The Digital Age for Air Travel Has Arrived. Buying a Ticket (even an e-ticket) is So Old School.
Today you can simply go to an app on your cell phone and book a seat on a private jet or charter the entire jet for a flight, if you like. It’s all part of the digital explosion that links service providers with frequent fliers any time of day, any day of the year.
Before you go downloading the apps – these services are not for everyone, many require hefty membership fees and the price of flying on a private jet is usually much more than a first class airline ticket. The advantages, of course, are speed, privacy and convenience. Flying privately eliminates long security lines, airport traffic delays – even the possibility of lost or stolen luggage.
Private jets give you door-to-door service with access to thousands more airports across the world than commercial airlines fly to. All you have to do is find out which service offers the best deal for you and your needs.
So Who Are You Gonna Call?
The number of air has ballooned in the past several years. No two have the same pricing structure or membership costs. Most do not own or operate aircraft, but provide access to those who do. Here are some of the most notable charter booking services, their websites and a comparison of their offerings:
JetSuite is a California-based private jet charter company, which does not require private membership, though you can request SuiteKey membership if you like with a pre-paid account. Their fleet consists of Embraer Phenom 100s and Cessna Citations. Unlike many Jet charter companies, they offer guaranteed online pricing to more than 2,000 airports. They also offer WiFi-enabled flights throughout North America. Jet Suite offers customized itineraries for those in their membership program as well as empty leg flights with special “next-day” deals. What’s an empty leg? It’s the transport leg the aircraft needs to fly to begin or end a charter flight. Rather than fly the jet empty, you can hitch a ride, often for a fraction of the operating cost of the charter flight. Empty-leg deals are the most economical because you’re basically flying to a destination the jet charter has to bring the jet to anyway. JetSuite advertises seats starting at $99.
JetMe is the Priceline of charter jet online services. Their non-member app allows you to name your own price. Of course, they will provide suggested prices, too. Once you pick your price range, JetMe puts you in contact with the charter broker or operator to work out the final pricing with them. How likely are you to get the flight you want for the price you bid? That depends on how low the bid. The lower the big, the lower your chances of snagging a jet.
JetSmarter is a membership traveler service that allows users to book a private jet from a mobile app. JetSmarter claims to have access to the largest private jet marketplace in the world – 3,000 aircraft according to founder Sergey Petrossov. Your choice of aircraft ranges from King Air turboprops to Boeing 767s.
Membership is roughly $3,000 to join and around $9,000 per year. You can book a whole jet to take you just about anywhere. You can also select a service they call JetShuttle, which allows you to search for a flight that is already scheduled and may have spare seats available. The app becomes most economical when you book a seat on an empty leg.
Beacon was centered in the Northeast with a one-time $1,000 initiation fee and a $2,000 a month usage fee. Despite its white glove services, Beacon fell prey to regulatory and overhead costs it could not overcome. Beacon closed shop in April 2016. We mention it only to remind you that not all of these services succeed. They are subject to regulations and to costs, which could cripple their chances of success.
BlackJet is a Florida-based service that is actually backed by original backers of Uber. The service requires a $5000 annual membership fee but it does allow you to purchase a seat rather than the entire plane. Of course, that seat could run you $6000 but that’s still cheaper than a whole plane. In the past several months, BlackJet has been grounded and restarted again. Much of this is due to financing problems. Whether it survives or goes the way of Beacon remains to be seen.
Blue Star Jets is a booking service that claims access to over 5,000 planes worldwide and operates in an Uber-fashion. They offer one-click reservations and a 24/7 customer service organization – they say they can book you anywhere across the globe in just 15 minutes.
PrivateFly lets users see competitive quotes and aircraft, so they can comparison shop and the ability to choose both aircraft, as well as airports. PrivateFly claims to be a global booking service and the fastest growing private aviation company in Europe. The company claims they can get you in the air within one hour.
SkyJet is a New York based charter service that charges by the hour. About $3000 for a light jet, $4000 to $4500 for a mid-size jet and about $7000 for a large cabin jet. SkyJet does not offer long-term commitments and has been known to provide empty-leg seats.
Surf Air is a California based service that owns its own fleet of aircraft. You can purchase unlimited flights from $1950 a month – fly as much as you want but must make two reservations at a time. Surf Air also provides Group Memberships for companies. Some days they launch as many 90 flights. Surf Air operates single-engine Pilatus PC-12 turboprops and is mostly a West Coast based operator.
Victor is booking service that is Uber-like, but worldwide. Use its one-touch mobile booking app, and as many as 7,000 jets are at your disposal. They claim they can get you airborne in a couple of hours. You also get real-time pricing and price comparisons to help you make an informed decision. Victor is based in London and allows you to book any size aircraft from a turboprop to a full-size Boeing or Airbus.
Wheels Up is a private aviation start-up that sells memberships and on-demand flights. It has two kinds of membership programs: Individual/Family and Corporate. Individual Family members pay an initiation fee of about $17,500 and fly at an hourly rate of about $4000 an hour. Corporate membership starts at around $30,000. Wheels Up guarantees pricing and flies King Air 350 and Cessna Citation Excel aircraft.
Note: You should be aware that with some booking services, there may be addition fees that are not included in the price, such as airport fees or landing fees, which are separate from your negotiated price. Best to read the fine print before boarding.
The Last Word: Choose Your Options Wisely.
You can still choose to go direct to tried and true jet charter companies like NetJets and Avjet for your private aircraft needs. They tend to have programs that essentially make you a fractional owner in their fleet. They, too, offer online and phone booking, but you are flying them exclusively. Their prices are usually fixed and you will be booking their aircraft, not just a seat.
In the end, it comes down to need, budget and availability. Choosing a mobile booking service may be right for you, becoming part of a jet charter service may serve your needs better. The truth is there are lots of options out there – more than we have covered here. Some of them are global, some are regional. Do your homework and crunch your numbers and you can turn your cell phone into your own personal airline. Otherwise, do what the remaining 99% of us do, book a flight, drive to the airport and grit your teeth.