John T. Lewis

Can the airlines attract business jet travelers?

In some cases, yes. But even their most luxurious perks can’t compete with certain benefits of private flying.

There’s a long-standing tug-of-war between airlines and the private flying industry for elite travelers. Jet card providers, charter operators, fractional-share companies, and even bizjet manufacturers and sales brokers strive to woo those who ride in airlines’ first-class seats. Conversely, airliner marketing strategists constantly come up with new ways to lure passengers from the cabins of private jets. The stakes are high for airline management, since filling those expensive seats can produce a disproportionately significant chunk of the profit margin for a flight, compared with shoehorning more pedestrian butts into the coach seats.

There is no ambiguity here. Airlines see private aviation as poaching from their pool of elite travelers. Perhaps providing evidence of a widening disparity of wealth, last fall Delta Air Lines began adding more first-class seats for customers on its smaller regional jets so it could offer seamless first-class service for those departing from secondary markets, then connecting at hubs to longer flights. Ironically, the strategy is designed to help Delta weather an expected economic downturn by appealing to wealthier, more recession-proof customers.

(Illustration: John T. Lewis)

Among the significant perks airlines dangle in front of potential first-class passengers, some address one of the top reasons why people fly privately: a hassle-free ground experience, thanks to dedicated terminals known as FBOs (fixed base operators) that enable them to lounge in comfort—and away from the masses—while waiting for flights.

Germany’s flag carrier Lufthansa has taken aim at that advantage with its dedicated first-class terminal at Frankfurt Airport, with a cigar lounge, quiet rooms, and personal assistants. There’s even a luxury car to take travelers directly to the airplane.

But there are some things the airlines cannot change about their passenger experience. A significant example is the hub-and-spoke network in which these carriers fly. Of more than 5,000 airports in the U.S., only 503 have commercial flights, and small feeder airlines serve about 90 percent of those. The overwhelming majority of airline flights in the country arrive and depart from around 50 airports.

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The system works pretty well for those who live within easy reach of one of those airports and whose final destinations are also close to a major facility. And for those who don’t mind hopping a regional jet and switching planes, perhaps at both ends, the airlines can do a good job, especially in first class.

But for many fliers, the only way to depart from an airport within minutes of home or office and to touch down equally close to the final destination is to use private aviation. And even when the airline airport is close by, there’s still the matter of security screenings. To avoid those, you have to go through the private terminals at FBOs.

Even Lufthansa, moreover, cannot match the five-star hotel level of service at an FBO, especially at smaller airports. Representatives and concierges at many of these facilities not only ensure passengers are comfortable while on site; they’re also trained and available to assist with local hotel reservations, ground transportation, entertainment and dining recommendations, and more.

And the pilots and cabin attendant are often readily accessible to answer questions on everything from catering to interesting sights passengers are likely to see out the window en route. Being able to meet the aircrew can be reassuring and can provide an extra layer of comfort for uneasy fliers—a seldom-mentioned benefit of private air travel.

Thanks to new internet-based apps and other platforms for accessing a seat on a private jet, the experience of flying privately is evolving. Skeptics believed the shared-use model—flying on a private jet with strangers—couldn’t succeed, because passengers wouldn’t be comfortable without their privacy. But that skepticism missed a key point. Rather than assessing whether existing business jet travelers would share their space, the real question is whether or not first-class airline travelers would see value in the further advantages of private flying.

The industry is finding that well-heeled, younger travelers not only tolerate flying with strangers, they sometimes welcome the chance to meet and network with like-minded passengers, not only on board the jet but while gathering at the FBO beforehand. And if it’s high-end networking you’re after, even a first-class airline lounge can’t compete with the connections you can make in a bizjet or at an FBO.