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Aviation: Private Party

Michael Schulze

Over Kansas, on the way from New York to Los Angeles, the hip-hop mogul realized that the jet had run out of vodka. He ventured that a stop in Las Vegas was in order, and the other luminaries on the flight agreed. We touched down, and immediately two twentysomethings dashed across the runway toward the plane, clutching bottles, ice, and lemons. A few minutes later we were off again—and the festivities aboard the Avion Private Jet Club flight resumed.

In 2004, L.A. travel-industry veteran Gary Mansour, convinced that his clients were overpaying for private jet flights, particularly for coast-to-coast trips, resolved to introduce a new concept: an air charter service in which you pay for individual seats. His colleagues scoffed. Who, they wondered, would fly in a chartered plane without knowing who else would be on it? But Mansour believed that a country club model in which each member was carefully vetted could win the requisite trust. He also calculated that a New York–to–Los Angeles service of this kind could be offered for a price higher than that of first class but significantly lower than that of a charter flight. As of November, a round-trip, coast-to-coast Avion flight costs about $13,000, plus an initial membership fee of $18,000 for an individual, $25,000 for a couple, $36,000 for a family, or as much as $75,000 for a corporate account. After that, the price of annual renewal is 50 percent of the membership fee. Recently, Mansour introduced a program in which members can pay up front for fully private charter flights with deposits of either $100,000 or $200,000. For clients who prepay, Avion waives the initial fee for the individual-seat program.

“I never saw Avion as a replacement for charter or fractional service,” he says. “My clients continue to use those programs, but quite frequently they go outside them, usually because of the cost of long-haul trips.” He has attracted some 60 members since making his first flight in March 2005, and he reports a client retention rate of 100 percent.

On the recent Avion flight that made the unscheduled stop in Las Vegas, the members included the hip-hop mogul, a former movie studio head, a hotelier, a restaurateur, and a soft-spoken gentleman associated with the Saudi royal family. I expected a fairly quiet experience, but these individuals, pleased to be among peers, loosened up, roamed the plane, and chatted easily. I assumed that the conviviality stemmed from the presence of Mansour, who knew everyone on board, but a passenger assured me that the atmosphere was similar on other flights. The vodka helped, of course.

Avion charters its jets from Avjet Corp., a flight-management company based in Burbank, Calif. The planes are well-appointed Challengers and Gulfstreams (some owned by Avjet, others by third parties), all certified by the safety auditors Wyvern and ARG/US. The aircraft seat 10 to 13 people, but Mansour ensures ample personal space by booking no more than eight passengers per flight. Amenities include complimentary car service to the departure airport, cashmere blankets, and cuisine by Tom Colicchio (on flights from New York) and Wolfgang Puck (on flights from L.A.).

The company flies from New York’s Westchester County airport to Los Angeles’ Van Nuys or Burbank airports on Wednesdays and back to New York on Sundays. Mansour hopes to increase the frequency of Avion’s cross-country trips and may add flights to Miami and London. He also is considering offering service to Las Vegas—presumably for purposes other than to restock the plane’s bar.

Avion Private Jet Club
310.281.4888
www.flyavion.com

Photo by Jim Fets
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