Even for an elite frequent flier, it's a power trip to tell the pilot exactly what time to have your plane at the door, ready to go. But the most surreal thing about ditching your seat on a commercial flight for an impromptu private jet is the cabin noise: There isn’t any.
“It's so quiet–I thought it’d be more like a commuter regional jet,” says a clearly surprised Jeanette Rogovin, who with her husband Bruce became the first customers to upgrade from a Delta Air Lines flight to a jet operated by Delta Private Jets, a wholly owned subsidiary. The Cincinnati couple paid $300 each for the one-hour trip from Cincinnati to Atlanta, a weekend visit to see their son. The July 31 flight marked the first time Delta migrated a commercial passenger to the private jet unit, and I came along for the exceptionally quiet ride.
The jet is clearly the star of the show: large leather seats, gleaming wood, gold-trimmed belts, style befitting a billionaire. The first upgrade flight happened to be on one of the largest models in Delta's 66-jet DPJ fleet, the Dassault Falcon 2000.
Before the plane begins to taxi to the runway, a full bar sits at our disposal. Flight attendant Brenda Burns is eager to pour, although none of the six passengers have more than a single glass of Champagne. There are also turkey club sandwiches on offer, which the flight attendant made herself in a compact galley, along with chocolate-covered fruits, candies, and other snacks. The jet comes with a DVD library, Wi-Fi at no extra charge, and storage space for luggage. Want to fly with your precious poodle or kitten? Not a problem. The larger private jets all fly with an attendant—smaller, shorter models typically do not.
The engines yield a muffled whoosh, one that only faintly resembles the sound from the big jet lugging around ordinary travelers. You sit and chat much like you would in any other office or living room, thanks to abundant soundproofing designed to make the ride quieter. The denizens of private jet cabins like to talk and think in peace. The departure and climb are also faster and steeper than in a commercial jet due to the weight-to-thrust ratio, meaning that a smaller airplane is being propelled by relatively large engines. Pilots often have to guard against ascents that can be a bit too steep for the average passenger, particularly one conditioned to commercial flights.
Jeanette Rogovin sips Champagne at 31,000 feet and then pops her head into the cockpit to chat with the captain. Bruce Rogovin, a dentist, says he wasn't sure what to make of a Delta Vacations e-mail that offered a private jet for their afternoon flight to Georgia. “Is this a scam?” he recalled thinking of the e-mail, before his wife called for details. Both have reached “diamond medallion” status, the top earning level in Delta’s SkyMiles frequent-flier program. Diamond level requires at least 125,000 miles in travel and $15,000 in annual spending with the airline.
There's reason for Delta to put its Falcon 2000, a medium-range model that seats 10, into the air that had nothing to do with the Rogovins. The plane was needed in Atlanta early on Aug. 1 for a customer flight to the Bahamas. Rather than flying empty from Cincinnati, Delta Private Jet found a matching route with the elite-status couple’s weekend trip to Georgia.
The concept dates back to mid-2014, when executives in the private fleet began pondering ways to reduce the financial burden of these positioning flights without customers, known as “empty legs.” These trips represent about 30 percent of the industry’s flying, and DPJ has been eager to figure out ways to curb that. “Is it 5 percent? Maybe more? We don’t know yet,” says David Sneed, the company’s chief operating officer, who joined President Erik Snell on the initial flight.
Delta Private Jets is seeking a U.S. patent on the technique of upgrading commercial airline customers to a private jet. The private jet business has been part of the airline since Delta's 1999 purchase of Comair, a regional carrier that was shut down in 2012.
The natural question for Delta frequent fliers or their corporate travel departments: Is the upgrade worth it? At $300 to $800, depending on the destination, the introductory rates make it an easy yes for those who can afford it—and most elite frequent fliers probably can splurge on a little privacy.
Trips on a private jet will never be cheap, yet DPJ executives hope to use the upgrade program as an introduction that might gin up future sales. There's also something to be said for offering a premium upgrade that rivals aren’t likely to match. As the flights increase in distance and frequency, the introductory rates will rise—DPJ executives say they don’t yet know how much—making the math somewhat murkier. A cross-country flight on a Gulfstream G650—a 16-seat behemoth that can handle Los Angeles to London nonstop—is not going to be offered as a $300 upgrade over a standard Delta flight. Whatever that trip costs, make sure to try the chocolate-covered fruit and Champagne.