Luxury Planes Descend on Masters as Private-Jet Taboo Wanes

The Gulfstreams and Learjets crowding the tarmac at the small airport in Augusta after flying in for the Masters Golf Tournament are sending a clear signal: Luxury flying is unabashedly back.

“This year should be bigger for us than any year since ’07,” said Jordan Hansell, chief executive officer of NetJets, the largest private-aviation company, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Both golf and private aviation suffered during the 2008-2009 recession. Business jets were shunned after auto executives took them to Washington to request bailout money. After that, companies found that corporate jets were an easy area to cut costs.

A U.S. economic rebound is helping the industry shed its tarnished image. Deliveries of new small- and medium-sized business aircraft rose 12 percent to 480 in 2014, the first gain since 2008. Used jet prices have hit the bottom and are rising for some models. And people are taking their jets again to the Masters, said Diane Johnston, director of marketing at the Augusta Regional Airport in Georgia.

“Now that general aviation isn’t in the spotlight any longer, they feel comfortable flying their aircraft,” Johnston said. “That and with the economy picking up somewhat, we’re starting to see a turn around.”

NetJets expects to make 350 flights into and out of the Augusta area to shuttle golf fans to the tournament. That’s a 75 percent increase from 200 flights last year, Hansell said. Flexjet, the former private aviation unit of Bombardier Inc., has seen Masters customers jump by 20 percent so far this week compared with last year, said Megan Wolf, the company’s vice president of owner experience.

Super Bowl Rival

Private jet operations at Augusta’s airport during the week of the tournament rose 2.5 percent last year to 1,622, according to Federal Aviation Administration statistics. The number had fallen from as much as 2,637 in 2006.

The golf event, which ends April 12, rivals private aviation traffic generated by football’s Super Bowl, according to Hansell and Wolf. The relative isolation of Augusta, which is about a two hour drive from Atlanta, makes it a good destination for private planes, Hansell said.

“If it’s a hard place to get to, that’s our specialty,” he said.

Craig Rubin’s friends took his Cessna Citation 525A from Oakland County International airport near Detroit to Augusta for the week to watch golfers play for the tournament’s signature green jacket. Rubin, co-founder of Crypton Inc., flies as much as 500 hours a year to keep track of his textile business’s operations, he said. This year, he decided to skip the tournament, which requires reservations two weeks in advance to get a landing slot.

TV Option

“I’ve been in New York and I just couldn’t go this year,” he said. “Honestly, it’s so much easier to watch on the TV.”

Private flying is closely tied to the economy because it’s a discretionary expense that companies can cut back on immediately to save money, said Brian Foley, a Sparta, New Jersey-based aerospace consultant. As private flights to Augusta dropped 31 percent during Master’s week in 2009, commercial flights to the small airport rose 74 percent to 317.

“It’s a type of spend that you can turn on or turn off quickly,” he said.

There’s more to the convenience of personal planes too. Passengers are treated with refreshments and food at the airport and have access to hospitality areas near the course, Wolf said. NetJets’ fliers are treated to a dinner with pro golfers and Jim Nantz, who anchors TV coverage for CBS, followed by a concert with singer and musician Darius Rucker.

Yearlong Preparations

The facility at Augusta prepared all year for the onslaught in April, said Roy Williams, the airport’s executive director. About four times as many as the usual airport personnel are on site and the FAA brings in an extra group to double air traffic managers, he said.

This year the airport decided to close a smaller runway that is little used and turn it into a 5,000-foot (1,500 meter) extra parking lot for jets. Still, the airport will likely run out of space before the weekend, forcing owners that want to keep their jets in the area to surrounding airports.

NetJets, Flexjet and other fractional and charter jet operators don’t stick around. They drop off customers and then go pick up more, said Flexjet’s Wolf. That allows clients to book a private flight on less than half a day’s notice.

“We can have people watch the action and decide to come on Sunday,” she said.

Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky, the hockey Hall of Famer, flew to the Masters on a Cessna Citation Excel/XLS operated by Wheels Up, said Kenny Dichter, founder of the membership-based private aviation company. Gretzky was at the tournament to cheer on golfer Dustin Johnson, who is engaged to his daughter. Johnson was 4 under par for the tournament after 12 holes in his second round, leaving him tied for sixth at the time.

Wheels Up, which began operations in 2013, expects to have 100 flights in and out of Augusta. Its passengers include golfer Rickie Fowler, former golfer Andy North and ESPN sports commentator Scott Van Pelt, Dichter said.

“The industry is about 85 to 90 percent back,” Dichter said. “I see 2016, 2017 as being A-day, banner years for private aviation.”

(A previous version of this story was corrected to show that Johnson is not married to Gretzky’s daughter.)

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