Private jets are becoming more accessible than ever, with new companies bringing down the price and putting the booking process at your fingertips. A Gulfstream may be the new business class.
The appeal of private air travel is hard to ignore: easy-to-reach airports, quiet terminals, no lines or long waits, reliable departure times, a peaceful flight. Traditionally, such privilege came at a steep price. You either had to charter your own aircraft with a broker or invest in a fractional ownership plan. With the advent of by-the-hour programs like the Marquis Jet Card from NetJets, prices have come down a bit in recent years, though paying $5,000 an hour (or more) for a private plane is still relatively common. But several upstart companies are now allowing travelers to book single seats rather than entire planes—finally making this form of travel relatively affordable for people who don’t count themselves among the mogul and movie-star set.
The most innovative of these companies are those offering all-you-can-fly club memberships within a specific region. The model is relatively simple: a flat-rate monthly fee provides access to a fleet of planes operating between a group of cities at fixed departure times; you get guaranteed reservations for a certain number of flights and space-available ones for the rest of the month. Though these clubs focus primarily on frequent business travelers plying a limited but high-demand network of routes, they are starting to broaden their appeal by adding leisure destinations and sometimes offering guest passes and discounted memberships for families.
California-based Surf Air, currently king of the space, pioneered the club model in 2013 with daily charter flights between Silicon Valley and Los Angeles. By this fall, it will offer members 90 daily connections between 11 destinations (including Las Vegas, Palm Springs, and Sonoma County), nearly all on a fleet of eight-seat Pilatus PC-12 turboprop planes. Memberships start at $1,750 a month, which grants unlimited access to the company’s network, two reservations at a time.
As Surf Air expands, other companies are following on its heels. Texas-based Rise, which launched in May, offers daily weekday flights between Austin, Dallas, and Houston this summer. On weekends, it flies from these cities to the resort destinations of Vail, Colorado, and Seaside, Florida. On the East Coast, a cofounder of Surf Air has just launched Beacon, which operates between New York City and Boston, with seasonal flights to the Hamptons and Nantucket on the horizon.
The most ambitious of the all-you-can-fly clubs is ClipperJet, which is focused on bigger markets: transcontinental and international travel. It uses the membership model (from $9,700 a month) for flights between New York City and Los Angeles on luxe Gulfstream IV jets. If all goes well, the company will soon expand to six more city pairs, including New York to San Jose and Los Angeles to Chicago. ClipperJet CEO James Occhipinti, who has a long history in commercial aviation (including a stint with American Airlines), sees the potential to scale up wherever there’s a consistent demand for premium seats—including flights between New York and London or Los Angeles and Tokyo. Efficiency and privacy are significant parts of the offering, but Occhipinti suggests that hospitality plays an important role as well, and has been looking to luxury hotels for service and design cues. Another crucial selling point for these clubs: the inevitable networking opportunities provided by a kind of country club for high-net-worth fliers.
BlackJet has a slightly different take on the membership approach. The company has created a unique platform that allows it to match travelers with charter companies that have open seats on flights between specific markets for a fraction of the typical tens of thousands it would cost to charter an entire plane. With BlackJet, a one-way seat between New York City and south Florida often goes for $2,600; between Los Angeles and San Francisco, it costs around $1,600.
One thing all these com panies have in common is the ability to skirt FAA regulations that make it difficult to sell individual seats on a charter service. For the time being, they’ve managed to avoid any regulatory challenges. And though the survival rate for upstarts in the aviation world—commercial or private—is generally low, it’s clear from their growing membership numbers that these clubs are striking a chord with travelers well beyond the traditional ultrarich demographic. For premium-cabin fliers who are fed up with the frustrations of commercial air travel, a private-jet club may be just what they’re seeking.