Sky high: How to choose the right private jet service for you
by Claire Wrathall
Fractional ownership, monthly memberships, pay as you go: a new private jet service pops up every week. Claire Wrathall reveals the ones to trust, and the best ones for you...
Best for those who want an asset
Unless you spend several hundred hours a year in the air, it probably isn’t worth buying your own plane. Spend at least 50 hours flying, and it might make sense to buy a share in an aircraft. Hence companies such as NetJets, the pioneer of fractional ownership.
Originally founded in 1964 as a charter and management company, NetJets now sees itself, in the words of NetJets Europe CEO Mario Pacifico, as “a kind of private club,” where “owners are at the centre of everything we do.”
There may be occasions when you need something larger with a longer range – for instance, a Dassault Falcon, Bombardier Global 6000 or Gulfstream G550. No problem: your share equates to a certain number of hours of flying time, not necessarily in the plane you’ve bought into, but in any of NetJets’ 700-plus planes. Owners are spared all the hassle of recruiting and employing pilots and cabin crew, negotiating fuel costs or dealing with maintenance and hangar costs. And a plane can be ready with just half a day’s notice.
Backed by Warren Buffett, who became a member in 1995 and liked it so much his Berkshire Hathaway group acquired the company three years later, NetJets also promises a secure investment. If after three years you opt out, it promises to buy back your share.
In Europe, Luxembourg-based Jetfly operates on a smaller model, with a fleet of 22 Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprops, an aircraft with a range of 2,700 kilometres, able to fly at high altitudes and compact enough to land at smaller airfields, hence its suitability for alpine destinations such as Courchevel. A 1/16 share starts at about $350,000, which buys 35 hours a year of flight time. For longer-range flights, it also has three Cessna Citations and will soon acquire its first Pilatus PC-24 twin-engine business jet.
Best for those who like to pay up front
It would be an oversimplification to liken a jet card to the Metro card New Yorkers use to get about their city on public transport, but essentially they equate to the same idea: a pre-paid rectangle of plastic redeemable against a number of hours, charged at a fixed rate of flying time.
The first such membership scheme was the Marquis Jet Card, acquired by NetJets in 2010, which enables users to pre-pay for 25 hours of guaranteed flight time on NetJets aircraft from about $170,000. NetJets also offers the less flexible Elite Jet Card. Since then, more than 35 companies have launched a similar service, including Air Partner, Clay Lacy Aviation, Delta Private Jets, Flexjet, Jet Linx Aviation, JetSuite, Magellan Jets, Nicholas Air, Private Jet Services, PrivateFly, Prive Jets, Sentient Jet, Solairus Aviation, Star Jets International and XOJET. They offer hundreds of programmes – which is the most appealing to you is really a question of taste.
Swiss company VistaJet, for example, has a fleet of more than 70 Bombardier Global and Challenger private jets, and what it calls a “flight-hour subscription plan”, on which rates work out at between $12,000 and $19,000 an hour – although, as a spokesperson pointed out, the rate varies because every contract is tailored to each individual client’s needs.
Equipped with Wi-Fi and satphones, and staffed by “hostesses” trained by the British Butler Institute, its fleet enables clients to be flown on demand to just about anywhere – it even has a licence to operate internal flights in China. “Our pilots,” notes its founder and chairman Thomas Flohr, “have unparalleled experience flying into and out of the hardest-to-reach places on Earth, allowing you to be at more meetings in more locations within the shortest period of time anywhere in the world.”
Better yet, you can sleep comfortably en route: cabins have three discrete zones, and on the Challenger 850 and Global 5000 and 6000 (the latter can fly for 13 hours without refuelling), the central and rear cabins can each be configured to accommodate a double bed as well as three additional singles, equipped with comfy mattresses, down duvets, cashmere blankets and eye masks, even brushed cotton pyjamas. The London bookseller Heywood Hill curates a selection of on-board reading matter. And the New York apothecary brand Le Labo has created the bespoke fragrance that scents the cabin. No wonder celebs such as the Beckham family have used it.
Best for short hops
Back in 2013 it struck Kenny Dichter, a former vice-chairman of NetJets and co-founder of the Marquis card, that many short trips made within the US on jets could just as well be made for considerably less outlay on slower turboprops. So he set up Wheels Up. Based in New York, its fleet of more than 75 aircraft consists predominantly of the eight-seater Beechcraft King Air 350i, which it describes pragmatically as “a workhorse driven by intelligence”. The quid pro quo of turboprops is longer in the air – a maximum of two and a half hours (though given that the cabin height is just 1.4 metres, perhaps that’s just as well) – but a restricted range. You’re not going to get to the Caribbean, except from Florida.
Since it raised more than $100 million in capital last year, the company is both expanding beyond the US into Europe and expanding its fleet to include jets, specifically Citation X and Citation Excel/XLS .
Members pay an initiation fee of $17,500 and annual dues of just under half that thereafter, and this gives them guaranteed access to the fleet to use as needed, at as little as 24 hours’ notice charged on a per-hour basis. They also get seats on shuttle services to the most popular destinations. Beyond that, there is no capital outlay, no depreciating asset and no commitment to minimum hours. And its website and app allow members to share flights and book “empty-leg” return flights at discounts.
Best for super-frequent flyers and commuters
Over on the West Coast in Santa Monica, California, Surf Air offers another alluringly simple membership model perfectly suited to anyone who needs to commute between cities. For a monthly fee starting from $1,950, it offers unlimited flights – on Embraer Phenom 300 executive jets, Swiss-built Pilatus PC-12 NG single-engine turboprops and, on some routes, Cessna Citations, between private terminals in destinations in California (Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Barbara) and in Texas (Houston, Dallas, Austin and Midland).
Best for flexible flyers
Each month, an estimated 3,000 private jets make more than 40,000 flights with only the pilots aboard. Either they’re en route to collect passengers or returning to base having dropped them off. These are known as empty legs, and securing a passage on one has long been the least expensive way of flying private. Indeed, it can save you up to 75 per cent of the cost of a conventional charter.
In 2011, the London-based marketing entrepreneur Clive Jackson launched Victor in response to the news that BMI was cutting its scheduled route to Mallorca, where he had a holiday home. Rather than grit his teeth and fly commercial, his response was to set up a free-to-access website brokering seats with clearly visible prices on the empty legs of jet charters, so making private aviation accessible to a wider market.
Of course, the plane needs to be flying your way. But Victor now has more than 100,000 members worldwide, “from CEOs and C-Suite execs to ultra-high net worth individuals including high- profile celebrities and successful international musicians,” says a spokesman, pointing out that it has a department dedicated to chartering private jets for tours by the likes of Rihanna, Calvin Harris, Ellie Goulding and Kendrick Lamar – who can charter the 7,000-plus aircraft on its books to more than 40,000 airports worldwide. (Last time I looked it was offering seats on more than 1,500 flights – from London Stansted to Almaty in Kazakhstan; Jeddah to Mykonos; Vienna to Brussels; Voronezh in Russia to Tashkent in Uzbekistan...) And if you’re looking to go from, say, London to the Côte d’Azur and are flexible about dates, there’s a sporting chance you’ll find something.
Alternatively it enables members to book individual seats on other users’ charters in order for the charterer to offset the cost. It also connects with members who are looking to co-charter. And if you’d rather just charter a plane in the conventional way, it can organise that, too.
It’s not alone in offering such a model. Geneva-based LunaJets actually started brokering the sale of empty legs in 2007, expanding its services in the wake of the global financial crisis to become what it describes as “a top-service, low-commission, on-demand charter model”.