CHASING THE DEAL
Flights from companies like JetSuite, Blade and JetSmarter can turn out to be reasonably priced, especially for groups. Here’s how it works.
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As Rachel Raymond from West Orange, N.J., tells it, the day last August when she flew on a private jet ranks as one of the most unreal experiences of her life. Ms. Raymond, and her husband, Daniel, along with their three children, took a flight in a seven-seat jet, a Cessna Citation III, complete with two pilots and a well-stocked bar, from Westchester County Airport, in White Plains, N.Y., to upstate Saratoga Springs. The Raymonds had decided to take an impromptu trip to Lake George because they had found a last-minute deal where they could fly on that route for only $500.
“Daniel and I have always fantasized about flying private, but it’s a luxury that we never thought that we would be able to pay for,” Ms. Raymond said.
The charter was a “SuiteDeal” from the private jet company JetSuite. These last-minute deals for one-way private jet charters within the United State cost between $500 and $2,000, and the money the Raymonds paid was comfortably within their budget.
JetSuite is one of several private aviation companies attempting to make private jet flying accessible to travelers who aren’t part of the billionaire or even millionaire set. In many cases, these companies such as Blade and JetSmarter, are able to offer flights at appealing prices because the trips are shared with a small group of other passengers. While this may not be private flying in the vein of having an entire plane to yourself, travelers fly in and out of small, private airports where they usually don’t have to deal with the Transportation Security Administration and can arrive just five to 15 minutes before their departure time.
The Raymond’s $500 trip is a more extreme example of how little flights on private jets can cost, but industry experts say that a trip on one today is less expensive than it ever has been in the past.
Steve Wooster, the managing director of services and air operations for the luxury travel network Virtuoso, said that the proliferation of private jet brands has led to these lower prices. “There are many more suppliers than there ever used to be, and competition means prices have dropped,” he said. “Private jet flying is now open to a diversity of passengers, not just C.E.O.’s.”
According to Virtuoso’s research, the average price for a private jet flight declined 13 percent from 2014 to 2016.
Are these lower prices the reason more Americans are chartering planes? Virtuoso’s statistics indicate that the number of private charter trips increased by 10 percent from 2014 to 2016, and statistics from the research company Euromonitor show that the number of passengers in the United States who chartered planes increased from 4.88 million in 2013 to 5.32 million in 2016 (this number excludes helicopter charters).
JetSmarter, around since 2013, is an example of a player in the private aviation space selling shared flights. The company operates on a membership model: Fliers pay a minimum of $15,000 a year and book seats on already scheduled flights through the JetSmarter app, which lists more than 150 domestic and international trips a day. Trips under three hours are included in the cost of the membership while longer ones are an average of $300 a person, according to Sergey Petrossov, the company’s chief executive officer; most flights have an average of eight to 10 passengers.
Members who want to set their own schedule can create a flight and post it to JetSmarter’s app so that other interested members can buy seats for the route and help reduce the cost of the charter; if all the seats on the plane sell, the member who created the flight flies for free. These crowdsourced trips usually top out at $2,000 a person, a fraction of the $8,000 or more per hour it can cost for a traditional charter. “My goal is to make private jet flying less elitist,” Mr. Petrossov said.
Blade, which doesn’t require membership, also sells flights, but only from December through mid-March and on one route, between Westchester County Airport (with or without a helicopter transfer from Manhattan) and its own terminal in Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport. From $1,285 each way, fliers travel on a Bombardier commercial jet retrofitted with 16 seats and receive an array of amenities such as catered meals from Dean & Deluca as well as iPad Pros loaded with first-run movies; they also get accommodations for the weekend at Faena Miami, a luxury beachfront hotel.
The Miami route made its debut two years ago and has been so popular, said company founder Rob Wiesenthal, that this season, the flights will be offered four days a week, instead of the two days that they previously were.
Paul Cappuccio, who lives in Greenwich, Conn., and is the general counsel for Time Warner, flew to Miami on Blade most weekends last winter and plans to do the same this year. “It’s such a relaxed way to fly, an elegant experience and so hassle-free,” he said. While not necessarily budget-friendly, Mr. Cappuccio said that Blade hits the sweet spot on price. “It’s not all that much more than a full-fare first-class ticket, but a small fraction of what it would cost to fly on a chartered private jet,” he said.
But for travelers who only want their own chartered plane without having to pay an exorbitant price, there are options like JetSuite’s “SuiteDeals.” The company’s primary business is private jet charters for hourly rates of between $4,000 and $7,000 while “SuiteDeals” are sales of flights called empty legs — routes that jets are scheduled to fly on without any passengers.
Meredith Broder, an adviser with the Villanova, Pa., travel company Avenue Two Travel, said that empty leg flights have changed the private jet game. “Rather than have the plane fly empty, air companies or private jet brokers try to sell that route at a discount,” she said. “This strategy helps with fuel costs and puts private jet flying within reach to people who wouldn’t normally be able to afford this luxury and convenience.”
Ms. Broder frequently books private jets for clients and gets a weekly list from several private jet companies of empty leg availability for the coming week (other agents specializing in private jet travel also get similar lists). Recent flights included an $8,500 trip from Naples to Cleveland on a Beechjet 400A, a plane that seats seven people, and a $6,500 trip from Scottsdale, Ariz., to Colorado Springs on a Learjet 45XR, accommodating eight fliers.
Empty legs are inexpensive because fliers usually don’t have a choice in the route, but some travel agents can find favorable rates for customized charters, too.
Ms. Broder booked a jet charter this March from New Jersey to Las Vegas for her client Steven Michaels, an entrepreneur from Cherry Hill, N.J., and seven of his friends. The trip was in celebration of several of the men turning 50, and the group wanted an extravagant getaway. First-class tickets worked out to close to $2,000 a person round trip, while chartering an eight-seat Citation III jet was $3,500 each. When presented with both options, Mr. Michaels said that going private was a no-brainer. “The journey was like paying for a high-end tour or excursion and ended up being one of the most fun parts of the trip,” he said.
What’s in store for travelers hitting the road and the skies during this uncertain year.