Walk into the nearest airport, swipe your jet card, and jump on a private flight to Anguilla with several close friends. Okay, so you don’t literally swipe it. But private aviation’s answer to the prepaid phone card is making it easier—and more affordable—to charter a jet. Flying private remains significantly more expensive than flying first-class, but it’s no longer the exclusive realm of corporate titans and Hollywood VIP’s. A new generation of wealthy leisure travelers is taking smaller planes out of less congested airports, and paying for their flights using one of a growing number of so-called jet membership programs. Marquis Jet, for example, says 70 percent of its clientele uses its service to travel on vacation: Aspen, Palm Beach, and Mexico’s Los Cabos were three of the top ten destinations this past winter.
So how much does it cost?Until recently, anyone looking to join the private-jet set had to buy a plane—or at least part of one. But even the fractional-ownership model pioneered by NetJets in the 1980’s requires an outlay of circa $500,000. “It’s a big commitment,” says Kenny Dichter, CEO of Marquis Jet.
Launched in 2001, his company offers customers 25-hour blocks on planes in the NetJets fleet. Prices start at around $127,000 for a seven-seat Cessna—which comes out to $5,000 an hour, or about $1,450 per person, for a two-hour flight with a full plane. Sentient, another big player in the jet-card business, has members set up debit accounts of either $100,000 or $250,000 and pay as they go. Hourly rates depend on the aircraft, and start at around $2,600 per hour for a round-trip flight on a light jet.
Needless to say, traveling by private plane is luxuriously convenient: there are no layovers, no delays, no security lines, and (since less than 12 hours’ notice is often all that’s required) far fewer problems when it comes to last-minute travel. But while this business sector now caters to the very wealthy, it may also be pointing to what’s next in air travel. As smaller planes get safer (the FAA has made decreasing private-plane accidents a priority) and major airports get more crowded, the small-plane, small-airport model makes a lot of sense. (The definitive book on this topic is James Fallows’s Free Flight.) Despite the aura of decadence that seems to surround private planes, jet-card companies may well be shaping the future of flight.