“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 to the masses. 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.
For pharmaceutical and biotechnology meeting and incentive groups, charters can fulfill a variety of needs:
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 more accessible, for example. They also allow multiple stops that probably wouldn't be doable 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 to do business. 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 10 to 15 minutes before a flight. Similarly, charter flights can help facilitate convening a far-flung group in one location.
Another key advantage of charter for busy individuals 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 p.m. You can have a midnight departure,” Clark says. Taylor recently was mulling charter options for an incentive group traveling to St. Lucia to avoid forcing an overnight stay in San Juan en route.
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 in 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 above.) 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'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 Svensen 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.”
The Downside: Sky-High Costs
Companies have several options for hiring private business carriers, ranging from a simple, one-time charter, to fractional ownership, to membership or debit programs.
You have the least control if you rent a charter for one-time use. The cost depends on the equipment, how many passengers are flying, how long the aircraft is in the air, fuel, landing and ramp charges, waiting charges, and other factors.
Fractional ownership, credited with opening up private aviation to a larger audience, is comparable to a 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 for many potential buyers.
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.
Private air travel is probably never going to be a bargain, but it often serves an important function.
“Usually we try to do it in a situation where it makes the program run more smoothly, but where it is not cost-prohibitive,” Bailey says.
Your Charter Shopping Checklist
For the novice charter customer, a good place to start is The Air Charter Guide (www.aircharterguide.com), which contains information about pricing, booking, and other factors.
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 through drug tests, background checks, and other methods. “We audit that information for everyone from the crew to the people who check out the oil,” says Paul A. Svensen Jr., vice president of sales, Executive Business Jets.
A charter operator should have access to the latest weather information at departure and en route.
Check the company's insurance coverage. “Some will cover you only for the cost of the charter,” says Kevin Russell, senior vice president, Executive Jet.
Don't skimp, says Russell. “Ask yourself: ‘If I were going to have brain surgery, would I want the cheapest quote or the best overall qualified provider?’”
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