You can’t get a new car – or at least the one you want. Your new sofa is on backorder. It might be delivered in January. Is a shortage of private jets next?
Sentient Jet, which invented the jet card, and Jet Linx Aviation, the sixth-largest charter operator in the U.S., stopped selling jet cards to new members late last week. The announcements, which came within 24 hours of each other, followed similar August moves by market leader NetJets, and its aircraft management arm, Executive Jet Management.
The reasons are both complex and straightforward. The simple answer is business is too good. Over the past four weeks, private flights in the U.S. have been tracking 14% ahead of 2019’s pre-Covid levels, according to WingX. In Florida, there were 41% more private flights than two years ago. Argus TraqPak is projecting record flight levels through the end of the year.
As demand for private flying has spiked to never seen before levels, jet card programs and memberships offering fixed or capped rates with guaranteed short booking windows are under stress to source those flights profitably.
As pricing for on-demand charter flights has soared in recent months, private flyers who had been booking flights on a trip-by-trip basis have been streaming to jet cards, looking to lock down both what they will pay and ensure they can get an airplane when they call.
In announcing a pause in taking new customers, all the providers cited their desires to first care for existing customers.
Customers who buy jet cards, typically prepaying $50,000 to $500,000, generally have flights in mind they want to take when they wire the money, say executives.
While existing members settle into their individual travel patterns, an influx of new customers leading into the busy holiday travel season is spooking executives who contractually must fulfill those flights.
Executives say over 90% of new customers book a flight within 30 days of joining. Agreements, which are often run dozens of pages long, grant customers the ability to call and book flights on as little as 10 to 24 hours’ notice.
From August to September, numerous jet card sellers extended that booking window. In fact, the average booking window increased by nearly 50%, from 29 to 44 hours, for the over 250 jet card programs I track on my website, Private Jet Card Comparisons.
Generally, there isn’t an advantage between on-demand charters and fixed-rate jet card pricing. The main benefits of cards are saving time – you don’t have to shop several brokers, comparing quotes, reviewing terms and contracts for each trip – and you get guaranteed no-cost replacement flights if the operator can’t fulfill your trip. Some card programs also include deicing, Wifi and catering.
However, in looking at 30 scenarios last month, jet cards were cheaper in 25 instances, beating on-demand pricing by an average of $5,693 per segment. That’s despite jet card programs hiking rates by 2% month-over-month.
Now, as the industry struggles with supply chain issues impacting how quickly airplanes can be repaired, fuel shortages and air traffic control slowdowns, executives I talked to are contemplating ways to get customers to book in advance or even stay home.
One CEO said his company has been calling clients, offering them a 10% discount to book their flights for Thanksgiving and Christmas by next week. Another told me he is considering offering bonus flight credits to members who agree not to fly between November 15 and possibly through the Super Bowl, typically the busiest weekend for private jet travel.
One broker says there is good reason to be concerned. Earlier this week, he struggled to source a jet in the busy east coast corridor for a late booking client flying from New York to North Carolina.
Kevin Diemar, CEO of Miami-based Unity Jets, a midsize broker, says he’s happy he never added a fixed-priced jet card product. While he acknowledges that market pricing is high and inventory of available aircraft is low, he says, “I’d rather be in a position where I can give customers my best offer. If they can get better pricing with a jet card, I’m happy to let somebody else figure out how they can make money on those flights.”
One company that stopped selling jet cards in August, Jets.com, a midsized broker, recently relaunched its program with longer lead times to book and higher rates. Magellan Jets, another midsized broker, just added a new light jet card and Private Jet Services, which specializes in sports team charters, added a new fixed-rate card on ultra-long-haul jets.
Despite the pauses, there are still over 50 providers selling jet cards in the U.S. and the big players that have stopped selling still have thousands of customers who are likely to fly during the holidays.
However, one thing seems certain. None of the new flyers who have flocked to private aviation due to Covid plan to go back to the airlines. “Never, never, never,” said one new private flyer when I asked him after he finished ranting about recent delays. His bottom line, “Flying privately is still much, much better. I might switch providers, but I’m done with the airlines.”
In a business where most customers join programs based on referrals from existing customers, providers might be wondering how booming business has created so many headaches. How they will keep customers happy – and loyal – in upcoming months may be their biggest challenge.