As we head to the holidays, I am again seeing a surge of first-time private jet flyers. In some cases, they have some experience – flying with friends, a one-off private charter in the past, riding on the company jet. It will be absolutely the first time they set foot on a private jet in other instances. Generally, I talk to them after they’ve been solicited by several providers, each with seemingly attractive offers. They are often anxious to fly, ready to buy, and are looking for some reassurance they are making a good choice. In some cases, they have been referred to providers by friends who are program members. And since their proposed purchases range from tens of thousands of dollars into the millions, they want somebody to tell them they are making a good choice.
The common denominator is they are all intelligent and fabulously successful individuals. The problem is they probably spend more time deciding on which new restaurants are worthy of a Friday night dinner. It’s understandable. Most industry marketing focuses on the broad benefits of flying privately, such as saving time, setting your own schedule, avoiding the hassles of flying the airlines, and so forth. The brochures are filled with pictures of happy kids and cut pets. There is an emphasis on luxury partnerships, which can be valuable, but only if the program is a fit.
It’s the last five words that are the most important – if the program is a fit.
So, how do you tell if the program is a fit?
The answer is, it’s based on your flying needs. There’s no one size fits all program that I’ve seen, so what’s right for your friend may not be a great fit for you.
So, here’s what you need to consider before figuring out if the program is a fit.
First, you need to write down where you plan to fly. Specific airports are less critical than place to place. That’s because fixed and capped rate programs have daily and segment minimums. Two-hour daily minimums on a light jet are not uncommon. That means even if you take a 45-minute flight, you are charged for two hours. In other words, that great $5,500 hourly rate will cost you $11,000 for that short hop.
You also need to figure how many people will be traveling, if you are bringing extra luggage, whether you will be traveling with pets and how long you will be away.
Passenger count and luggage will impact the size of the jet you need. Fixed-rate programs have seat guarantees by jet size. For example, if you have eight passengers, some programs guarantee they will accommodate you on a midsize jet while others make you upgrade to a super-midsize aircraft.
The average jet card rate on a midsize jet is $7,681 compared to $10,075 on super mid. That means for a two-hour trip that you make six times a year, flying in a midsize jet instead of a super mid can easily save you $50,000.
How long you will be away will influence whether you should use a card or a local charter operator. At the same time, some providers have long-flight and transcontinental flight discounts, which can save you $25,000 on a single flight.
If you want to fly to the Caribbean, Mexico, Hawaii, or Canada, that can make a big difference. That’s because some jet cards offer one-way pricing with fixed rates while others price it dynamically as if you called a broker. In the latter, they must factor in flying the plane back empty after they drop you off and again an empty flight when you need to be picked up. While some jet cards have hefty surcharges, others don’t, and in both cases, they can be significantly less expensive than dynamic pricing.
You also need to decide if you will be flying with your pets. Not all fixed-rate programs guarantee those rates with pets, and even if you are chartering flight-by-flight, you will need to let your provider know at the time of booking type of pets, how big and how many, as they will need that information to source an aircraft that can accommodate your best friends – not all do.
You also need to know how close to the departure date you will want to book. Are you the type of traveler who looks at the weather report on Thursday, and if it’s raining where you are, wants to fly somewhere sunny? Booking deadlines range from four hours to seven days. Do you need to change your plans after you book? Are you likely to change your plans in the last couple of days before departure? Do your clients change meetings on the fly? What if the weather where you want to go is not so good? Will you still want to go? Some programs allow you to cancel with as little as 10 hours’ notice, while others don’t permit cancelations or changes after you book.
Looking at all your trips, how many hours per year will you be flying? Will you be making similar flights for the next five years, or are your travel patterns likely to change? Are you using the same type of aircraft for most of your trips, or are you using different types? Do you have specific preferences in terms of aircraft age? Do you want specific cabin height or amenities such as a couch instead of club chairs? Do you need WiFi? Do you ever need more than one aircraft at the same time – either for business or you and your partner traveling from different places on the same day? Will you be flying unaccompanied minors? If so, how old are they? Are you flexible to avoid peak days? Both fractional and jet card programs have peak and high-demand days. On these dates, surcharges can range up to 100%. But even for programs that don’t have surcharges, they have the right to move your departure time, in some cases, to the next day. And in terms of peak days, while some programs have less than 10, others have over 100.
While there are other considerations, how you answer these questions will help decide whether it makes sense to charter flight by flight, whether you should join a jet card program, which ones best fit your needs, or whether you should consider fractional or full ownership. Most of all, you may find that one solution doesn’t fit all your needs. Based on your flying, you may find it makes sense to have multiple providers, just like you have an SUV for the ski house and a convertible for your place in Florida.
While offers of free hours, flight credits, or charter revenue to offset costs of various ownership schemes are enticing, before you can judge the offer, the key is to make sure the program fits your needs. And then, once you have narrowed it down, I strongly advise you to have a lawyer – preferably one specializing in aviation law – review the contract. The contracts for jet cards can run over 30 pages, and it’s something you should read too! After all, it’s the words in that document that govern where you can fly, when, and how much you pay, refund policy, extra charges, as well as what will happen when something goes wrong.
And finally, if you aren’t sure where you are going to want to fly, you may not be ready to buy, and that’s okay. Before you buy a car, you have some idea what you are going to use it for. It’s fine to wait until you have a better idea. There will always be deals and special offers to consider.