For anyone who’s experienced the travails of commercial airline travel, the scene is a little hard to imagine: What would it be like to arrive at the airport and – minutes later – step onto the tarmac, hand your bag to an attendant, climb aboard your waiting plane and settle into a plush seat where you’ll soon enjoy a made-to-order meal?
That truly is a dream for most travelers. Yet, the luxury of private jet travel is not as far out of reach as it once was, thanks to the evolution of shared ownership.
The concept works in much the same way as time-sharing a condominium, allowing a buyer to enjoy the benefits of luxury air travel without assuming all the burdens associated with outright ownership of a jet.
“The simplicity is very appealing,” says Eli Flint, Southeastern sales director for Flight Options LLC.
A private aviation company based in Cleveland, Flight Options has amassed a fleet of more than 100 planes since its founding in 1998. Its client base spans the United States and includes owners across south Louisiana.
Flint says that not only has fractional jet ownership caught on in the local market, but the company’s flights in and out of New Orleans last year increased by more than 30 percent over 2010’s total. “It’s interesting how vibrant the economy is here,” he says.
Much like the company’s clients in other parts of the country, local fractional owners use the jet service predominantly for business purposes, such as traveling to branch offices or scouting for new business. But Flint says leisure travel also figures into the mix.
“Sometimes it’s retired people who are traveling to see their grandkids or just going to the beach or the mountains,” he says.
Flight Options’ fleet includes jets that will accommodate up to 13 passengers, but many fractional owners opt for the Embraer Phenom 300, a seven-passenger light jet that cruises at speeds above 500 miles per hour, at an altitude up to 45,000 feet. The sleek cabin with its comfy, adjustable seats, DVD player and drop-down screens, iPhone docks and advanced climate control can make a trip from New Orleans to New York or San Francisco a breeze. A fully enclosed refreshment center holds all the cold drinks you’ll need, along with the meals – and perhaps wine – you ordered in advance.
Flint says one of the biggest business benefits of private jet travel is the opportunity to get work done in-flight. Fold-out tables become desks, and data ports, Wi-Fi and task lighting help turn the cabin into a fully functional office.
Of course, owning even a fractional share in such a plush flight experience is hardly cheap. The Phenom 300 is an $8.6 million plane. To become one of the 16 owners who share in each jet, a buyer must ante up a one-time payment of $537,500, plus a monthly management fee of $7,200. Hourly usage fees vary depending on fuel costs but currently run about $2,500. For larger jets, the costs can run up to twice as much.
Each pricing plan covers 50 flight hours per year, with hourly rates applying only to the flight time and not to time spent on the ground. If an owner flies to Key West for a week, the company will deploy the jet elsewhere during that week and have another plane waiting at the time designated for the return flight. Ownership entitles the buyer to one-sixteenth of a specific plane, providing a depreciable asset for tax purposes.
Flight Options owners accounted for some 400 flights to and from New Orleans last year, Flint says, and the company expects to see that total rise in 2012.
In fact, the local market has been something of a bright spot in the dreary picture that has characterized private jet aviation during the past several years. Sales of privately owned airplanes closely track the direction of the stock market, and when the bottom fell out of equities in 2008, business aviation plunged as well.
Major business jet manufacturers such as Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft racked up big losses and laid off as much as half their work force. Fractional jet companies, including Flight Options and leading operator NetJets, also had to pare operations.
The pain continued through much of 2011, but business aviation analysts say the clouds might be starting to lift.
New Jersey-based general aviation consultant Brian Foley says he’s encouraged that the stock market has been showing a little more strength and less volatility in recent months as compared with the past few years, and he thinks that bodes well for business jet sales.
“People are gaining some confidence, and I’m hopeful that if the market holds up, we’ll see a nice recovery in sales of small and medium-size aircraft again,” he says.
Foley says that one result of the extended recession is that financially weak owners have been weeded out, leaving the market healthier overall. “We could take another pretty big hit now and we wouldn’t have the bloodshed we had in 2008,” he says.
While owning an airplane is an expensive proposition, for those who have the wherewithal, the idea is a slam-dunk, Foley says. “What people are looking for in business aviation is not to have to fly the [commercial] airlines,” he says.
Having to leave your house two or three hours before a flight, stand in line, remove your belt and shoes to clear security, and then sit for hours shoulder-to-shoulder with the masses is enough to have anyone dreaming of an alternative.
“The airlines are like a sales force for business aviation,” Foley says, “because the commercial travel experience is so miserable.”
Taste the Experience
Do not get us wrong: To own even a small piece of a luxury flight experience you’ll need a financial cushion most people don’t enjoy. However, if you’ve stashed enough cash to afford it, fractional jet ownership may be worth considering. Here are some of the companies that offer ownership plans, and in some cases also flight-card memberships, charters and leases.
CitationAir. (subsidiary of Cessna Aircraft Co.) Offers fractional ownership, CitationAir Jet Card, Jet Access, Jet Shares and jet management programs. Fleet includes 80 Cessna Citations accommodating two to nine passengers. (877) 692-4828, CitationAir.com
Flexjet by Bombardier. Offers whole or fractional ownership, aircraft management, jet cards and on-demand charter services. Fleet is exclusively high-performance Bombardier, Learjet and Challenger aircraft ranging from six- to 12-passenger cabins. (800) 353-9538, flexjet.com
Flight Options. Offers fractional ownership, membership and JetPASS card programs with a fleet of small to large-cabin jets including the Hawker 400XP Beechjet, Nextant 400XT and 800XP, Embraer Phenom 300 and Legacy 600 and Cessna Citation X. (877) 703-2348, FlightOptions.com
NetJets. Claims the largest, most diversified private aircraft fleet in the world. Offers fractional ownership, Marquis Jet Card 25-hour program and jet leasing. Fleet includes light, midsize and large-cabin jets ranging from the Hawker 400XP to Gulfstream G550/GV. (877) 356-5823, netjets.com
Avantair. Offers fractional ownership, leasing and flight-hour card programs with fleet of Piaggio Avanti seven-passenger turboprop aircraft. (727) 538-7900, avantair.com
AirSprint. Offers fractional ownership in a fleet of Pilatus PC-12 turboprop aircraft. (877) 588-2344, AirSprint.com