An influx of new customers is one of many changes affecting the charter field. (Photo: Adobe Stock)
An influx of new customers is one of many changes affecting the charter field. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Charter Market Seeing Seismic Shift

COVID-driven demand from new users amid a wave of consolidation is transforming the market.

Consolidation, COVID, unprecedented demand, stock exchange listings—the charter industry has been on a wild ride of late, bringing both opportunities and challenges.

Demand Up and Expected to Remain High

The U.S. has dominated the global air charter market, and activity stateside is up about 55 percent over pandemic-stunted 2020, according to Colorado-based Argus International.

Both Argus and Hamburg, Germany–based WingX have reported some cooling of demand growth in the U.S., and a greater fall-off in Europe, though demand overall is expected to remain 15 to 20 percent above pre-pandemic levels.

It’s driven, operators say, by an influx of new-to-business aviation customers, many of them younger and willing to spend more than traditional charterers—something customers across the board must do today.

These new customers and the general pandemic push away from commercial carriers spurred dramatic change in the market.

A Big Turnaround

For a decade following the Great Recession, an oversupply of lift ceded command of the market to charter brokers, who shopped by price, putting constant downward pressure on charter rates. Jet cards were offered in tiered programs, giving customers a choice of service levels, or access to a specific, in-demand model. Some program memberships included free or highly discounted flights.

In 2019, JetSmarter (then in the process of being acquired by Vista Group) paid $3 million to settle claims over deceptive sales practices after it summarily ended such perks. At the time, a one-way fare on a super-midsize jet between New York and Miami cost about $20,000, according to Avinode, and a growing chorus of operators pronounced rates unsustainable, as they didn’t provide owners enough offsetting revenue to justify chartering out their aircraft.

It only became worse from there. In June 2020, the market had cratered from COVID. That New York–Miami flight cost had halved, to about $10,000. Operators were challenged to put enough hours on their jets to comply with manufacturers’ warranty requirements and keep flight crews current.

But demand recovered as the year unfolded, and by the start of 2021, rates were at pre-pandemic levels; the average hourly charter cost for a midsize jet was $6,900, according to Argus.

By July 2022, 18 months later, that midsize jet cost $9,300 per hour, a 35 percent increase, and the price has continued upward.

Private Jet Card Comparisons (PJCC) uses a basket of typical flights to calculate an average fare for comparative purposes, and the second and third quarters of this year saw a typical lowest-available on-demand fare jump 18 percent, from $24,367 to $29,794.

Additionally, operators have been moving toward dynamic pricing, which can spike peak demand prices by 50 percent, according to PJCC data. Jet card prices also increased 4 percent in the last quarter, the access consultancy said.

But demand still has exceeded the system’s capacity. Some jet card and fractional ownership providers suspended sales to meet increased lift needs from current customers, though a number have begun reopening membership rolls in recent months.

Even with the suspension, charter customers have found that service has been affected negatively, exacerbated by the absence of any slack in scheduling or supply.

“There are delays every day,” said Craig Ross, founder and president of AviationPortfolio, a consultancy that serves as an advocate for jet card and high-time charter clients, as well as fractional and whole aircraft owners.

Given the current constraints, he tells dissatisfied consumers, “It’s possible there's a better solution, a more appropriate solution, or maybe a supplemental solution, but in this environment, there are no great options.”

Impacts of Consolidation

Before COVID became the defining storyline, consolidation among access providers was reordering the industry in the late teens, as operators and management companies sought scale that would provide operational flexibility and savings, along with the infrastructure to support growth. Since 2017, there have been 92 private aviation operating company transactions, according to Directional Aviation principal Kenn Ricci, who said there has been an influx of capital into the sector.

The consolidation trend seems to have accelerated, exemplified if not led by what can be called the Big Three access providers: Directional Aviation, Vista Group, and Wheels Up, distinguished by their shared individual goals of providing global, full-service private aviation access, and the means to finance their ambitions. 

Over the last decade, Ohio-based Directional Aviation’s OneSky Flight portfolio has grown through acquisitions including the Flexjet fractional ownership program (purchased from Bombardier); jet card provider Sentient Jet; digital retail charter booking platform PrivateFly; and aircraft management firm Sirio, in Italy.

In October, Ricci said Flexjet has seen 60 percent year-over-year growth to date in 2022 and announced OneSky will go public on the New York Stock Exchange through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

The offering, under the Flexjet name, is expected to close in the second quarter and values FXJ, as the company will be listed, at about $2.6 billion. Proceeds from the stock sale will fund additional program expansion.

Operating more than 200 jets, Flexjet claims some 10,000 “committed subscription contracts,” a 97 percent customer-retention rate, and combined with income from its siblings, a projected 2022 EBITDA of some $288 million.

Dubai-based Vista Global Holdings, parent of charter fleet owner/operator VistaJet International and the XO charter brokerage, reported standout third-quarter earnings that capped strong year-to-date performance. Sales in the U.S. of VistaJet’s block charter programs (50 or more flight hours per year) for the quarter were up 185 percent year-over-year, with new clients accounting for 70 percent of the hours sold.

Vista began its acquisitions in 2018 with JetSmarter, which had developed a sophisticated mobile booking app that now underpins XO’s charter brokerage platform. But Vista had already demonstrated its aggressive approach by ordering 10 Bombardier Global 7500s (Global 8000s at the time) in 2011, a decade before the ultra-long-range jets entered service. The platforms have proved extremely popular with customers since joining the fleet in 2021, Malta-based VistaJet said.

This year, Vista Group acquired U.S. large-cabin-jet operator Jet Edge, bringing its fleet to more than 350 aircraft, and Air Hamburg, a major European charter operator. 

The group this year also completed putting the entire fleet in Vista’s silver- and red-accented livery, while adding super-midsize jets to the previously all-large and ultra-long-range fleet, with the integration of XO’s former Challenger 300/350s and Citation Xs. VistaJet also introduced this year a hybrid program; and a VJ-25 jet card, both offering regional service in the eastern U.S., Western Europe, and parts of MEA.

Meanwhile, consolidation transformed Wheels Up into the world’s largest charter operator, according to Argus, with more than twice the flight hours (82,000-plus) of second-place Executive Jet Management. Launched in 2013 as a fleet-access membership program utilizing King Air 350i twin turboprops, Wheels Up has subsequently acquired charter operators including light jet fleet owner Travel Management Company, and Delta Private Jets via merger in 2019; Gama Aviation in 2020; Mountain Aviation in 2021; and this year, Alante Air, along with U.K.-based global charter broker Air Partner.

Chairman and CEO Kenny Dichter took Wheels Up public on the New York Stock Exchange (UP) in July 2021 via a SPAC, making it the first publicly traded private aviation operator. At the midpoint this year, year-over-year second-quarter revenue increased 49 percent, memberships grew 20 percent, and prepaid block sales surged 187 percent.

But costs of expansion and supply constraints including pilot shortages led to a 320 percent increase in net loss for the quarter. The stock has lost about 90 percent of its value since the company went public but Wheels Up’s financial projections show positive adjusted EBITDA in 2024. In October, Wheels Up closed on a $259 million loan, backed by its primary fleet of 134 aircraft, that will be used in part for a new operations center in Atlanta, Dichter said.

Other providers grew simultaneously, organically, and through acquisitions. Jet card program operator Jet Linx surpassed 100 jets in its fleet, and a score of branded terminals across the U.S.

Charter/management firm Solairus Aviation, headquartered in California, now has more than 280 jets in its midsize-and-larger turbine fleet, and in October launched a light jet and turboprop management program.

North Carolina–based FlyExclusive, meanwhile, morphed from a major wholesale fleet owner/operator to a much larger wholesale and retail charter operator, and this year ordered 44 new Citation Jets (30 CJ3+ lights jets; and 14 midsize Citation XLS Gen2 and super-midsize Longitudes); launched a fractional ownership program; announced it will go public through a SPAC, and opened a new maintenance facility to support its vertical integration. The public offering puts FlyExclusive’s pre-transaction equity value at $600 million and is expected to provide up to $300 million to fund growth.

Owner, chairman, and CEO Jim Segrave, who has no investment partners, founded FlyExclusive in 2015, five years after he sold Segrave Aviation, where he pioneered the floating charter fleet model, to Delta Private Jets.

FlyExclusive’s foundational midsize fleet was built through the purchase and refurbishment of preowned aircraft, and a nascent plan to create a retail charter arm was accelerated when COVID collapsed wholesale demand. Before placing orders for new jets this year, Segrave had remarked how difficult it was becoming to find economically suitable fleet aircraft on the preowned market.

Notwithstanding the power and allure of scalability, numerous small operators and brokers report doing brisk business, with charter customers and aircraft owners often migrating from larger providers where they feel service has declined. Executive Fliteways, whose former dispatcher bought the company when it was about to be sold to a large operator at the height of the pandemic, is just one example.

Looking Forward

Directional’s Ricci sees consolidation enabling charter operators to better compete with airlines, not only for customers but for talent as the pilot supply chain continues to tighten. At the same time, however, he told attendees at the recent Corporate Jet Investor Miami event that this will put pressure on smaller operators vying for the same resources, as well as on corporate flight departments.

The amount of private aircraft available for nonscheduled commercial operations has increased by about 25 percent since 2016, but the number of operators has begun to decline.