These Private-Plane Players Want to Make Luxury Flying Cheaper
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Once upon a time, really rich people bought their own planes. Later, other rich people realized they could buy shares in a jet instead of owning one.
Today, alternatives to commercial air travel are entering the Uber age, making airplane travel an on-demand perk as accessible — and sometimes almost as affordable — as ordering up a car.
In the space pioneered by venerable players like NetJets and XOJet, nimble newcomers are redefining what we’ll call affordable private-jet luxury. You no longer have to pony up thousands of dollars; all you need is an app, a few hundred bucks, and, often, tolerance for tiny aircraft.
The new players — with names like LinearAir, Victor, and Surfair — are capitalizing on two trends. Elite flyers who typically travel business class are getting fed up with flying commercial. And airlines are pulling back from less profitable routes to smaller airports, complicating commercial travel to second-tier destinations. Started as a small charter business in 2007, LinearAir launched its online air-taxi platform in 2013; business has grown by 1,600% since then, according to founder William Herp. On sites like Kayak, he said, “we come up as the only nonstop option between places like New York City and Ithaca or Harrisburg and Bar Harbor, Maine.”
That kind of growth is just the beginning, said Douglas Quinby, an analyst for global travel market-research company Phocuswright.“There’s clear potential to expand the market,” he said. “There is definitely a ton of excess supply — private jets sitting on runways or flying under capacity. The challenge is, can these startups find sufficient demand and supply within the right bucket of city pairs to make this work?”
With that in mind, here are some of the emerging players in the affordable private-jet luxury space:
What if you could fly as often as you want, whenever you want, for a monthly membership fee? That’s the concept behind Los Angeles-based Surfair, which pioneered “all-you-can fly” in 2013. You can arrive up to 15 minutes before your flight on one of Surfair’s Swiss-built Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprops; New York fashion house Bespoken designed the clubby interiors. Since its US debut, more than 215,000 “guests” have flown Surfair between 12 West Coast destinations, including Palm Springs, Napa Valley, and Los Angeles; new stops include Las Vegas and Oklahoma City.
A new European offshoot, based at London’s Luton airport, hooks members up to Ibiza and Cannes, with more destinations on tap. US membership start at $1,950/month, with a $1,000 signup fee; in Europe, entry-level memberships cost £1,750/month, but climb to £3,150 to access trans-Atlantic routes.
An offshoot of jet-charter company Jet Suite, JetSuiteX calls itself an “industry disruptor” aiming to “revolutionize the flying experience” with “celeb-worthy flying at an accessible price”. Behind the hype is a straightforward proposition: You’re buying a seat on a private jet rather than chartering the whole plane. JetSuiteX’s fleet of Brazilian-made Embraer E-135 jets, derived from regional airliners, operates scheduled service 7 days a week between Burbank (BUR), Concord (CCR), San Jose (SJC) and Las Vegas (LAS). JetSuiteX also says it operates “various seasonal destinations and pop-up flights.”
Flights clock in as low as $129. Among the believers are JetBlue founder David Neeleman and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, both of whom invested; JetBlue itself took a stake last year. The move seems prescient now. A JetSuiteX spokesperson told The Points Guy its year-over-year monthly revenue has more than doubled along with the number of passengers flown, and that the number of flights it operates will double by the end of 2017.
As the company tells it, London-based CEO Clive Jackson dreamed up the idea for Victor when a canceled air route curtailed travel to his second home on Mallorca. The concept’s simple: Search for and book private jet charter directly, with no intermediary between travelers and operators. Another self-proclaimed “disruptor”, Victor connects well-heeled travelers to 200 “partner-operators” who manage 7,000 charter aircraft worldwide.
Planes range from Boeing 767s to to Gulfstream IVs to Embraer 120 turboprops. Ordering up a Hawker 1000 jet round-trip from Teterboro, NJ to West Palm Beach, a typical route, will run you approximately $24,800 —but that includes tax.
Like XoJet, this is not an emerging player — but it’s still the most recognized in this space. If there’s a granddad of the (relative) democratization of private-jet luxury, it’s Netjets, which helped pioneer the concept of fractional jet ownership in 1986. Warren Buffett, an early customer, loved the company so much he bought it in 1998. Its programs target high-net-worth travelers; the pitch is that fractional ownership beats buying your own plane. You can trade up to a bigger, fancier aircraft if you tire of your airborne investment. As you’d expect, NetJets isn’t cheap. A 1/16 ownership, or about 50 hours, costs about $600,000. A one-half interest, about 400 flight hours, balloons to $4.5 million.
The company’s Marquis Jet Card, which provides flight time in 25-hour increments on a Hawker 400XP jet, starts at $170,000 a pop. You’ll also pay fees for acquisition, monthly maintenance, and every hour you fly, along with fuel charges and taxes. But with average flying times about half of commercial routes, and with 5,500 airports in the NetJets network, there’s real value — if you are rich or a celebrity.
Like NetJets, Massachusetts-based MagellanJets lets you customize your membership tier based on the hours you fly and the plane you prefer. Its network ranges from heavy jets to turboprops; subscribing to a Gulfstream G450 with 25 hours of flying clocks in at $8,000. You can top it up with “premium catering” for $1,125, “totally customized to meet your health, dietary, and religious concerns”.
For another $1,280, you get “guaranteed Wi-Fi” in-flight, a perk many other players offer gratis. The company generated headlines this year for a $44,000 package offering college visits via private plane for parents and college-bound kids.
Founder William Herp calls LinearAir an “air taxi — it’s for regional trips of 700 or 800 miles, when you don’t want to drive and there’s no good airline option”. The company doesn’t own a single plane; like ride-hailing apps, it connects passengers with operators. A very simple interface online lets you request departure and arrival airports by inputting a street address or zip code. The average transaction, Herp told TPG, comes to about $2,000 for a passenger configuration of 3-8 seats. “When you fill up the seats and maximize the opportunity, you’re talking about $500-$800 per person,” or less than many commercial flights. With 1,500 domestic planes in its system now, LinearAir plans to add Canadian and Caribbean operators in 2018; the company’s air-taxi revenue has jumped more than 1,700% since 2013.
A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that JetSuiteX operates Embraer Phenom 100 and Legacy 650 aircraft, as well as Embraer E-135s. In fact, JetSuiteX only operates E-135s, while the others are operated by parent company JetSuite. The story has been amended.
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