Arriving On A Jet Plane

Plans for sharing private jets aren't cheap, but carriers are offering more options

Plush leather seats, catered meals and a flight that leaves when you're ready. To anyone familiar with commercial air travel, highlighted by crowded planes and cabin-service that doesn't even include a bag of peanuts on some carriers, the perks of flying on a private jet are enviable.

Private jet travel used to be the domain of corporate fliers, celebrities, or other incarnations of the super-rich. But these days you don't have to be a CEO to kiss seat 32B goodbye. Yes, there are pricey fractional-jet ownership programs that allow you to buy a slice of a jet and 50 hours of flying time for several hundred thousand bucks, but there are also lower-price alternatives such as jet cards that offer as few as 20 hours of flying time and debit programs that deduct flying costs from a prefunded account. Then there are brokers who sift through hundreds of small charter operators to land you in a private cabin.

In fact, flying privately seems perfect for a golf vacation, where some of the best courses are far from major airports. For example, playing the River Course at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis. (No. 61 on Golf Digest's list of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses), means flying into Milwaukee and driving an hour. Instead, imagine a streamlined security process where the pilot asks you for identification before you board, and upon arrival into Sheboygan County Memorial Airport, a car service whisks you off for the 10-minute drive to the first tee. No wonder so many tour pros have opted for the convenience of private jets.

Davis Love III, who flies on a Cessna Citation X, an eight-seat plane that can cruise at 590 miles per hour, says flying privately through NetJets' fractional-ownership program not only cuts down on exhaustion but ensures that he can play in more tournaments, take on golf course design projects and events for his sponsors, and, most important, spend more time with his family. "I can finish a tournament on Sunday, be home that evening ready to take my son to school the next morning and not have to leave for the next tournament until Tuesday or Wednesday morning," Love says.

Fractional and jet-card programs are enjoying an influx of leisure travelers. Two years ago, they made up 10 percent of customers with Avantair, a fractional-aircraft firm in Clearwater, Fla., that sells shares of turboprop planes. Now, says CEO Steven Santo, leisure fliers represent 40 percent. As many as 80 percent of clients with Marquis Jet, a jet-card provider that offers 25-hour blocks of time on NetJets' fleet of aircraft, are leisure travelers.

Splitting the cost of using a jet card with friends can lower the bar of entry even further. Although some programs allow more than one name on an account, most require that groups divvy up the costs by forming a formal legal partnership, a limited-liability company, to make the purchase.

There is nothing cut-rate about flying private, in price or safety measures. The biggest fractional and jet-card programs cite pilot training hours, the young age of their aircraft, in-house safety boards, and multiple safety ratings provided by aviation consultant Aviation Research Group/U.S. Inc.

HOW FRACTIONAL OWNERSHIP WORKS

On the high end, fractional-jet ownership companies, including Flexjet, Flight Options, CitationShares, and the largest player in the industry, NetJets, provide slices of ownership on their network of planes that secure you at least 50 hours of flying time. The programs differ in their costs, but they generally work the same way.

First, choose a plane. NetJets has 14 jet types, including a Gulfstream 550 capable of doing trans-Atlantic trips and a seven-seat Raytheon Hawker 400XP that can handle up to 1,687 miles, making a flight from Columbus, Ohio, to any town in Florida well within its range. One-sixteenth of a Hawker 400XP goes for $406,250 and gets the user 50 hours of annual flying time for the next five years. There's also a $6,820 monthly management fee and, as you use the plane, a $1,554 hourly flying charge and a federal excise tax. Finally, when the five-year commitment is up, you can renew it or sell the share back to NetJets at the going rate for what will then be a used aircraft.

THE BENEFITS WITHOUT OWNERSHIP

Jet cards offer fliers a way to sample private aviation without assuming ownership of a plane. Most card programs start at 25 hours of flying time (the exception is CitationShares' Vector JetCard, which has 20 flying hours starting at $96,000) and eliminate some of the fees associated with fractional-jet ownership. Expect to pay a federal tax and a jet-fuel charge of $500 an hour on some planes. At Marquis Jet, pricing starts at $115,900 for 25 hours on a Citation V Ultra, and in a given year, says Kenny Dichter, founder and CEO of Marquis Jet, users should expect to pay $10,000 for fuel.

Other incarnations of the jet-card program include debit cards that deduct the trip's cost, rather than hours flown, from an account. Sentient Jet requires deposits of $100,000 or $250,000 and then deducts flight costs starting at $2,500 an hour for a round trip on a seven-passenger Beechjet 400 and a $325 hourly fuel charge. Flight Options' JetPASS Ultimate Travel program, rolled out this spring, requires a $100,000 deposit but adjusts the flight costs depending on jet type and the day and time of travel.

Other alternatives are charter air cards or flights from Skyjet and Blue Star Jets, which use a network of charter operators. Many charter-jet providers seek lower prices on empty legs, planes that would otherwise be flying empty because they're traveling to their home base or to another city to pick up passengers.

PRIVATE FLIER, BEWARE

Having access to a private plane doesn't mean you can go anywhere in the world. Not all programs offer international service beyond the Caribbean and Mexico. Even if a program, such as Marquis Jet, offers transatlantic service to Ireland, for example, on a Gulfstream jet, the cost is so prohibitive that travelers often opt to fly overseas commercially in first class and then work with Marquis' European partner if they want to fly to destinations in the continent.

Though the notion of private flying is about ease, luggage -- especially bulky sets of golf clubs -- can be a problem. A plane that seats seven doesn't necessarily have room for seven sets of clubs and seven suitcases. "People are surprised by the capacity. There is not the underbelly that you have on a big plane," says Steve Hankin, Sentient's CEO. "Four or five people with clubs on a Hawker 800 won't work."

What works is the way you and your group can get in and out of smaller airports. Though the market for private flying can seem dizzying with its options, private aviation is poised to get more crowded.

By Amy Gunderson

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