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Aircraft: Delta Force

For the first time, a member of the commercial airline fraternity—the companies that prompted the emergence of the private flight industry by delaying flights, losing luggage, and otherwise disrupting the best-laid plans of business travelers and vacationers—is entering the growing private flight membership business. Delta AirElite Business Jets, a corporate charter division of the parent company, recently launched its Delta AirElite Fleet Membership program.

AirElite will compete with Delta’s own commercial first-class flights, as well as with private flight membership programs such as Bombardier Skyjet, Marquis Jet Partners, and Sentient. “I think the reason Delta AirElite got into this business is that they were seeing their full-fare first-class passenger flying on fractional or charter,” says Joe Moeggenberg, president of Aviation Research Group/U.S., an aviation consulting firm. “They’re trying to capture that flier. They’re able now to provide that high-net-worth individual—that type of person who flies in first class—an alternative.”

Several years ago, United Airlines recognized the possibilities of supplementing its commercial business with private aviation when it launched Avolar, a fractional program. However, in March 2002, United pulled the plug, citing a lack of funds in a sputtering economy. While the economy is still lukewarm and United’s Avolar stumble is still fresh, Delta is betting that its membership division, especially given the level of interest in existing programs, will result in a different outcome.

AirElite Fleet members purchase 25, 50, or 100 flight hours, with costs ranging from $99,500 for 25 hours on a light jet, such as a Learjet 45, to $944,500 for 100 hours on a large jet, such as a Gulfstream IV-SP. Members can leave the program at any time and be fully compensated for their unused flight hours.

With 12 hours’ notice, members can have access to one of more than 300 aircraft in the AirElite fleet, which is divided into three segments: dedicated, operated, and affiliate. AirElite owns the 30 planes in the dedicated fleet. The planes in the operated fleet are flown by AirElite but belong to other owners—typically private individuals or corporations—who are seeking revenue to offset ownership costs. Charter-operated planes make up the affiliate fleet. AirElite conducts pilot, plane, and crew reviews, as well as insurance, maintenance, and customer service checks before approving charter operators, and uses the affiliate aircraft only when dedicated and operated planes are not available.

Like fliers in other membership programs and unlike most fractional owners, AirElite members do not have to sign five-year commitments. They also do not have to be concerned that the value of their unused shares will have depreciated when they try to sell them back to the fractional company. Furthermore, says Cameron Gowans, AirElite’s director of sales and marketing, the Delta program’s commercial airline connection provides members with a perk that other membership programs are unable to offer. Depending on their level of membership, AirElite flyers can upgrade to first class at no extra cost when traveling on one of the airline’s commercial flights.

Of course, commercial flights and all of their attendant inconveniences are often the very offenses that prompt fliers to join a private flight program such as AirElite in the first place. —fluto shinzawa

Delta AirElite Business Jets, 877.323.5387, www.airelite.com

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