Chartered jets used to be a perk largely reserved for CEOs, entertainers, and other VIPs.
Fractional ownership and air debit cards, which allow companies to purchase a specific amount of time on a corporate jet, have made chartering more affordable.
This has, in turn, opened up a broader audience for private flights, which have grown up to 25 percent annually for the past five years, according to reports by the National Aviation Transportation Association.
“Since 9/11, we have seen requests and bookings increase dramatically,” reports Donna Clark, director of U.S. sales, meeting and incentives for Flight Time International, which is based in Waltham, Mass.
Is Chartering for You?
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 — often with as little as two hours' notice.
Chartering is faster than using scheduled air service. Private aircraft customers can show up 10 to 15 minutes before a flight, versus the two hours that commercial airlines recommend and often need.
In addition, chartered flights make hard-to-reach destinations with smaller airports more accessible and allow for multiple stops.
“Suppose I wanted to do a trip with four to eight people and stop in Cleveland, Chicago, and Lexington [Ky.] 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.
Another advantage to private flights is the ability to conduct business while in the air. “Meetings can start on board the aircraft because it's theirs,” says Clark.
For incentive groups or VIPs, a charter offers clients the ability to customize the experience, and it can be top-notch. All-first-class seating, special refreshments, and open bars are just the beginning. For overnight flights, some carriers even offer passengers their version of turndown service.
But charter in-flight service can be inconsistent, so it pays to check out the carrier thoroughly, says Suzanne Bailey, a senior planner with U.S. Motivation in Atlanta. She has had clients complain about flights without alcoholic beverages and with too few or nonexistent meals.
What About the Cost?
Chartering is probably never going to be a bargain, but it's becoming a more affordable choice for travelers.
One-time charters are often the most expensive. Alan Clingman, CEO of Marquis Jet Partners, New York, compares them to standing on a street corner and hailing a cab. The cost depends on the equipment, how many passengers are flying, how long the aircraft is in the air, the amount of fuel required, landing and ramp charges, waiting charges, and other factors.
A typical trip for 50 passengers who are traveling on a weekday (Monday through Thursday) from New York City to Lewisburg, W.Va., serving Greenbrier Resort, can cost about $34,000, says Clark. The flight cost includes a 24-hour duty officer, a dedicated flight support team, automatic additional insurance for charter and client, automatic flight delay coverage, standard catering, beverage service and cash bar, ramp-side check-in, and applicable taxes.
Fractional ownership of a private jet is another alternative. It is comparable to a real estate time share. 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 make this option a bit steep for most small companies.
Enter membership programs, which allow purchasers to buy debit cards for smaller chunks of time but which 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.
“Usually we do it in a situation where it makes the program run more smoothly but is not cost prohibitive to the traveler,” says Bailey.
On the flip side, chartering can cut down on some costs, such as ground transportation. “If the group arrives and departs at the same time, it saves money on transportation because you don't have people straggling in,” she adds.
Another potential savings is with accommodations. “Say you have a last-night function that is over at 10 p.m. You can have a midnight departure” so that an overnight stay isn't required, Clark says.
The Security Factor
With CEOs and high-profile celebrities as their clients, the major charter providers have long understood the need for top-notch 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.” That's something she has heard requested more frequently in recent months.
Clients traveling overseas can arrange for bomb-sniffing dogs and round-the-clock security for the plane, according to Paul A. Svensen Jr., vice president of sales for Executive Business Jets, Norwell, Mass. 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.”
And these days, that is exactly what discerning travelers want to hear.
Megan Rowe is a business writer based in Cleveland. She is a frequent contributor to CMI, and has been reporting on the hospitality industry since 1986.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
What is the company's FAA certificate number? This shows that an airline has been authorized to offer charter flights.
Who owns the aircraft? A company that owns its own fleet can control maintenance, servicing, and pilot training.
Does an FAA-authorized facility or the manufacturer maintain the craft?
How often are planes serviced? Typically, private jets are out of commission two to three months a year for servicing.
What kind of training have pilots undergone? Pilots for Executive Jet undergo 23 days of training a year; a typical minimum is 12 days. Also important: how many flight hours does a pilot have 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.
Have personnel been adequately screened through drug tests, background checks, and other methods?
Does the charter operator have access to the latest weather information at the departure point and en route? The operator should.
What about the company's insurance coverage? Sometimes only the cost of the charter is covered.
American International Airways
American Trans Air
CSI Aviation Services
Delta Air Lines
Executive Business Jets
Flight Time International
Sun Country Airlines