Uber First Class – The Rise Of Private Flights
Scott Mansonon 15 October, 2015 at 01:10
Once the preserve of football players, oligarchs and lottery winners, private aviation has now opened up to a wider passenger base.
Scott Manson, former editor of BA’s High Life magazine and NetJets customer magazine, explains its broadening appeal.
90’s ‘It Girl’ Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s definition of hell was, famously, “having to turn right when entering an aircraft”. Right, she believed, led to cramped seats, deep vein thrombosis, and terrible food, while what lay left was a comfort level several stratospheres above.
In the battle for top-tier passengers, though, private flight providers make a compelling case for taking up their offering.
The fundamental problem with flying on all commercial airlines, they point out, is that wherever you sit, the journey time remains the same. Sure, you might get a free limo to the airport, a neck massage and the chance to linger at the lounge a little longer before boarding, but you’re still at the mercy of airport security and the fact that any one of your fellow passengers could somehow hold up your journey.
For those heading off on holiday for a week or two, a few hours’ delay is a nuisance. But if you’re on a short break, a business trip or travelling to your second home for a long weekend with the family, losing time to delays can be disastrous.
There is a way to avoid the airport wait, travel in style and cut your journey time in half. You simply fly privately – a solution that has been steadily growing in popularity over the last decade. This demand has led to increased price competition among private operators and a subsequent rise in those customers using private aviation to access their weekend retreats or take a multi-stop business trip.
The Warren Buffett-backed NetJets is the biggest player in the ‘fractional ownership’ private aviation market. Like timeshare for planes, it’s aimed at those who fly between 50 and 400 hours per year and sees customers buying a ‘share’ of an aircraft – or buying blocks of flying hours – depending on the number of hours they fly per year.
Offering fixed costs and flight flexibility, it’s proved to be popular with high-net-worth individuals. C-level execs also enjoy the benefits of flying privately as they save up to 50% on travel time, they can organise multi-city trips for the same day and, crucially, there is privacy to work on board. After all, even in a first class cabin, you can never be sure who might be looking over your shoulder at your laptop.
And the price? Well, it’s not as eye watering as you might expect. A round trip from the UK to the ski slopes of the French Alps might cost you €15,000. But divide that by seven passengers, travelling on a mid-size jet, while keeping in mind the reduced journey time and the fact that a private jet can take you to a small airport much closer to your resort, and it starts to feel like a smart deal.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Thomas Flohr, owner and CEO of VistaJet, NetJets’ European rival. Like them, VistaJet offers customers blocks of hours to buy, although theirs starts at a hefty minimum of 100 hours per year. Alternatively, customers can just charter a VistaJet for occasional travel.
“One-third of our business comprises multiple home owners travelling to their properties,” says Flohr. “In today’s demanding world, we are all searching for a way to be more effective in business and fulfil family obligations. Private jets offer the solution.”
Besides the logistical advantages of flying private, Flohr also points out the aesthetic appeal of their jets – something that’s important to their high-net-worth customer demographic.
“Our customers have beautiful homes so they deserve to travel in aircraft that are similarly well-appointed. With their cashmere blankets, lovely silver cutlery and generally chic environment, our fleet is simply a continuation of their lifestyle.”
Lower prices, courtesy of some Uber-style industry disrupters, are also bringing private aviation to more and more people. A stack of start-ups like JetSmarter, Victor and PrivateFly are creating online marketplaces for private jet travel that enable more choice, transparency and speed for on-demand bookings. Many of them capitalise on ‘empty leg’ journeys, using the fact that an aircraft needs to reposition itself in another country to sell that journey, rather than letting the plane fly empty. This makes booking a private jet more convenient and efficient than ever.
The recently launched Beacon is taking affordability a step further, offering an ‘all you can fly’ package for $2,000 per month on its turboprop planes that fly back and forth between Boston and NYC. Customers also fly in and out of smaller airports, cutting journey time and many of the frustrations of transiting through major hubs.
Unsurprisingly, commercial airlines are fighting back. Delta recently offered upgrades to its private jet service for its ‘diamond medallion’ customers. At $300 to $800 extra, it’s a canny way of getting top-tier customers to trial its elite service. Crucially, it also steers them away from the increasing number of ‘Uber for jets’ operators who are wooing their best customers.
Although many still regard it as a decadent luxury, the revolution in private aviation means it has now extended from the 0.1% demographic to the 1%. Billionaires, football players and playboys are no longer the only high flyers in town.