For more than a quarter-century, NetJets has been the big dog in the world of private jet solutions. It’s a market where competitors have come and gone, and in some cases, come back again. And while it hasn’t been a flight without turbulence, for the leader, its view continues to be well ahead, from the front of the pack. Of course, how you view the pack depends on your lens. But first, a bit of history.
Looking back to the late 1980s, the brand’s founder Richard Santulli popularized the concept of fractional ownership, filling the massive gap between one-off charters and the magnitude of full ownership. Instead of buying an entire airplane, you purchased a share, starting at just 50 hours per year. Somebody else would now hire the pilots, worry about your holidays versus theirs, take care of the maintenance and where to park the thing. Even better, you could upgrade to a larger jet if you needed to bring along more people or downgrade to a smaller aircraft if you wanted to save a few dollars. When you needed to go someplace, your jet would be ready for you, at your preferred local airport, with just a few hours’ notice. And unlike charter, you had a consistent experience, both in terms of look-alike cabins and standards for safety and pilot training.
Billionaire’s Ball: Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway purchased NetJets in 1998 for $725 million. … [+]
There was the expansion to Europe and the 1998 acquisition by Berkshire Hathaway BRK.B , an unequivocal stamp of approval when you are selling to the C-Suite. A 1999 profile by Forbes noted over the previous four years, NetJets “purchased nearly 600 planes worth $10 billion—about 40% of the world’s business jet market.”
There was a boost from 9-11 as terrorism fears and airport safety became a big issue for CEOs and UHNWs. There was a famous ad campaign with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates lounging on the L-shaped sofa aboard one of its Boeing Business Jets and more growth. As one former rival somewhat enviously put it, “NetJets is the blue in blue-chip. They’re a safe haven.” When Uber was initially raising money, it referenced the company as a basis for its vision. The trend lines were going in one direction, up.
That was before the financial crisis of 2008 pulled the rug out from under the entire business aviation market and brought a $711 million loss to the fractional provider in 2009. By the time Buffett wrote his 2010 annual letter to shareholders that “NetJets would have been out of business (without Berkshire’s backing),” its founder was gone.
NetJets’ operations center coordinates hundreds of daily flights and crews, some of them scheduled … [+]
The transition to the current management of NetJets’ veterans came after two different outsider CEOs and a battle with its flight crews and their union. Except for larger jets, most private aircraft don’t have flight attendants. Those guys who sit up front are your customer service. In the world of private jets, the pilots greet you when you arrive at the terminal and even help load your luggage. They give you your safety briefing and pour you a cup of coffee once you are seated. A March 2015 press release from the NetJets Association of Shared Aircraft Pilots announced 98% of the union’s members voted no confidence in the then CEO.
Less than three months later, and a month after leaving the company, longtime sales boss Adam Johnson was back, installed in the corner office. Bill Noe, who had left that April, returned as president and COO. In an interview with The Columbus Dispatch, union boss Pedro Leroux immediately said, “We believe we can work with A.J. and Bill Noe…We’re cautiously optimistic that (the new leadership will lead to) improvement in the labor relations we’ve had the last few years.”
While unrest is now distant history, nothing stands still. New rivals emerged. Thomas Flohr brought his fractional alternative VistaJet to the United States with a fleet of slick silver airplanes and European-style white-glove service. He’s since acquired XOJET and JetSmarter, combining their brokerage businesses into XO while holding a minority stake in XOJET Aviation, the operator side. He recently announced plans to add 50 light jets to its North American fleet.
From his base in Cleveland, longtime rival Kenn Ricci’s Directional Aviation snapped up Flexjet from Bombardier, jet card leader Sentient Jet, and more recently charter broker PrivateFly in the U.K. Earlier this summer, he launched FXAIR, an on-demand brokerage that sells flights on 30 Challenger 300 and Global Express jets that are exiting his fractional program. Beyond the U.S., Ricci last month launched a Flexjet fractional share and lease program in Europe, going head-to-head with his in-state competitor. He also holds options for what looks to be the world’s first supersonic private jet, something that might be too hard for those who can afford it to pass up if it happens.
Then there’s Kenny Dichter. Having gotten his start in private aviation in 2001 by pestering Santulli for an exclusive agreement to sell jet cards in increments of 25 hours onto the NetJets fleet under the Marquis Jet Partners banner, he’s back. After being bought out in 2010, he launched Wheels Up in 2013. Even with just three King Air turboprops to start, there was no doubt his sights were set on the Columbus, Ohio, headquarters of the largest operator of private jets in the world. Today, after an 18-month acquisition spree has brought his fleet to over 300 owned and managed aircraft, he’s about halfway there. He also counts Delta Air Lines as his largest shareholder with a 24% stake.
While the barbarians continue to gather around the moat, blowing their horns, firing arrows, and issuing press releases, if success is measured by fleet size or flight hours, it’s not apparent they have much chance of breaching the wall.
Through October of this year, data from JetNet also shows NetJets with 531 aircraft, 65% of the total fractional fleet. Through November, Argus shows NetJets clocked 268,881 flight hours for North American operations compared to 121,686 for second place Flexjet.
For perspective, a 2007 UBS report estimated NetJets had a 61% share of the fractional fleet. In other words, nearly 15 years later, not much has changed, except the names. Gone are Avantair, CitationAir and Raytheon Travel Air. Others are around, having pivoted to different models.
Still, the fractional numbers don’t include the aircraft management and charter arm of NetJets, Inc., Executive Jet Management (EJM). With over 230 aircraft, about 150 available for hire, on its own it is one of the three largest charter operators measured by hours. Combining charter and fractional operators’ flight hours in North America, NetJets, Inc. ended 2019 with a 20.8% market share compared to 6.7% for Ricci’s Directional Aviation, 5.3% for Wheels Up’s three operators, and 3.4% for Vista Global Holding’s XOJET Aviation and VistaJet. In 2007, NetJets share was 21.9%, although Argus says its historical data has a +/- 5% margin of error.
While NetJets has no intention of ceding any ground, it’s often hard to get a read on what’s happening. There are only passing references to the company in Berkshire’s financials. Patrick Gallagher, president of NetJets, says it is debt-free, although he declines to comment on profitability. Its results are grouped with a half dozen other holdings, ranging from Dairy Queen and an electronics component maker to FlightSafety, a leader in pilot training.
Under the NetJets, Inc. umbrella, there’s also QS Partners. Gallagher says launching the whole aircraft brokerage division came after listening to potential customers. Aircraft owners were saying, “If you can sell my current jet, I’ll buy a share from you.” QS Partners is believed to be one of the industry’s larger players in that segment, often helping customers as they transit between owning a jet, a share, jet card, or charter, many having multiple solutions at the same time.
You’re more likely to see a press release from NetJets about sponsoring an equestrian event than boasting about flight numbers or new members. In fact, it caused a considerable amount of chatter during a recent conference when Gallagher let drop that not only will NetJets take delivery of over 30 new private jets this year, it expects to take at least 40 new aircraft every year for the next decade. Having purged its fleet of older models over the past several years (average age is now seven years), he told the industry audience most of the new jets would be additive, not replacements, the result being a “significantly larger” fleet in the future.
NetJets is also expanding on the ground. In October, it announced new facilities in Denver and San Jose that will feature private lounges for customers. Gallagher says more significant is the hangar space, which means more places to carry-out minor maintenance that “keeps the planes moving.” Further announcements are expected, he says.
While not everything NetJets touches turns to gold – the Boeing Business Jet fleet didn’t last long, a partnership in Saudi Arabia came and went, and an excursion into China ended in short order – you don’t see the company chasing every shiny object. It was on the sidelines for the very light jet air taxi fad of the early 2000s and has eschewed selling seats and crowdsourcing flights, something Wheels Up, Vista Global, and Jet Linx Aviation, another up and comer, have been championing.
NetJets is planning to add more than 40 private jets per year for the next decade. Based on fleet … [+]
When asked if NetJets’ success is a bit on the boring side, Gallagher responds, “Our primary focus has always been safety and service…We focus on incremental innovation and continuous investment to widen our moat. Things like FOQA (That’s Flight Operational Quality Assurance) and AQP (That would be Advanced Qualification Programming training), real estate investments, sustainable aviation fuel, Ka-band WIFI on large-cabin jets, and industry-leading pilot compensation don’t always garner the same press as another jet-sharing app or the prospect that private flight has become more accessible, but the developments that I mentioned are valued greatly by our customers and allow us to maintain our leadership position.”
Asked if NetJets will be jumping on the bandwagon with other private jet companies to create luxury vacation experiences, Gallagher says beyond a select group of partnerships, it’s not something customers are asking for.
It also has been absent from the frenzied deal market that has seen seven of the nine largest charter operators merge, make acquisitions, or be acquired in the past two years. “Given our position in the industry, our strong balance sheet, and the Berkshire Hathaway connection, you have to imagine that we get a look at lots of acquisition opportunities, new aircraft models and other investment ideas. We aren’t getting beat to the deals. We just haven’t found many that we felt were worth doing,” Gallagher says.
#OnlyNetJets. The world’s largest private jet operator has no qualms about the leadership position … [+]
NetJets may not operate for the benefit of lifestyle journalists, issuing reports about where customers are jetting or launching fear of flying programs for your puppy. However, a visit to its headquarters at John Glenn Columbus International Airport in Ohio is an impressive experience, something akin to NASA operations, or well, a major airline, which in essence is what NetJets is.
Based on fleet size, it would be in a tie with Southwest Airlines, behind only American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines. A difference is its flights aren’t scheduled a year in advance. Fractional owners can call with as little as four hours’ notice. That’s right. If you decide you want to go someplace sunny during breakfast, by lunchtime, you can be airborne and on your way. While that’s impressive if you live in New York or Los Angeles, it’s the same for customers in North Dakota or New Mexico.
In Columbus, a large hangar-like room features rows of desks with blinking monitors and screens with dots showing the NetJets fleet in action. Color-coded bars track flight crews and their status as well as scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. NetJets pilots can take themselves off flights at any time or any reason without retribution, part of its emphasis on safety.
While NetJets has a high profile via relationships with star athletes such as tennis great Roger … [+]
Owner service representatives, dispatchers, travel coordinators, crew services, and even a team of in-house meteorologists that work 24/7/365 normally sit in groups. As COVID spread this past March, Gallagher says, “In the course of a few days (the various groups) were set up at their homes with laptops, monitors, web-phones and headsets.” Not a single flight was delayed.
If Mr. Smith is undecided about heading to Florida this weekend because he heard it might rain, he can speak to a certified weatherperson to get a micro forecast for Saturday morning at his golf club. If Mrs. Walsh is a skittish flyer, her owner services representative might call her the day before and suggest adjusting her departure time to avoid a passing storm.
Since NetJets operates its aircraft – it has control over the health safety protocols for its flight crews and the cleaning process, as well as what’s stocked on each airplane. In fact, NetJets used its aircraft to fly PPE from China to frontline workers in the U.S. at the outset of the pandemic. It also was among the first operators to test flight crews.
For customers, they can request specific magazines, order from a variety of menus serving up healthy to indulgent, or even specify a preferred brand of beer be stocked, although COVID-19 protocols are probably a more important factor for buyers these days. Despite the crisis, NetJets recently rolled out an umbrella for its multitude of sustainability initiatives. It also published a chart showing customers how much it costs to offset the carbon emissions from their flights. Being a leader on issues bigger than its own bottom line is an important part of being part of Berkshire, Gallagher said at the time. Philanthropy has long been at the core of what NetJets does. It is a longtime supporter of Corporate Angel Network, using empty legs to fly cancer patients for treatments.
Each aircraft type in the NetJets fleet is configured the same, providing an owner-like experience … [+]
If others sell the sizzle, operations executives at headquarters talk excitedly about how they use reams of data captured from every flight to enhance safety. That includes coming up with slightly different approaches to a handful of tricky airports.
At its core, it’s about attention to detail and experience. Pilots average 16 years with the company and over 10,000 hours at the controls, far beyond the 1,500-hour minimum mandated by the FAA. Twice a year, they go through four-day training sessions onsite at FlightSafety, including special training for mountain and island destinations.
NetJets appears to have come into this crisis from a position of strength. During the same conference, Gallagher told virtual attendees the company is back to 85% of pre-COVID flight levels, and it expects to be back to 2019 levels by the second half of 2021.
It is one of only a few large operators to eschew CARES Act money, and it has been openly critical of those that did. Gallagher taunts, “With the rising tide apparently lifting all ships in our industry, I’m hopeful as a taxpayer that some of those CARES Act funds get paid back. We see our competitors touting their recent success and return to pre-pandemic levels. I’m glad that those funds were available to keep people employed, but many of these companies today are out doing bolt-on acquisitions and spinning off new ventures. Personally, I am hopeful they are also paying back the tens of millions of dollars that they took to make payroll just a few months ago.”
Success may be one of NetJets’ most significant obstacles. “One of the things we hear a lot are people who have a preconceived notion…unless you’re flying a couple of hundred hours a year, ‘I don’t need NetJets.’ What I think it boils down to is the perception that we are significantly more expensive than other options that are out there, and the fact is we are not,” Gallagher says.
While many companies try to equate the cost of flying privately to be a reasonable premium to first class on the airlines using a per seat formula, that ignores that the average private jet typically has four passengers. In many cases, it’s just one or two. Rivals’ promotions typically include a grid showing their hourly rates compared to NetJets, with claims of saving 30% or so. For Gallagher, he simply says, “If you are spending 10 times more than what you would pay the airlines, why not spend 11 times more and get what you expected.”
NetJets is also making it easier for new customers to join. Until last year, it didn’t have a true light jet in its Marquis Jet card program. It also waived the daily minimum flight time charges on the Phenom 300, Citation XLS and Latitude, in some cases making it a price leader for short hops. Competitors have minimums as high as 120 minutes on light and midsize aircraft. That means your $5,000 hourly rate ends up on your invoice as a $10,000 charge, even if your flight was 30 minutes. With NetJets, you would pay the half-hour of flight time, and like most programs, 12 minutes for taxi time.
It is one of the few providers that offers fixed one-way rates to Hawaii and Europe. That means you don’t have to pay for the ferry flights after you are dropped off or to come to pick you up when you are ready to return. There are no surcharges for flights to the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada, except for pass-along international fees. A number of competitors limit their fixed-rate service area to the Continental U.S. while others charge premiums up to 40%. Deicing, something that runs into the thousands of dollars, is included, as is catering, which can add up quickly. WIFI and pets are guaranteed. In other words, there is less nickel and dime stuff.
Next year will bring the first Bombardier Global 7500 into the NetJets fleet. With a nonstop range of up to 16 hours, the ultra-long-haul jet will enable customers to get to more places without fuel stops.
“I think it would be a mistake for anyone to underestimate NetJets. They are not chasing headlines, but they are still the biggest business jet operator in the world,” says Alasdair Whyte, editor and co-founder of Corporate Jet Investor, adding, “Until 2008, NetJets was very focused on growth. From the outside, it now seems more focused on running a good business – especially keeping customers happy and retaining them. They are adding a lot of new customers and still growing and taking a lot of new aircraft, but they are not looking for growth for growth’s sake.”
While earlier this year NetJets said it wanted to increase its client count in the Middle East, expect its main focus to be on the U.S. and Europe. Gallagher points out there are more private jets in Ohio and Tennessee than in India or China. Fish where the fish are. Stick to your knitting. If the time since the Great Depression provides any sort of reveal, private aviation’s biggest player learned from its mistakes and is ready to keep winning.
Of course, everyone knows about clear air turbulence. Despite its apparent dominance, for consumers, there’s a long tail market of mom and pop operators who are fully capable of winning bookings. Whyte says, “Although it is fun to compare the different large operators, private aviation is so fragmented that they are all competing with dozens of other companies, especially at a local level. If you want to check this, ask a charter broker to quote you a trip and see the options. There is plenty of room for everyone.”
Then there’s the prospect of converting more full aircraft owners to fractional ownership. If you add the flight hours of those aircraft, the NetJets, Inc. share is just 10.1% of the total U.S. market, one reason Gallagher says there is “plenty of runway” for growth. While NetJets is principally focused on selling time on its fleet, competitors like Directional, Vista Global and Wheels Up tally hundreds of millions of dollars in charter flights onto the fleets of smaller operators, another place there could be growth.
For the future, don’t expect much to change. “Safety and service are far more important to us than market share, but our maniacal focus on the former two has proven effective in maintaining the latter,” Gallagher says.
And of course, there’s the confidence shown by a company that uses #OnlyNetJets as its hashtag. Gallagher, who cut his teeth with Flight Options, Jet Aviation and Marquis Jet before landing at NetJets, switches to a sports analogy. He compares arriving at the hallowed grounds of the company’s headquarter in Columbus to “when you’re a kid, you don’t just dream about growing up and playing in the majors, you dream about playing for the Yankees.”
I’m Editor-in-Chief of DG Amazing Experiences, a weekly e-newsletter for private jet owners and Private Jet Card Comparisons, a buyer’s guide comparing over 250 jet card programs from major players like Flexjet, Jet Linx, NetJets, Sentient Jet, Wheels Up, VistaJet, and XO to newcomers like FlyExclusive and boutique brokers. You’ll also find performance profiles of popular private jets, from turboprops King Air 350, Pilatus PC-12 and HondaJet to the Phenom 300, Challenger 300 and 350, Gulfstream G450, G550, G650, G700, Bombardier’s popular Global Express family, the iconic Learjet and S-76 helicopter used by both Queen Elizabeth and Donald Trump. There’s a free guide explaining various options and even a guide for first-timers and specifically what you need to know before chartering. And before you fly, find out what’s an FBO. You’ll also find a Deal Book, cataloging M&A activity and launches by key players. I’ve spent my working career in travel and luxury media, for 14 years at Travel Agent magazine, where I began as a reporter, then covered the airline industry as Aviation Editor and ended up rising to Group Publisher. In 2000 I started Elite Traveler, a consumer lifestyle magazine distributed globally aboard private jets, where I was President and Editor-in-Chief until 2014. In 2007, I co-authored of “The Sky’s the Limit: Marketing to the New Jet Set.” In 2014 I wrote “23 Ways to Create More Sales Opportunities 25 Minutes,” and in 2016 I co-authored “Secrets of Selling to the Super Rich.” Verb named me as one of the Top 25 Digital Luxury Experts to follow. For more private aviation and news on jet cards, private aviation memberships, and fractional ownership, visit Private Jet Card Comparisons’ news updates.