As the private-flight market becomes more democratized, it also becomes increasingly polarized. Newer companies that place price as their primary focus are looking to make private flights even more accessible and affordable, while more established companies are taking a different course, attempting to elevate the private experience ever higher for those who value privacy and service above all.
While ownership is always king, charter jets have made huge gains in popularity. The Knight Frank’s 2018 Wealth Report finds that, in terms of the number of private flights taking o in the United States, charter has surpassed fractional and moved into second place behind full ownership. Charter flights now account for 27 percent of U.S. private flights versus fractional’s 11 percent share.
JetSmarter is among the companies responsible for the rise of on-demand charter, with its flight-sharing app that allows you to create and share flights—as well as their cost. But, until recently, the service wasn’t available to everyone; you had to pay an annual individual membership fee of $4,950 and a one-time $3,000 initiation fee. When JetSmarter began allowing nonmembers to use the app earlier this year, seat bookings consequently increased by 116 percent compared to last year.
Of course, the problem with the flight-sharing model is similar to the problem with bed-and-breakfasts: What you gain in convenience, you lose in privacy. That said, because the flights depart from private terminals or private hangars, you still sidestep the lines and wait times associated with airline terminals—which may be worth the price of admission on its own.
JetSmarter CEO Sergey Petrossov says that by inviting nonmembers to use the app, his company has made more flights available for everyone to share. “With more users to initiate custom flights, the JetSmarter community will continue to grow, ultimately driving the creation of new routes and flight frequency,” he says. He seems to be implying a more inclusive community of private fliers is good for everyone—even those who are looking for a more elevated experience—but is that really the case? Sure, more flights along more routes is a boon, and members of JetSmarter enjoy lower per-flight prices, priority booking, and access to special events that are unavailable to nonmembers—like in-air Champagne tastings, meetings with celebrities, and the full VIP treatment at the Masters golf tournament. But are those perks enough for customers who already have exquisite Champagnes aging in their own cellars and can access VIP passes on their own or through their premium credit-card services?
Sentient Jet, the original flight-card company, thought so. It, too, differentiates itself from lower-cost options by giving its customers access to invitation-only events such as breakfast at the Kentucky Derby and private tours of art galleries and Sotheby’s headquarters in Manhattan. More traditional private-flight models don’t stop at semi- exclusive access, however; they try to make the trip itself special. For instance, VistaJet launched a children’s program earlier this year to occupy the little ones with not just games and books but an onboard caretaker (that can’t be an easy job). This summer, Magellan Jets brought back a 10-hour card to let families take their high schoolers to visit colleges they are considering via private jet—one fully decked out in swag from the institutions they’re visiting.
Other companies are playing both sides. JetSuite provides traditional private charter flights and also has its JetSuiteX division, which offers private flights—along set routes mostly in California—that aren’t so private. However, they are more affordable than jet- card or on-demand charter flights. All flights depart from private terminals or private hangars, so as with truly private flights, passengers avoid airline terminals and associated miseries.
The rise of low-cost services like private-flight ride sharing means that more people than ever will be able to enjoy charter air travel, and that will certainly boost the number of charter flights for all. But what that does for the experience is open to question. Yet even as that happens, the more exclusive end of private aviation will likely get, well, even more exclusive.