One possible antidote is the relative calm of private flying, a sector that has grown during the pandemic.
“Once you’ve flown private, you’re not going back to commercial,” said Maurie Cohen, professor of sustainability studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “You don’t have to deal with small inconveniences. The advantages of first class and business class are incomparable.”
According to tracking data from Argus International’s TRAQPak, private jet travel in North America grew 17% in the first half of this year compared to 2019. WingX, a research and consulting firm, noted that private jets are a quarter of US flights.
“It’s not just the Taylor Swifts and Kylie Jenners of the world. This is the normal way to travel for many people.”
—Maurie Cohen, professor of sustainability studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology
“I can’t see this as a set. It’s not going away,” Cohen said. “It’s not just the Taylor Swifts and Kylie Jenners of the world. This is the normal way to travel for many people.”
As a longtime citizen of the trainer class, I’m more than ready for an alternative. But, I have to ask, at what cost? Charter airfares can cost at least 10 times more than a first class ticket, which for many travelers is a deal breaker in itself.
Before the pandemic, private aviation occupied a stratosphere beyond the reach of most travelers. During the global health crisis, however, it seemed to enter the realm of possibility for travelers who could afford the privilege.
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The wide range of options, from purchasing a jet for millions to flying a semi-private jet for hundreds, opens up this category of travel to more people. Stratos Jet Services even had a Black Friday special that knocked some off the $14,500 annual membership.
“Private travel has become more affordable,” said Justin Crabbe, founder and chief executive of Jettly, a Toronto-based private jet charter business. “We have a database of operators we can book with, like Expedia.”
Ease of booking is one thing; having your credit card company freeze your account is another.
“Will it be accessible to the masses?” asked George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. “I don’t think it will ever be affordable.”
The advantages of private flight
Private air differs from ground to commercial air.
Passengers depart from smaller executive or private airports outside the jurisdiction of the Transportation Security Administration. Instead of scanners and pat-down machines, the company will conduct a background check and may ask the guest for photo ID upon arrival. Travelers can check in 15 to 20 minutes before boarding, or earlier if they want to take advantage of free hot drinks and other stylish amenities from the airport lounge.
Like all flying objects, private jets are affected by inclement weather. Delays can occur, but not on the scale of commercial flights, which face a number of other challenges beyond force majeure or force majeure.
“It’s more efficient and more reliable,” Hobica said. “You’re more likely to get it [to your destination].”
Other benefits: There are no restrictions on the number of bags or the amount of liquids, although the company may limit the weight depending on the size of the plane. Flights are non-stop unless the pilot needs to refuel. Mobile phones do not need to be switched to airplane mode, so you can discuss the relationships below.
You can even put the dog, who might be resting at your feet, on the phone to say hello.
“I only considered flying private when I wanted to bring my dog,” said Hobica, who a few breaths earlier described private aviation as “immoral” because of the financial and environmental waste.
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You can debate the value of money, but there’s no denying the detrimental effect private jets have on the environment, especially when used as the family getaway.
Case in point: in July, Celebrity Jets, a Twitter account that uses flight tracking data to track famous private flyers, called out Floyd Mayweather for his 10-minute flight from Henderson, Nevada, to Las Vegas. The professional boxer’s Gulfstream swallowed 568 pounds of fuel and emitted a ton of carbon dioxide.
By comparison, a passenger vehicle emits an average of 4.6 metric tons per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The cliquish culture of private aviation is not climate friendly either. The passenger list is usually small and intimate. Empty seats will stay empty, because you’re not driving a high-altitude bus, after all.
How to arrange a private flight
At the top of the chain of privileges and convenience is buying an airplane, which can cost millions just for the aircraft.
For example, the going rate for Swift’s aircraft of choice, the Dassault Falcon 7X, is about $54 million for a 2022 model, or less for a used model. Additional expenses include crew, fuel, hangar, insurance and maintenance. SherpaReport, which covers the private aviation industry, calculates the financial outlay at about $6,400 an hour for the Falcon.
Instead, the owner has total control, from the flight schedule to the color palette.
“It’s your plane. If you want to paint it pink or blue, you can,” said David Gitman, president of Monarch Air Group, a charter provider. “It gives you the ultimate in flexibility and customization.”
Share a plane like a timeshare
However, airplanes have expensive needs and requirements.
If you’re not ready to take the plunge, you can dabble in fractional ownership private aviation. The arrangement is similar to a timeshare: you purchase a share of an aircraft and are allocated a certain number of flying hours per year.
Fractional owners pay at least six figures for their kind of plane, plus a monthly maintenance fee, an hourly flight rate and a mix of other fees like fuel. Two of the largest fractionally owned companies are Flexjet and NetJets, which Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway acquired in 1998.
“It’s a three- to five-year commitment,” said Kevin O’Leary, president of Jet Advisors, which advises private jet owners. “and you pay a penalty to get out of it.”
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Travelers who aren’t ready for an expensive toy should consider a jet card, which is like a debit card loaded with prepaid flight time. Cards are usually valid for one year and the hourly price is locked. “It’s a guaranteed rate, like a stamp forever,” O’Leary said.
Magellan Jets, for example, sells cards with blocks of 25 hours. The hourly rate varies by plane type, such as $8,000 for an Embraer Phenom 300, a six-seat light aircraft, or $14,500 for a Gulfstream G450/550, a heavy plane that can carry a dozen people. Gas is not included. (Many of these companies also offer memberships, which are similar to cards but with more benefits.)
The best option for leisure travelers who might fly privately once or twice a year (or lifetime) is to charter a plane.
“It’s one of the least expensive ways to go,” O’Leary said.
The process is as simple and straightforward as booking a trip with a travel agent: share your travel plans with the broker or agent, who will contact the company’s network of private jet operators. Before you can even check with your accountant to make sure you can afford it, you’ll have multiple quotes in your inbox.
For up to 75 percent off, you can try booking an empty leg—a plane that repositions or returns to its home base without any passengers. However, the savings come with a minimum of risk: passengers often won’t know until the last minute whether a plane on their itinerary leaves on their preferred day and at their preferred time.
“You can get lucky every now and then,” said O’Leary, who doesn’t recommend this alternative if you have to be somewhere at a set time, such as a wedding or a cruise.
Finally, semi-private service companies such as Tailwind Air, Surf Air and JSX add a touch of commercial air to the elite experience. Passengers enjoy the benefits of private terminals, but the other faces on board will not be part of their personal entourage.
“It fills a niche between commercial and private jets,” said Alex Wilcox, co-founder and chief executive of JSX, which serves nearly 20 destinations.
Semi-private is the gateway to private, though you could probably stay in that category for a while. On JSX, for example, round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Las Vegas start at $358.
“Some of the semi-private jets are cheap compared to short-haul first class,” Hobica said.
When a $4,600 ticket seems cheap
To determine if I could fly private, I needed to get into the right mindset. No more worrying about price or using budget airlines as a litmus test. I had to think like a first class flyer about to board the biggest upgrade of her life.
“I would dispense with this idea of cost. It’s irrelevant,” Cohen said after the tenth time he heard me express my concerns about the price. “Luxury, time and status are more important.”
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I started my search with Stratos Jet Charters. I first checked for an empty leg from Washington to Boston, but none came up. So I called the company and spoke to a lovely agent named Alex who told me I should charter a plane – a whole aircraft to myself. Since I didn’t care about money anymore, I gave him my details.
Shortly after our conversation, I received three quotes. It was the least expensive option Vision Jet for about $19,000 round trip. But Alex warned me that the single-pilot, single-engine plane with an airframe parachute system—a parachute that cradles the entire plane—doesn’t quite meet the company’s safety standards.
An online search bothered me even more: a Cirrus SF50 The Vision Jet crashed in Florida in September and in Colombia the following month. In the first incident, the lightweight material was deployed, a first for the SF50 in a real emergency; fortunately, all three passengers survived.
Alex recommended the HondaJet for $22,984 (cash), $23,328 (crypto), or $23,903 (credit card). For another $247, I could offset my carbon emissions.
Before making up my mind, I sought a second opinion with Surf Air. I found a number of results, including a $4,600 one-way flight on a Cirrus SR22 which, in light of my new attitude, was cheap.
Before my alter-ego could book it, my voice of reason escaped from the panic room and urged me to search online. I found a first class flight on Delta for $387 round trip.
Sure, I’d have to deal with security lines and possible delays. But at this rate, I could sit comfortably among the other commercial elite knowing I didn’t go bankrupt for convenience or cachet.