Four Affordable Ways to Fly Private

You don’t have to spend a fortune to ditch the airlines and enjoy business jet travel.

Want to own a bizliner fit for a king? Don’t we all! But purchasing, outfitting, and operating such an aircraft can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and buying even a midsize jet can be quite expensive.

Fortunately, much more affordable alternatives exist for those who want to enjoy the many benefits of flying privately. You can charter an aircraft, join a flight club, or even buy a single seat on a chartered airplane, for example. Another option is to buy a jet card, which typically entitles you to a certain number of flight hours on a particular aircraft model. You can also purchase a fractional share of an aircraft, which provides many of the benefits of ownership without some of its responsibilities and allows you to fly on any airplane of the same model in the program’s fleet. Read on for more details about all these options. 

1. Charter

With traditional charter, you pay only for what you use, though this could include the cost of getting the aircraft from its home base to your departure point and from your destination back to its home base. The upfront cost is much less than with fractional ownership and jet cards. There are a couple of thousand charter operators and brokers in the U.S. 

What to Consider First

  • Look at your business travel needs to determine the cost/benefit ratio. How much time do you and your employees spend getting to and from airports and clients’ facilities, staying in hotels, and waiting for connecting flights? How much of that time would be devoted to productive work if you used charter? 
  • Should you use ad hoc, show-up-and-take-off charter, or prearranged block charter? 
  • Do you make only a few trips a year? Then, on-demand charter is best. Do you send groups? If annual flying time averages as much as 25 to 50 hours, block charter is your answer, because it offers a discount off hourly rates and a quicker response. 

How to Hook Up with Operators 

What to Do Before Signing Up 

  • Deal only with an operator that has Part 135 certification. 
  • Ask what aircraft are in the fleet. There’s a big difference between a recent-vintage jet and one made two decades ago. 
  • Beware of any operator that is reluctant to say whether it has passed an independent audit. Notable auditors include ARGUS, Wyvern, IBAC (IS-BAO), and the Air Charter Safety Foundation. A successful audit isn’t a guarantee but it’s reassuring. 
  • Inquire about insurance. Most companies carry a minimum of $50 million for a light jet. Ask to see the certificate. 
  • When you’ve homed in on one or a few operators, submit your itinerary to get workups on costs and arrangements. 
  • Make sure the 24-hour, 365-day service claimed by the operator is a fact. 
  • Visit the operator’s base for a final check.
  • Note that most charter operators lease (or “manage”) the aircraft; thus, the pilots who fly may be employees of the aircraft owner, not the charter company. 

What the Operator Needs to Know from You

  • Your exact destination. The operator may find it more convenient for you to use one of the many general aviation airports not served by the airlines. Do you require a specific airport? 
  • How much luggage you’ll carry. Any special food, audio/visual equipment, and lavatory requirements? What are your ground transportation needs?
  • Should the crew and airplane wait at the destination to fly you home? Or is it OK for you to be dropped off and picked up later? 
  • The number of passengers and, especially if you are a first-time customer, all of their identities. The operator may have to do a background check for some destinations. 
  • Your aircraft preference. Experienced charter fliers have a specific aircraft type in mind. First-timers may wish to leave this decision to the operator, though it can pay to know the general capabilities of various business aircraft. 

How Operators Address Costs 

  • Cost depends on the type and size of aircraft, time in the air, scheduling, and special services and amenities, such as catering. 
  • The provider may charge for “positioning” the aircraft (delivering it to where you need it or returning it to its home base). There may also be airport fees and landing and parking charges.
  • Some operators will quote a package price that won’t change. 
  • Don’t expect operators to wait to get paid for a trip. Before they’ll take off, many will want payment in full, especially from first-time customers. (Payment by credit card makes the most sense.)

Should You Use a Charter Broker? 

  • You should use a broker if you can’t or don’t want to choose a charter operator and make your own arrangements. 
  • Some experts contend that dealing directly with an operator is always the smart option if the trip will involve flying to a single destination and returning. 

What a Broker Does 

  • A good air-charter broker is much more than an experienced travel agent or savvy concierge. (Look for an endorsement from independent auditors such as ARG/US or Wyvern.) 
  • A broker will determine the aircraft models that best suit your trip and which airports get you closest to your destination
  • The best brokers can call on a wide range of operators and will know which are the most reliable. 
  • Some larger brokers are based outside the U.S. and maintain offices in several countries. (Note that European nations have more restrictions on noise, overflights, landing rights, and procedures for embarking and disembarking.)
  • Experienced brokers not only know the usual charter rates; they also buy big blocks of flying time at a healthy discount. They can pass part of that markdown along to you, which is why booking a trip through a broker may cost you no more, or even less, than chartering on your own and paying “retail.” (Usually, however, you can expect the broker to add 7 to 10 percent to the charter operator’s “wholesale” price.)

How to Find the Right Broker 

  • As with charter operators, never choose a broker based only on its website’s presentation or claims. Personal recommendations can be the best starting point. If you can’t get a recommendation, at least compare several brokers’ websites. Then call two or more of them. Numerous articles on the BJT website contain tips that can help you find a qualified broker. (Search our site for the word "broker.")
  • Ask how long each firm has been in business, how many charter operators it deals with regularly, and whether it maintains around-the-clock service. Also, ask for the names and phone numbers of clients you can talk with. 
  • It’s a serious red flag if a brokerage doesn’t make it clear that it’s a middleman and doesn’t actually operate aircraft.

[Related: To charter your jet or not to chater your jet - that is the question


2. Jet Cards 

Jet cards come in two basic types. One provides access to a fleet of aircraft, from which any type can be selected on a flight-by-flight basis. The other provides use of a particular type of aircraft for a specified amount of time. With a jet card, you pay more per hour aloft than you would with regular charter. However, there are no repositioning fees. 

Some jet cards use a captive fleet, such as from a fractional provider; others use aircraft from many charter companies.

How Cards Work

  • They are similar to block charter but are more formalized for a mass market. (Note that some charter providers offer debit programs that, while not marketed as jet cards, offer similar and in some cases superior benefits, such as no blackout dates or peak-day surcharges.)
  • You pay an upfront lump sum—$100,000 to $165,000 for 25 hours, sometimes a lot more—and your deposit is debited for each trip.
  • Average flying-hour charges are $4,000 to $6,600 for a light jet, $6,500 to $7,900 for a midsize jet, $9,000 to $10,000 for a super-midsize, and $11,000 to $15,000 for a heavy jet. 
  • A single fee covers costs for the airplane, the crew, standard catering, maintenance, and insurance. 

Key Benefits 

  • Guaranteed access is the biggest advantage. Unlike ad hoc charter, most cards ensure you can get lift whenever you need it. (Some have blackout periods or peak dates, however, when access may be limited.)
  • Booking and paying are less complicated than they are with ad hoc charter. 
  • Unlike fractional shares, jet cards mean you don’t have to worry about management fees, exit penalties, long-term capital commitments, or depreciation risks.
  • You are guaranteed to get the type of aircraft your card promises. In addition, most card providers allow you to upgrade or downgrade, though this will raise or lower the charge. 
  • Many cards offer discounted hourly rates for some round-trip flights.

Extra Costs to Consider 

  • Separate charges for in-flight services or for landing and airport fees. 
  • Extra 10th of an hour charged at each end of a flight to cover taxiing. 
  • Some charge extra for overnight and peak-day travel. 
  • Fuel surcharges, to reflect an increase in prices since the trip cost was first quoted.
  • Federal Excise Tax, which may or may not be included in the price you’re quoted.

Questions to Ask 

  • Who owns, manages, flies, and services the aircraft?
  • Is the aircraft owner/manager audited regularly by Argus, Wyvern, or the Air Charter Safety Foundation, or is it IS-BAO certified? 
  • Will the provider guarantee availability of the type of jet you specify?
  • Are aircraft upgrades and downgrades permissible?
  • Is there an expiration date? If so, will you receive a full or partial refund for unused flight time when the card expires?
  • Is the card renewable under the same, or more favorable, terms?
  • Is the card transferable? 
  • How much notice do you have to give to book a flight? 
  • Can you split time between two models? 
  • Can you use more than one aircraft simultaneously? 
  • Can you choose between newer and older aircraft if the provider has a two-tier fleet? 
  • Does the provider offer off-peak pricing? 
  • Must you agree in advance not to use aircraft during high-demand periods? 
  • Are there discounts for round trips?
  • Do one- or two-hour minimum flight times apply? ​


3. Membership Clubs and Per-Seat Charter 

Membership programs and per-seat charter are the most recent access innovations. Several early efforts to offer regularly scheduled per-seat charter flights faltered, but shared flights found success in subscription-based “all you can fly” programs providing basically unlimited flights aboard business aircraft on a network of high-demand routes in locations including California and Texas.

How Membership and Per-seat Charter Programs Differ, and How They’re Similar

  • All membership programs charge fees—typically an initiation fee and/or a monthly or annual membership or subscription fee.
  • Several membership programs feature per-seat charter flights; others simply provide access to a fleet of charter aircraft you pay for by the flight. 
  • Not all per-seat charter offerings require membership, and some have dropped such requirements. 
  • Programs where membership is optional provide better rates and other benefits to members, which can make joining advantageous.
  • The tiered memberships that some programs offer provide progressively greater benefits, such as lower rates or easier access to seats or reservations.
  • The number of subscription-based “all you can fly” programs is limited; you can’t take advantage of them unless you live and travel around their few service areas.
  • Some subscription-based “all you can fly” memberships start at about $2,000 per month.
  • Some per-seat providers offer scheduled service from private terminals at prices comparable to what airlines charge for first or business class and are available to anyone.

Key Benefits of Memberships and Per-Seat Charter

  • Shared flights usually offer much lower-cost access to charter.
  • Per-seat charter offerings can beat the airlines on time en route and even price on some routes.
  • Memberships that provide access to closed fleets can offer more consistent and better service than on-demand charter.
  • Membership programs may give you access to a closed fleet and per-seat charter as well as dedicated on-demand charter brokerage, simplifying travel arrangements if you need access to multiple lift options.

Drawbacks of Membership and Per-seat Charter

  • Other than on a few high-traffic routes, it’s difficult to find regular and reliable per-seat charter flights.
  • You can get much of what some membership programs offer on the open charter market without paying any fees.
  • Per-seat programs have a rocky financial history, and membership deposits aren’t held in segregated accounts.
  • If you’re sharing the cabin, you have no control over who your fellow passengers will be, and you’ll be traveling in close quarters for probably two or more hours. 

What to Do Before Joining a Membership Club 

  • Read the contract, and make sure it reflects any information you’ve been provided—such as a sales pitch on the phone—that has influenced your purchasing decision.
  • Know the recurring and renewal costs and understand exactly what your membership benefits are. 
  • Compare what the membership provides with what the program offers to non-members (if applicable) and to what similar service you can get on the open market.
  • Check cancellation fees, call-out times, blackout dates, peak-date surcharges, and other details that can greatly affect a program’s value and utility, just as you would with a card product.
  • Don’t be influenced to join or use a service because a celebrity has tweeted about it or endorsed it or a well-known person sits on the board.​


4. Fractional Ownership

About 4,000 individuals and companies in the U.S. own shares in aircraft. To become a fractional shareholder, you pay an upfront acquisition fee, which is less than what you’d typically spend to buy an aircraft outright. Fractional contracts usually last two to five years. If you want to get out of the deal before the contract ends, your provider is obligated to repurchase your share but will charge a remarketing fee (typically, 7 to 12 percent). 

Key Benefits

  • Like a full owner, you may be able to take deprecation to reduce after-tax cost. 
  • Unlike a full owner, you can walk away without much trouble, typically after just five years. 
  • Your costs are fixed, though the monthly management fee usually increases each year, depending on the Consumer Price Index. Hourly rates might also vary with inflation and fuel costs. 
  • Your share gives you part ownership of one specific aircraft but entitles you to fly on any airplane in the fleet. Thus, you may never travel on the airplane you own. So when you want “your” Challenger 300, you’ll actually get a Challenger 300. If your company needs two Challenger 300s simultaneously, you can have them. 
  • You can request an upgrade or downgrade and be assessed more or less than your normal hourly charge. 
  • Travel outside the U.S. may be just as easy. With some contracts, you can travel to Canada, the Caribbean, and Mexico. 
  • Many owners consider consistency of service one of the biggest pluses of fractional. 
  • Another advantage: you generally pay only for the time you fly—not for moving the aircraft to or from where you need it. You don’t totally escape this expense, however: rates usually incorporate the cost of “positioning,” but it’s spread among all shareholders. 

Negatives You Should Consider 

  • You need to book flights ahead of time. 
  • Programs charge late fees if you show up well beyond your scheduled departure hour. 
  • Programs require more advance notice on peak travel days. 
  • If your flying needs decrease, you can wind up paying lots of money for nothing. 
  • Costs upfront are relatively fixed, but the amount you receive for your share when you leave the program is another matter. Fractional operators agree to pay fair market value, but you may not like its offer. (In that case, the operator may allow you to find a buyer on your own or with the help of a fractional-interest reseller or aircraft broker.) 
  • While a fractional share gives you title to only a slice of a jet, that generally makes you at least partly liable even when you’re not on board. (However, the fractional program assumes all liability if it has voluntarily opted to operate under Part 135, rather than Part 91 Subpart K.)
  • If you fly primarily on high-usage or “peak” travel days, you may not be guaranteed a flight or find yourself on a charter. 
  • If you fly lots of short hops, you’ll lose flight time because you’re charged a minimum of one hour for each flight. 
  • Many owners have gotten less than expected for shares at the end of their ownership terms due to the rapid loss of residual values seen in recent years. 

Costs You Will End Up Paying

  • The typical share minimum is one-16th, considered equal to 50 hours, and costs upwards of $500,000. Some companies, however, sell shares by the number of days per month or year that you have access to the aircraft, rather than the number of hours. You can pay acquisition fees in cash, but most providers offer financing options. 
  • You have to pay a monthly management charge. This can start at about $9,000 for a one-16th share in a new light jet and go to more than $15,000 for a one-16th large-cabin share. 
  • There’s also an hourly operational fee—about $2,000 for a new light jet and $4,500 or more for large ones. 
  • Most programs add 12 minutes to the length of each trip, to cover the cost of taxiing before takeoff and after landing. 
  • You may be charged extra for communications services. 
  • You may face surcharges for short trips and fuel stops. 
  • Another cost factor is how the provider determines what the share is worth when you sell. So while all contracts say “fair market value,” they’re interpreting that phrase in widely different ways. 

Lease or Buy?

  • A lease doesn’t require as much commitment as a purchase. (A 24-month contract is common.) 
  • With a lease, you don’t worry about what a share will be worth. 
  • On the other hand, you get no depreciation to deduct with a lease nor will you have residual value to cash in. 

Why You Will Need Help 

  • While not quite as complicated as full ownership, fractional shares involve more complex paperwork than jet cards and block-charter arrangements. 
  • You have to enter into at least four agreements, including a deposit/binder, a purchase agreement, an agreement that stipulates you’re hiring the fractional program to manage the aircraft, and a master interchange agreement that allows for sharing of a particular serial-numbered aircraft. 
  • Most people hand the job of scrutinizing these agreements to an attorney specializing in private aviation

Tips for Share Buyers

  • Minimize deprecation. Invest in an aircraft type with good residual value. Consider buying aircraft that are a few years old. You might negotiate how much depreciation will be allowed over the term of your contract. 
  • Study escape clauses. Find out under what terms you can sell your share early. 
  • Get help. Consider a consultant and find an attorney who specializes in this field. 
  • Make sure that the aircraft you choose will accommodate your passenger load and luggage on most trips. 
  • Carefully estimate the total cost including surcharges, expense increases, and loss in value. 
  • Shop around. Despite what your salesperson will tell you, there is room to negotiate. 
  • Seek alternate sourcing. Consider working with an independent fractional-share broker.

Advantages over Jet Cards and Charter

  • No extra charge for one-way trips. 
  • Easy scheduling and guaranteed availability (subject to certain limitations during “peak periods”).
  • Uniformity in maintenance and operation of program aircraft. 
  • Flexibility in using a wide range of aircraft.
  • Depending on usage, fractional can be less expensive in the long run than jet cards.

Disadvantages Compared with Jet Cards and Charter

  • High, upfront capital investment.
  • Long-term commitment.
  • Ongoing costs regardless of use.
  • Market risk regarding the value of aircraft.
  • Generally more expensive than charter.