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Shaircraft Solutions CEO James Butler on the Highs and Lows of Private Aviation

"The industry has proven resilient and is thriving."

CEO of Shaircraft Solutions James Butler Essdras M Suarez

A member of Robb Report’s Private Aviation Advisory Board, Butler is CEO of Shaircraft Solutions,
 a Maryland-based firm advising individuals and businesses on investments in private air travel. A business attorney with expert industry knowledge, Butler has negotiated transactions ranging from multimillion-dollar fractional-share purchases and valuation disputes to relatively small jet card contracts. His clients include professional athletes, Fortune 500 CEOs, and high-net-worth retirees and families. We caught up with him recently to get his thoughts on the state of the industry.

Ten years after the crash, how healthy is the private-aviation industry?

The industry has proven resilient and is thriving. More businesses and individuals have come to view private air travel as a necessity rather than a luxury. The core businesses of whole-aircraft ownership, fractional and charter are firmly established and stable. Forays aimed at reaching a broader demographic through apps, per-seat sales and the like have met with limited success and several stumbles. The recipe for success is the same today as it was 10 years ago—the right amount of flight time on the most appropriate and safe aircraft, at the best possible price.

Hamilton Private Jet Trip

Challenger 350  Courtesy of FlexJet

What are the biggest strengths?

By far, private aviation’s biggest strength is the service itself. No one doesn’t like this product. Convenience, time savings and peace of mind all are at the heart of the private aviation experience. You fly where you want, when you want, and you fly direct (not through the airlines’ hubs). No penalty for booking late, no waiting for red eyes, no sitting in airports for hours on end, no lost luggage. Nor is security a concern when you fly privately. You know who’s on board, what’s in the luggage, and who’s piloting the plane. This sense of control provides peace of mind that, in today’s world, is priceless.

What is the weakest link?

There are pitfalls aplenty out there for those who explore private aviation on their own, as they, most often, shop solely based on price. These days, there are few barriers to entry into what I call the Uberization of private air travel. By that I mean anyone who has access to aircraft operators who are looking to monetize excess capacity—for example, aircraft just sitting on the ground—can contract with these operators to fly their flights and then come up with a clever name and a fancy brochure and sell themselves to an unsuspecting public as a private jet “program.” These types of offerings have grown like honeysuckle with the advent of the internet and the increase in excess aircraft capacity. Unfortunately, all too often they fail and customers who’ve paid membership fees or other advances are left holding the bag.

Flying at 40,000 feet is not like having an Uber drive you home. Safety must always be the first priority—well-maintained aircraft and experienced pilots are essential. Too often folks are blinded by a discounted price. As in all things, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

What are you looking forward to in the next year or so?

Absent extraordinary economic or other events, I expect the industry to remain stable and enjoy incremental growth. As more and more baby boomers retire, I expect to see their investments in private aviation increase. New and better aircraft will continue to come on the scene and well-established, financially strong aviation manufacturers, managers and operators will continue to thrive. That said, change is the only constant in the private aviation industry. Given the low barriers to entry, high risk and costly pitfalls, it’s more important than ever for private flyers to have an expert guiding them.

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