Steep Fees and First-Class Prices, but Private Jets Are Available to More
February 16, 2015
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  • Aaron Smart flies two or three times a week and prefers private jets, but he doesn’t own a plane. He has a smartphone for that. Mr. Smart, who is an owner of Manhattan’s ArtNowNY and Joseph Gross galleries, has homes in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., and New York, making for a lot of time spent on planes.

    To make travel easier, and to avoid the headache of commercial flying, he often uses JetSmarter, a start-up service that, for an annual membership fee, allows him to fly on so-called empty legs, or private jets flying without passengers on their way to pick someone up.

    Call it ride-hailing for the jet set.

    The service is one of a host of new ventures that are seeking to upend the private jet market by capitalizing on advancing technology and rising dissatisfaction with commercial airlines.

    Before the recession, business travelers and companies were more likely to own fractional shares of a business jet — a flying time share, essentially. But the downturn, along with major airlines’ cost-cutting measures, prompted many to rethink flying options, leading to a surge of new services.

    “It’s continually evolving,” said Dan Hubbard, senior vice president of the National Business Aviation Association. The new options “are yet another way of coming at this.”

    In some cases, the flights end up costing the same or less than first-class tickets on a commercial airliner.

    Among the start-ups is Magellan Jets, which offers a subscription-based model where passengers can buy blocks of flight time and then get matched to planes through an iPhone app. Magellan users are not tied to a specific plane, which allows more flexibility.

    Magellan Jets guarantees an aircraft — including turboprops and helicopters — within 10 hours of a customer’s request in the United States, or within 24 hours in Europe. The company, which is based in Quincy, Mass., and works with about 95 aircraft providers, conducts background checks on flight crews before every trip, said Magellan’s president, Anthony Tivnan.

    The service would have been unthinkable before the Internet, which allows Magellan to quickly find planes upon request.

    “It takes us seconds to find this availability,” Mr. Tivnan said. “Before, we couldn’t do that, so you had to go to one of the legacy fractional carriers.”

    Another start-up is BlackJet, which pairs customers with empty seats on nearby private aircraft.

    Formerly called GreenJets, BlackJet notes that its tickets cost about the same as first-class airline seats. But the similarities end there, said BlackJet’s chief executive, Dean Rotchin.

    Private jets “are much more reliable,” he said, noting that about half of BlackJet’s customers are business travelers. “It takes off when it’s supposed to take off. You drive up to the airplane. Fifteen minutes and you’re in the air.”

    For Mr. Smart, who switches among JetSmarter, BlackJet and the California-based Surf Air, another venture that offers a membership-based service, the new options have taken some of the stress out of his frequent traveling.

    “I’ve done Fort Lauderdale to Teterboro for free, which would normally be $15,000,” he said, referring to the small New Jersey airport. “It saves time. You park for free, get on the plane and go.”

    JetSmarter, whose customers booked more than 1,300 flights last year, expects to book 10 times as many passengers in 2015, said its 26-year-old chief executive, Sergey Petrossov. While some might consider the $7,000 annual fee steep, it’s far more affordable than a private jet, he said.

    “Private jets today aren’t looked at as a luxury tool; they’re a productivity tool,” Mr. Petrossov said. “Time is money. You’re eliminating hours from your journey.”

    The company has deals with about 800 private jet owners and pilots, allowing them to earn money with planes that otherwise would be idle. Unlike BlackJet, JetSmarter customers can rent only a whole plane, not an empty seat.

    Not all JetSmarter users are members. Nonmembers can fly empty legs for a price and other flights for more than the member cost.

    A recent nonmember search of the JetSmarter app showed empty legs available, for example, between Miami and the Bahamas for $1,750 and from Chicago to Bedford, Mass., for $5,249.

    The headaches of commercial air travel — security lines, delays, cancellations — could help the alternative options thrive as travelers seek easier methods.

    Commercial airlines, sensing a competitive threat, have tried recently to attract upscale passengers tempted by the private options, said Clayton R. Critcher, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of California, Berkeley. Some airlines have added shuttles to frequently traveled routes, he said, while others have made it easier for independent business travelers to upgrade to first class.

    The effort may be for naught, he said. Private planes are just too easy for those who can afford them.

    “In the end, based on all the hassles inherent in flying, they’re not going to be able to match these options,” Dr. Critcher said. “They’ll never be able to match the convenience and flexibility.”

    The concept essentially is automating what charter flight brokers have been doing for decades, said Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst and consultant. But the added convenience — what Mr. Petrossov called “democratizing private jet travel” — raises the risk that travelers new to private aviation will find themselves on unsafe planes or with improperly trained pilots, Mr. Mann said.

    “The people who use these services extensively know what to look for,” he said. Mr. Mann noted the example of Platinum Jet, a private charter service whose founders were convicted of multiple crimes after a 2005 crash at Teterboro. “Folks who don’t are most likely to be vulnerable. There’s such a variation in quality and competence.”

    Besides Magellan’s vetting of its carriers’ flight crews, JetSmarter and BlackJet both said they required their partners to be certified by safety auditing groups.

    For Mr. Smart, the real perk of flying privately is the free empty leg. He reluctantly pays more to fly with other passengers when no empty planes are nearby, and he usually flies commercial airlines on longer flights, but for quick jaunts, one of the 3,200 aircraft JetSmarter uses is often available.

    And in the end, it is not all about business, he said.

    “When baseball season starts, I’m going to start flying all over the country going to games,” he said.