If you want me at the meeting, you'll have to fly me in privately,” two board members told corporate execs after 9/11. In response, the company gave each of the jittery board members a sort of debit card, worth 25 hours of flying time on a private jet, according to Alan Clingman, CEO of Marquis Jet Partners, which offers a jet card in conjunction with Executive Jet's NetJets fractional plan.
That response is not unusual. Since September 11, “There has been a great increase in interest because of the secure nature of charter,” says Donna Clark, director of U.S. sales, meetings, and incentives for Flight Time International in Waltham, Mass. “Our requests and bookings have increased dramatically.”
Even before 9/11, privately chartered jets, long a perk largely reserved for CEOs, entertainers, and other VIPs, were moving into the mainstream as fractional ownership and air debit cards made them more affordable and accessible. The number of people flying private jets has grown 25 percent annually for the last five years, according to the National Aviation Transportation Association. Debit cards were already gaining in popularity as a way for companies to inspire top performers. And the terrorist attacks only underscored the security and convenience advantages private carriers offer over commercial airlines.
The most compelling reason for chartering a plane or jet is being able to get from point A to point B as easily as possible — on as little as two hours' notice. Charters make hard-to-reach destinations in small cities and the Caribbean, for example, more accessible. They also allow multiple stops that probably couldn't be done via scheduled service.
“Suppose I wanted to do a trip with four to eight people and stop in Cleveland, Chicago, and Lexington on the same day. Could I do that commercially? Impossible. Privately? Yes,” says Kevin Russell, senior vice president with Woodbridge, N.J.-based Executive Jet. Advance check-in alone — as much as two hours for scheduled flights — would eat up most of the day. Private aircraft customers can show up 15 minutes before a flight. Similarly, charter flights can facilitate convening a far-flung group in one location.
Another key advantage of charter is the ability to conduct business while in the air. “Meetings can start on board the aircraft because it's theirs,” Clark says of groups.
Charters can also cut down on hotel costs, a key consideration in high-priced destinations. “Say you have a last-night function that is over at 10. You can have a midnight departure,” Clark says. In addition to cutting costs for accommodations, charter service can shrink ground transportation costs. “If the group arrives and departs at the same time, it saves money on transportation because you don't have people straggling in,” says Suzanne Bailey, a senior planner with U.S. Motivation, Atlanta.
The Personal Touch
Unlike the cookie-cutter service of a scheduled flight, a charter offers clients the ability to customize the experience. All first-class seating, special refreshments, and open bars are just the beginning. If VIPs are traveling, their favorite drink can be stocked. For overnight flights, some carriers offer passengers their version of turndown service. But charter in-flight service can be bumpy, too, so it pays to check out the carrier thoroughly. (See checklist, right.) Bailey recalls some clients complaining about flights with no liquor aboard and too few meals.
Generally charter passengers know each other, so the atmosphere is more convivial than on a scheduled flight. And seat control isn't an issue, so spouses and chums can sit together.
With CEOs and high-profile celebrities as clients, the major charter providers have long understood the need for security. “You can literally control everybody and everything getting on that plane,” says Taylor. “You can even hire additional security to fly with the group,” something she says she's heard requested more frequently in recent months.
Paul A. Svensen Jr., vice president of sales, Executive Business Jets, says clients traveling overseas can arrange for bomb-sniffing dogs and round-the-clock security for the plane. But he agrees with Taylor that tampering is much less likely with a business carrier because “not so many people are getting on and off the aircraft; even the catering people don't get on board.”
Companies have several options for hiring private business carriers, ranging from a simple, one-time charter, to fractional ownership, to membership or debit programs.
One-time charters are often the most expensive, depending on the equipment, the number of passengers, flight time, landing and ramp charges, waiting charges, and other factors. For example, a typical trip from New York City to the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia would cost roughly $34,000 for 50 passengers traveling Monday through Thursday. The price includes a 24-hour duty officer, dedicated flight support team, automatic additional insurance, automatic flight delay coverage, standard food and beverage service, ramp-side check-in, and taxes.
Fractional ownership is comparable to a real estate timeshare. Owners purchase a one-sixteenth share of an aircraft, which guarantees them access within a few hours to a certain class of aircraft for 50 hours each year. But prices starting at around $400,000 per share are a bit steep.
Enter membership programs, which allow purchasers to buy debit cards for smaller chunks of time but still offer last-minute booking capability. The Marquis Private Jet Card and the Executive Business Jets' eBizJets Travel Card, for example, start at $100,000 for 25 or more hours.
Are You Covered?
It's best to read the fine print about corporate credit card coverage before assuming that insurance will kick in should there be an accident on a charter flight.
Until February of this year, American Express did cover its corporate cardholders in such instances. But when that policy came up for renewal, “We started researching the cost of buying the coverage we needed to provide and found it had quadrupled since September 11,” says Melissa Abernathy, a spokesperson for American Express Corporate Services, based in New York City. So, along with nuclear, biological, and chemical hazards, American Express is now excluding charter flights.
The American Express decision may not affect your group: The Air Charter Guide estimates that only about 16 percent of all charter flights involve some form of credit card payment. But it does underscore the importance of asking questions about insurance up front.
“Some companies will only cover you for the cost of the charter, which means that if you have a flight that costs $15,000, you will have $15,000 of insurance,” says Executive Jet's Russell. He says a reputable carrier should offer coverage at much higher levels.
John I. Williams Jr., president and CEO of Executive Business Jets, based in Norwell, Mass., agrees. “We have insurance on all of our flights, and the charter operators that we engage for our clients all carry insurance. For the midsize and heavy jets, they carry a minimum of $50 million, and we have another $50 million on top of that.”
Your Charter Shopping Checklist
For the novice charter customer, a good place to start is The Air Charter Guide (www.aircharterguide.com), which has information about pricing, booking, and other charter basics.
Check for an FAA certificate number, which shows an airline is authorized to offer charter flights.
Determine who owns the aircraft. A company that owns its own fleet can control maintenance, servicing, and pilot training.
Make sure an FAA-authorized facility or the manufacturer maintains the craft.
Ask how often planes are serviced. Typically, private jets are out of commission two to three months a year for servicing.
Find out what kind of training pilots have undergone. Pilots for Executive Jet participate in 23 days of training a year; a typical minimum is 12 days. Also important: How many flight hours a pilot has in the specific type of aircraft — the more, the better.
What is the carrier's safety record? The FAA or Breiling and Associates (www.breilinginc.com) can provide information. Find out if the FAA has ever fined the carrier or suspended its license, and why.
Determine whether personnel have been adequately screened with drug tests, background checks, and other methods.
Check the company's insurance coverage.
Charter Companies Buyer's Guide
American International Airways
American Trans Air
CSI Aviation Services
Delta Air Lines
Executive Business Jets
Flight Time International
Miami Air International
North American Airlines
Sun Country Airlines