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10 lessons I've learned as a business jet charter customer
Before booking my first charter flight in 2001, I visited industry Web sites, drove to the airport to sit in some airplanes, got advice from a reputable broker and read through a pile of operators' brochures and guides. I felt as well prepared as any new customer could be.
Boy, was I wrong. While everything I'd done was helpful, it would have been nice to have someone coaching me who'd had experience as the passenger. So if charter is still new for you, these lessons I learned from flying more than 85 segments with 18 operators over the past seven years might come in handy.
1. Choose an operator you know. I prefer flying with a company whose CEO, president or director of operations I've met. There seems to be a lot of turnover among the charter coordinators who plan and book trips, so I like a personal connection with someone I expect to be there for the long haul. Having spoken with these people gives me a better feel for the company and its practices.
2. Scrutinize the quote. A good operator will give you a quote that he or she expects to match on the invoice. The more detail on the quote, the better. Beware of footnotes about hangar fees, de-icing, wait times or anything else. Most of those fees can be identified easily in advance and listed on the quote as contingencies. That gives you a chance to ask what would trigger them. If you book your own charters, note that the hourly rate cited will probably be retail. The first thing to do is ask for the wholesale rate, which typically will get you a 5-percent discount. (Brokers pay the wholesale rate, charge you retail and keep the difference as their fee.) Many operators also will work with you on repositioning fees, wait time and other incidental charges. Becoming a repeat customer will give you better terms, too.
3. Avoid ground-transportation glitches. Cabbies and limo drivers will automatically take you to the commercial airport unless you specify the general aviation field. In fact, you may want to take along driving directions if your plans call for using a GA field because your driver might not know the route. Be sure, also, to bring detailed directions to the FBOs you plan to use; chances are anyone dropping you at the airport won't be able to find them. Finally, beware of promises that the pilots will radio ahead to the FBO to call a cab for you. They probably won't, either because they never read the instructions or because they forgot them. Book a rental car ahead of time with the FBO, or schedule a livery service to meet your flight.
4. Pick your airplane carefully. One third to half the seats on all charter aircraft face the rear or are side-facing couches. My wife, for one, gets airsick if she has to sit in an aft-facing seat. If you're planning to fill the airplane, you might want to check your passengers' preferences ahead of time. In fact, depending on your passenger load, you might want to upgrade to a larger cabin if your flight will last more than 90 minutes. While most turboprops and light jets can carry seven passengers, only the four in the club-seating arrangement are likely to be comfortable on a long flight; the others could have a problem with legroom.
Cabin size isn't the only consideration. I once assumed that all jets in the same size class had about the same cruising speed. I've since learned that some models fly much faster than others. Say you want to go from Austin, Texas, to Akron, Ohio, in a light jet with two passengers. A Learjet 31 would get you there in two hours and 30 minutes; however, a Citation II would take about three hours and 15 minutes. As for midsize jets, consider that the maximum cruise speed of a Learjet 45 is 463 knots-but a Citation X can zip along at 504 knots. [The Citation X is currently the fastest business jet, but the forthcoming Gulfstream G650 promises to be a tad faster.-Ed.] On any flight over two hours, the model you select makes a difference.
5. Meet the pilots and call your spouse. When you arrive at your FBO, there's a good chance your pilots will be waiting to introduce themselves. If not, give the desk attendant your tail number and ask that your pilots be told you're ready to go. However, it is not a good idea to look for the airplane and just walk out on your own. (Speaking of the tail number, it's the charter equivalent of an airliner's flight number; don't leave home without it.)
Just before you board the airplane, ask the pilots what time they expect to land. Then call your spouse and tell him or her. Also, make sure your spouse has a 24-hour number to call to speak with a dispatcher. I started doing this after one of my flights was an hour late arriving because of headwinds and diverting around thunderstorms. I was perfectly safe but my wife didn't know that.
6. Consider scheduling a stop. Just because your aircraft can fly nonstop doesn't mean that you can. With a few exceptions, you need to be in a mid-size or larger jet to have a stand-up, walk-around cabin. Therefore, anything over two hours nonstop in a smaller aircraft can feel a little cramped; and after three hours you may be downright uncomfortable. Also, many turboprops and light jets have inadequate lavatories. It's perfectly all right to schedule a comfort stop or even to ask for one en route.
7. Talk to the pilots-then don't. The most important thing you can do to assure a trouble-free flight is to tell the pilots that keeping you safe is more important than getting you anywhere at any specific time. Then don't talk to them or poke your head in the cockpit when the seatbelt sign is on (they're very busy then). Speaking of the pilots, always fly with two and make certain the copilot is type-rated for the aircraft you're in.
8. Beware of the 12-hour day. You'd think from reading most operators' and brokers' Web sites that you can have the airplane for as long as you want it. Although the crew has a 14-hour duty day, two of those hours are usually filled with pre- and post-flight work. So the reality is that you can use the airplane for only about 12 hours a day. After that, the crew has to go off duty and rest for 10 hours to stay in compliance with FAA requirements [Federal Aviation Regulations Part 135.267.-Ed.]. If your plans call for a longer day, your operator will need to bring in a relief crew.
Sometimes, you can't count on even 12 hours. I once booked a trip that left at noon with a planned return at 4 p.m. I suspected the clients might ask us to stay for dinner but didn't bother to tell my operator, assuming I could have the airplane for up to 12 hours if necessary. Meanwhile, the operator assumed I was sticking to my schedule and assigned a crew that had gone on duty early that morning to fly someone else and had to go off duty by 6 p.m. We got lucky (we got the sale but weren't invited for dinner). But if we had stayed for the meal, I don't know how we would have gotten home that evening.
9. Think twice about catering. I know it sounds odd to complain about the price of lunch when you're shelling out $15,000 for a charter flight, but I find it hard to enjoy a $29.95 meal at 33,000 feet when I know the same food costs $7.99 at the deli. On-board catering is a nice touch when I have passengers or guests, but when I'm flying alone, I skip meals on board and just sip a beverage. Speaking of which: If you like a particular beverage, ask for it when arranging the charter. Otherwise, you'll be stuck with what the last guy who used the airplane liked to drink. Most aircraft without galleys have regular coffee on board but neither decaf nor hot water for tea unless you plan ahead.
More than once, also, I've boarded an airplane for a return flight to discover that the cookies I put aside from lunch or the newspaper I was reading got tossed when the pilots straightened up the cabin. If you don't want that to happen, let them know before you leave the aircraft.
10. Don't tip the crew. I've learned that tipping isn't expected and can actually offend pilots. I've also discovered that if you tend to fly with the same crew, something thoughtful during the holiday season is always well received. My one inviolate rule is that if I order catering for myself, I always order extra for the crew.