Flight Sharing Helps to Redefine Charter’s Role

Is the industry having an identity crisis or simply reinventing itself?

Private air charter has long stood on one foundational principle that justified its existence and cost: go where you want, when you want. It has been a promise as well as a premise. Maybe an out-of-town meeting suddenly commanded your attendance. Perhaps you needed to delay a flight at the last minute and add a destination to your itinerary. Or the airport you wanted to access didn’t accommodate airlines. No problem—call the charter provider! 

The concierge service and bespoke luxury, the sense of privacy, exclusivity, and yes, glamour, are baked into charter, but they have not been its essence. That’s all been just gourmet icing atop the unfettered freedom at charter’s core. Anyone, according to the industry’s most basic tenet, could absolutely, positively be the cossetted human equivalent of a FedEx package. 

Of course, this service has always come at a steep price—typically far higher than first-class airfares on similar routes. In another sense, though, it has always been a bit of a bargain: for most of the past two decades, the hourly rates that business jet owners have charged people to use their aircraft for charter have been below the per-hour ownership costs. That’s something customers have long been able to feel smug about, but even that benefit of charter travel is going away: hourly fees have risen along with pilot salaries and the demand for lift. In fact, an unprecedented increase in demand has had an inverse impact on service quality, while also giving jet owners the juice to boost rates.

But now charter is facing an identity crisis—or perhaps being reinvented. To be blunt, it is no longer capable of fulfilling its foundational pledge consistently and reliably. You cannot go where you want, when you want, even if you’re willing to pay top dollar. Keep in mind that a charter customer (block-time buyers included) doesn’t enjoy guaranteed access. That puts you last in line behind jet card, subscription plan, and other business jet consumers looking for lift. 

Forget Last-minute Flights

If an out-of-town meeting commands your attendance on short notice and an airline can’t get you there, better arrange a Zoom call. At today’s demand levels, even jet card members face obstacles with scheduling flights, and operators encounter difficulties fulfilling them. Moreover, the call-out times that many programs require preclude members from going anywhere immediately. Even fractional owners have had trouble getting access to their jets. That’s why some high-profile programs have suspended sales of new shares and renewals—they’ve been struggling to meet increased demand from current owners, using fill-in lift that hasn’t always met expectations.

Meanwhile, if you think you might need to change your departure time at the last minute, better read the fine print and be prepared for a hefty cancellation penalty—and for the reality that an aircraft probably won’t be available at your new preferred flight hour. The once-routine delayed-departure request, a long-observed perquisite of the charter customer, has vanished.

Then again, once upon a time, it was standard procedure for charter crews to be on call at their flight department, ready for an immediate departure, should the need arise. The mental image that conjures up recalls the gas station scene from the movie Back to the Future, where eager service personnel swarm around an arriving motorist. All that’s missing is the laughter from the audience about the contrast between what was and what is.

A post-COVID demand surge during last summer’s charter season in Europe—the peak of annual Continental private flight activity—resulted in aircraft shortages, inconvenient scheduling, and unfilled charter requests. In recent conversations with several European providers, all offered variations on the same advice for anyone seeking to ensure they’ll have the summer lift they’ll need this year: book now.

“People are used to leaving at the last minute because that's their idea of having a private jet,” said George Galanopoulos, CEO of European operator Luxaviation’s U.K. division. “You pick up the phone and there’s one available today or tomorrow. Those days are gone.”

The advice and observations echo in North America.

Time to Reinvent Charter?

So, perhaps it is time to reinvent charter, regardless of whether it can still fulfill its “anywhere, anytime” promise. How many travelers really need last-minute travel, anyway, and what expectation should they have that the system can or will meet that need? Also, to what extent does an operator’s commitment to serve a client’s exacting requirements and requests negatively impact the service that less-demanding clients receive? 

The market is providing some answers, via offerings that are variously known as per-seat charter, flight sharing, seat sharing, semi-private, and private airline charter. These offerings, many of which fall under the umbrella of the FAA’s Part 380 regulations, provide access at a cost that truly does rival—and in some cases undercuts—first-class airline fares. Trips are organized by a charter provider, a charter customer selling seats to offset the costs of a scheduled flight, or an individual or party soliciting fellow passengers for a proposed trip. The aircraft deployed range from turboprop singles to regional airliners, the interiors from understated executive to VIP luxurious.

You may recognize the names of some of the providers, including pioneers like Surf Air, whose “all you can fly” model launched shared flights, and JSX, which introduced regional jets (the ERJ 135) and a private-airline style to the per-seat experience. XO, which debuted fixed-price, one-way transcontinental fares in 2009, now books shared flights through its app (and is part of the Vista Group). Veteran providers, including Wheels Up and Private Fly, offer ride sharing to complement their mainstay programs, and shared-flight-only start-ups like BladeOne, Jet Set, and Aero have entered the space. (Business Jet Traveler will detail Part 380 and other access programs in our printed Buyers' Guide issue in September. —Ed.)

This is not Part 380’s first rodeo, of course. In addition to Surf Air’s utilitarian service, the pioneering online booking platform JetSmarter popularized and glamorized per-seat charter flights late in the last decade, promoting them as a great networking opportunity, in addition to transportation. But the viral 2018 in-flight video of a disturbed JetSmarter member threatening fellow passengers and the crew drew a firestorm of negative attention to per-seat flights, while the pandemic, coming not long after, extinguished any lingering appetite or opportunity for rubbing shoulders with strangers in a business jet. The quick rebound of Part 380 in the short time since speaks to the model’s strong appeal.

The Commoditization of Charter

Charter purists have for years been bemoaning the commoditization of charter, pointing to milestones marking the perceived decline—including jet cards, online booking, and aggressive marketing of empty legs (repositioning flights that must operate even if they carry no passengers). Such pedants might view Part 380, by whatever name, as final proof of charter’s downfall, but it could more likely be a form of private aviation salvation at a time of growing community opposition to flight activity and local airports. This rising tide, and business aviation’s externally perceived identity, could become charter’s true crisis. 

At the National Air Transportation Association, which represents the ground-support services side of charter—FBOs, fuel providers, flight support firms, and the like—president and CEO Curt Castagna sees Part 380 operations as a solution, not a symptom, and advocates radical change to other core elements of business aviation’s identity. 

“For years, we’ve propped up Fortune 500 companies and business owners as key ambassadors to promote the value of business aviation and general aviation, and we really need to revise that message,” says Castagna, who’s also a board member of the Los Angeles County Aviation Commission. From the ground-support perspective, a more populist product and message is critical. “Communities are saying [business aviation] is only for the one-percenters,” according to Castagna. Part 380 flights could be the centerpiece in countering that perception, he suggests. “If you're selling it by the seat, you're opening the door for people to have that same [access] opportunity or experience at a much cheaper price.”

Certainly, a charter operator could stick to the carriage trade, maintaining lift to spare on the conviction that enough old-school customers would flock to their fleet to make servicing charter’s growing mass market unnecessary. But that’s not trending. Reinvention is. Will that leave room for “anywhere, anytime” access in charter’s future?

Long-time BJT contributor James Wynbrandt is a multi-engine instrument-rated pilot who has also written for our sister publication, Aviation International News, as well as for the New York TimesForbes, and Barron’s.