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Inside Charters: Buying charter by the seat
This increasingly available option can save you lots of money. Here’s what you need to consider.
Per-seat charter, the shared-flight/reduced-cost air-taxi concept, continues to attract would-be providers, despite a dearth of clamoring passengers or seats to put them in. JumpSeat, Surf Air and Arrow Flight Club are among recent entrants into the arena. Meanwhile, per-seat charter company BlackJet (née Greenjets) recently unveiled a major route expansion, a sign that the concept may be gaining traction. Nonetheless, many charter professionals remain skeptical of per-seat’s appeal, because of its reduced privacy and flexibility. The questions for you are: Would you share a charter flight with strangers? And if so, what per-seat charter opportunities are available now?
As a per-seat traveler, you give up the luxury of having the cabin to yourself, the control of specifying when you want to take off and, in some cases, what airports you want to use. But you still avoid hassles ranging from security lines to the delays and cancellations that come with airline travel. And per-seat savings over traditional charter can be considerable. BlackJet guarantees a seat on a Los Angeles–New York flight for $3,500, its highest fare. Xojet, which helped bring transparent, point-to-point pricing to the charter industry, charges $25,300 or more for that route. And per-seat providers pledge to maintain the quality level associated with charter.
Per-seat providers fall into two basic categories: arrangers and facilitators. Arrangers broker or operate per-seat flights; facilitators provide the platform for would-be per-seat passengers to hook up and book.
BlackJet, which fits in the arranger category, has brokered more than 1,000 per-seat flights between New York, South Florida and Los Angeles since 2009 and has recently added service to and from San Francisco, Las Vegas, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Dallas and Washington, D.C. In addition, it has introduced an iPhone app to expedite bookings and has reduced its annual membership fee to $2,500 from the previous $10,000 minimum. CEO Dean Rochin claims BlackJet is succeeding, and he attributes that partly to its high-traffic routes.
Two upstart arrangers, Surf Air and Arrow Flight Club, now also serve popular markets.
Santa Monica, California’s Surf Air bears many hallmarks of a per-seat charter arranger, but officially ranks as an airline because its three Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprops make scheduled flights. The company, which launched in June, operates between Burbank, San Carlos and Santa Barbara, California. It offers “all you can fly” memberships for a monthly fee of $1,650, and members can hold bookings on four flights at any one time. You can make reservations from three months to three minutes in advance via Apple and Android smartphones.
To balance seat supply and demand, Surf Air selected about 150 members from a pool of 4,300 applicants, according to CEO and cofounder Wade Eyerly. Operated from general aviation terminals, the PC-12s are below the weight that requires passenger screening, allowing travelers to board and disembark as they would on a private aircraft. Surf Air operates 16 flights per day and would like to have 10 aircraft by next year, enabling it to expand service to Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, Nevada; and, in California, to Palm Springs, Sacramento and the Sonoma/Napa area.
Arrow Flight Club inaugurated per-seat flights in July between its base at Seattle’s Boeing Field and Oakland and San Jose, California, aboard Piaggio P180 Avanti II twin-engine turboprops operated by Kenmore Air. Individual and corporate memberships (the latter covering four people) cost $200 and $500 per month, respectively. Roundtrips between Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area in California run about $1,000. Arrow also plans to connect Oakland and San Jose with Los Angeles via Burbank and Orange County airports, with fares starting at $299.
If you’re interested in per-seat charter outside of main travel corridors, you can turn to facilitators. London’s Victor, a membership-based charter booking portal launched in 2011, features per-seat charter on its website. Victor’s charter customers can offer empty seats for sale on flights they book, and founder Clive Jackson says about 25 percent of them are doing so. (Customers receive 70 percent of per-seat revenue.) Victor’s charter customers traveling one way may also opt to pay a roundtrip rate and sell seats on the return leg, which can further reduce their overall cost, Jackson says.
For any flights with per-seat availabilities, the portal displays the price, specific aircraft, registration number, interior and exterior photos, operator and other relevant info. Recently, the site listed about 150 flights in Europe and North and Central America. Members seeking seats on specific routes can register for alerts when such flights are posted. The impediment to per-seat charter among members now, Jackson says, is the lack of critical mass of available seats, though he believes Victor will have enough inventory in the system “in the next year” to create a vibrant market.
Massachusetts-based JumpSeat pairs passengers looking for a seat with aircraft owners willing to share seats, and the company engages in “aerial matchmaking” to ensure the parties are compatible. (Owners have veto power over who may buy seats, based on member profiles provided by JumpSeat.) The company typically doesn’t offer single seats, but rather blocks of two or four.
You can peruse listings of available flights, get alerts when a listing posts for a route that interests you or post a flight you’re willing to commit to if another member will share costs. Inaugurated in March, JumpSeat has about 3,000 members (mostly seat buyers) and recently had listings for some 150 upcoming charter flights across North America with seats available. JumpSeat takes a commission on the bookings it facilitates.
Per-seat charter may or may not be the right choice for you, but it appears you’ll have an increasing number of opportunities to try it and find out.
The Shared-Cabin Experience
Since they can’t promise you’ll have an aircraft to yourself, per-seat providers are touting the positive side of sharing. Surf Air aims to “create an exclusive...community of travelers.” JumpSeat envisions “a revolutionary new private community” while Arrow Flight Club says its cabins may serve as networking platforms where “you’ll discover great partnerships and business opportunities.”
Does this mean per-seat fliers must give up serenity as well as privacy? Says BlackJet CEO Dean Rochin, “Everybody’s entitled to quiet enjoyment. That is in the [BlackJet] membership agreement. Leave people alone. If you’re on with someone famous, don’t ask for autographs.” —J.W.
James Wynbrandt welcomes comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What our readers had to say
CHARTER BY THE SEAT
Thanks for James Wynbrandt’s recent article on charter by the seat [Inside Charters, August/September 2013]. I am a big fan of BJT and I always appreciate the thoroughness with which you folks delve into topics.
While you touched on the perceived positive sides of the “by the seat” concept (ostensibly that private air travel can be cheap and accessible to the masses)—and certain sectors of the market have welcomed these new, typically well-funded “disruptors” to our industry—I believe they represent yet another sign of an alarming trend in the business that I refer to as the “Race to the Bottom.” The commoditization of the private aviation business, specifically aircraft charter, will ultimately come at a very significant price to the entire industry. Quality, service levels and, ultimately safety, will decline in lockstep with rock-bottom pricing. The plain truth is that private jets aren’t meant to be cheap and it’s irresponsible to market them as such.