A better way to fly

Private Air Travel Is a Convenient Alternative to Going Commercial

There once existed a golden age when soaring through the sky in a commercial jetliner was an experience of wonder and exhilaration. Unfortunately, that era ended sometime in the Eisenhower administration. Nowadays, commercial flights are more often migraine-inducing than awe-inspiring. Regardless of how early you arrive at the airport or the time of day you depart, it’s hard to avoid exhausting lines, unexpected delays and jam-packed overhead bins. Going first class or business class alleviates some of these annoyances, but far from all of them.

Dissatisfaction with commercial travel has spawned a growing number of private aviation alternatives, many tailored to individual budgets and travel needs. It’s long been possible to buy your own plane or charter a private jet, and both options remain popular. Other possibilities include shared jet ownership, debit-style cards and membership clubs. Of the many advantages of private aviation, none may be more prized than the time saved. You bypass crowded terminals, avoid security checkpoints, fly in comfort and don’t worry about your luggage being lost. 

“You basically drive up and walk onto the plane,” says James Butler, an aviation attorney who is chief executive of Shaircraft Solutions in Bethesda, Maryland. “You’re not going to have intrusive searches or long lines. One thing no one disputes is that the service itself is wonderful.”

But there are trade-offs. Private air travel is costly, and it can be daunting to sift through the intricacies of each option and the inordinate amount of fine print embedded in contracts. Beyond price and dependability, it’s essential to pay close attention to issues such as safety and liability. In some cases, travelers hire consultants to guide them through the process. To get you started, we’ve done much of the up-front legwork. Below is a look at some common options, as well as the pros and cons of each. 

Buying a plane offers flexibility at a cost.

The first step in private air travel is assessing your needs, starting with how frequently you fly. Not surprisingly, the more often you take to the skies, the more viable ownership becomes. Generally speaking, it’s not worth it financially if you fly fewer than 250 hours a year, and some experts put that number closer to 400 hours.

Among the benefits of full aircraft ownership is near-total control. You can go when you want without worrying about missing a plane or making a connection. Because there are many more regional airports than large commercial ones, you often can land closer to your ultimate destination.

Of course, the most obvious downside is cost — not just the hefty purchase price but ongoing maintenance and operational expenses. Many owners hire management companies to perform these tasks. But the bills add up, often totaling more than the owners expected when insurance, storage, crew salaries and other items are factored in.

Fractional ownership is an option for travelers who have flexibility.

As the name implies, fractional ownership involves buying a partial stake in an aircraft. Typical share sizes are 1/16th, which entitles an owner to 50 flight hours a year, or 1/8th (100 hours). Benefits include flight availability and freedom from maintenance and other logistics, which management companies handle. Think of it as an aeronautical time-share with a twist in that owners often don’t fly in their actual planes. Instead, they’re guaranteed access to identical or similar aircraft.

Fractional ownership entails a variety of costs. Aside from the purchase price, customers typically fork over monthly dues, hourly flight fees and fuel surcharges. At the end of the contract, owners can either extend their commitment or sell their stakes back to the fractional operator. The resale is supposed to occur at fair market value, but disagreements over fair-value calculations can arise between owners and fractional operators.

Jet charters are cost-effective.

These programs are akin to flying rentals. Flights are booked individually and are well suited to trips scheduled in advance. In general, charters are among the more cost-efficient modes of private aviation. Travelers can check prices and book flights via websites or mobile phone apps.

However, there’s no guarantee about the type of aircraft you’ll get, and prices and availability can vary greatly depending on market conditions and travel times. Also, charters are often booked as round trips requiring same-day or next-day returns. Longer sojourns may require the purchase of two separate round trips. In addition, experts advise paying attention to safety. Many charter services don’t own their fleets. Rather, they manage planes belonging to individuals or companies, which come in various makes and models. Check ahead of time that the pilot has experience in the type of plane you’ll be flying.

“There’s huge variability in the type of aircraft, age of the aircraft, maintenance level of the aircraft and the qualifications and training of the crew coming with that aircraft,” says aviation consultant Dan Herr.

Jet cards are the debit cards of the airways.

With jet cards, travelers pay an initial deposit to essentially purchase blocks of flying time, often in 25-hour increments. Transit time is simply deducted from their accounts. The programs seek to offer consistency and reliability while eliminating the risks associated with ownership. The selection of aircraft can be limited, but jet cards are a viable option for those who fly less frequently.

Beyond all of these broad categories, there are countless other permutations. For example, some charter companies sell memberships that allow customers to fly regularly scheduled routes between major cities. Other services arrange for members to travel on empty jets — so-called dead-head legs on private planes that are flying to pick up someone or return to their home base. There are options for almost any type of travel need. The key is deciding what works for you.

“None of these options is entirely good or entirely bad,” says Jeff Burger, editor of Business Jet Traveler magazine. “It all depends on your situation.”


The above article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Quarterly Insights magazine.

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