraction of the usual cost."
The facts: This claim is vague (what's "usual"?) but there's no doubt that a share of a PlaneSense aircraft will set you back less than an equally sized share from most other major providers.
The other side of the story: Like Avantair's claim, this one ignores the fact that all shares are not created equal. A one-sixteenth share at PlaneSense buys you 45 hours on a Pilatus single-engine turboprop. That may be just what you need, but spending more money elsewhere will buy you more space in a twin-engine jet with greater range, more cabin room and faster cruise speeds.
Editor's Note: Performance figures used in this article were supplied by Conklin & de Decker for BJT's 2011 Buyers' Guide. Conklin & de Decker obtains the data from the aircraft manufacturers. Range numbers represent maximum IFR range with all passenger seats occupied and include an NBAA IFR fuel reserve for a 200-nm alternate.