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The Private Plane Trend

Over the past few years, as flying the major airlines has become less convenient (and less comfortable), the private jet industry has been booming. According to the National Business Aviation Association, companies and individuals in the United States currently own 6,411 shares in fractional-ownership programs, a 63 percent jump since 2000.

Of course, fractional ownership—which often requires an initial investment of $500,000 and hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual maintenance and other costs—is generally only a viable option for corporations and the most wealthy frequent travelers. Now, however, new ways of flying private are proliferating, with companies offering guaranteed access to jets at a much lower cost. And that means flying private isn't just for business travelers anymore: among this new breed of providers, Marquis Jets says that 80 percent of its customers fly for personal reasons; Bombardier Skyjet counts half of its clients as leisure travelers.

What these companies do is sell blocks of time in the form of membership programs; generally, you prepay for 25-hour increments ($50,000-$110,000) and fly when you choose, with no blackout times. Many offer more than just a way to go from point A to point B: Bombardier Skyjet Premier Fleet members have their own concierge; Marquis Jet members get free use of luxury rental cars.

Most industry insiders consider private travel to be a "value-added" service—the higher level of luxury justifies the greater expense. You'll certainly save time: there are no lines to wait in, and private jets can fly between 5,000 airports in the country (only 500 serve commercial carriers), so you'll always have a direct flight. And depending on how you normally fly, private programs can actually compete with flying commercial. For example, an itinerary priced at press time from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to Portland, Oregon, using an eight-person plane from Bombardier Skyjet cost $20,427, or $2,553 per person. The same trip cost $1,896 per person on Delta; it required a stop in Cincinnati, and first-class was offered only on the journey's second leg.

Each program has its pluses and minuses. (See "Flying Private" for a detailed comparison.) If you buy time on Delta AirElite's Flexjet program, for instance, which has a partnership with the Bombardier Flexjet program, you'll have access to a dedicated fleet of Flexjet planes; the program doesn't supplement with planes from outside the fleet. In other words, says AirElite president Mike Green, you're buying consistency: "Every time you get a plane, its pilots will be wearing blue and white epaulets, and the Cokes will be in the third drawer."

The downside is time. AirElite requires 12 hours' notice to deliver a jet, while Todd Rome, president of Blue Star Jets, vows, "I can get you a plane inside of four hours anywhere in the world." How?Blue Star doesn't own or manage a fleet, and instead pairs customers with 4,000 planes worldwide through a vendor bidding system. Not only is this efficient, but it's also less expensive: among Blue Star's 2004-05 holiday rates is a $15,000 round-trip between New York and Miami in a light jet for up to eight people—a per-hour cost of about $2,500, nearly $1,000 less than some of its competitors' rates. But according to Ed Scerbo, an aviation consultant with Washington, D.C., firm PA Consulting, "There's no way to guarantee there's new leather or that [a plane] has the same configuration as the last one you used."

One area that's been generating buzz lately is safety. Although every plane—commercial or otherwise—must meet basic FAA requirements, most private providers are now going a step further by hiring third-party safety auditors such as ARG/US (Aviation Research Group) and Wyvern to rate the operators, aircraft, and pilots they use. Before buying into a program, it's worth asking for specifics: Blue Star's head of security comes from El Al; Sentient Jets contracts only with operators that have a platinum or gold ARG/US safety rating—a standard met by fewer than 10 percent of planes.

Looking to the future, Scerbo says, "Some see a kind of taxi-in-the-sky scenario" emerging. While that still seems a fairly remote possibility, it's nonetheless true that these new ways of financing private travel are transforming the way we fly. What was once "the ultimate aspirational product," as Bombardier Skyjet general manager Alexandre Monnier terms it, is no longer merely practical—for many, it's within reach.

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