In less time than it takes to undergo a body scan, I breezed through the terminal and onto the tarmac.
No one at Teterboro Airport, in low-slung industrial New Jersey, asked for my driver’s license. No one rifled through my bag. There were no screaming children or grown-ups in pajama bottoms wheeling luggage the size of fat steamer trunks. It was strangely serene: only the sound of the wind and the tap of my heels on the runway as I walked toward two pilots at the foot of a Challenger 300, a gleaming private jet with seating for nine. I stepped onto a swatch of blue carpet beneath the air stair and, steadied by a pilot’s hand, at long last boarded a plane like a human being, not a pack mule.
Inside, the pilot in command, Rob Martin of XOJet, a private jet company based in San Francisco, went over the essentials: the iPod dock; the touch screen to control the lights and movies; the leather swivel seats that I was told (while treating mine like a Tilt-a-Whirl) cost $30,000 to replace; the satellite phone; the Nespresso machine; the cabinet with the Oreo cookies and Kistler chardonnay.
“One thing I forgot to mention,” Martin said before we took off, “the couch will fold out into a bed.”
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At a time when industry surveys show that travelers are fed up with epic lines at commercial airports, when lounges are overflowing with airline-branded credit card holders, and first class is but a shadow of what it was in the golden age of air travel, companies are making private jets easier to come by. What had been an industry that relied on full or partial ownership of planes is opening up, with jet operators and owners like XOJet offering more flexible programs, and brokers who don’t own planes working in tandem with them to offer seats — in some cases through apps — within striking distance of the price of a first-class ticket.
Cheaper, but still a big splurge
“The industry has literally changed 180 degrees in the last five years,” said Bill Papariella, an aviation executive who worked at NetJets, Marquis Jet and Sentient before becoming a founder and president of the operator Jet Edge International. Companies that survived the recession have made pricing simpler and now offer more membership options, based on where, when and how often you fly. And new industry players are making booking a private jet as easy as ordering up a private car on Uber.
“It’s much easier and much cheaper than it’s ever been before,” said Bradley Stewart, chief executive of XOJet.
Even so, can you afford to travel like James Bond? The answer depends on what type of flier you are. (How often do you fly? Where do you fly? How rigid is your schedule?) Different companies have different pricing structures, but one of the most common models is a yearly or monthly membership fee plus the cost of your flights. That can run you anywhere from several thousand dollars a year to several hundred thousand dollars a year.
At one end of the spectrum are operators like Jet Edge International, who say their private jets are the purview of those with net worth in excess of $50 million.
“We specialize in the 1 percent of the 1 percent,” Papariella said.
At the other end of the spectrum are a handful of startups that want to change that, like BlackJet, which is enabling first-class fliers to graduate to private travel by selling individual seats to its members, who pay a $2,500 annual fee. The company, which began putting clients on flights late last year, finds jet owners or operators that will transport 6 to 14 travelers at a time in markets like New York, South Florida, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas (and next up, Chicago and Washington, D.C.).
“Our client is the mass affluent as opposed to the 1 percent of the population,” said Dean Rotchin, founder and chief executive of BlackJet. “It’s bringing it from the rock star level down to a practical tool for the mass affluent.”
For instance, a recent search for a last-minute, one-way first-class ticket on a commercial airline from New York to Los Angeles turned up fares ranging from $1,400 to $2,000. On BlackJet, Rotchin said, that trip would be about $3,600, in addition to the membership fee. (There are no TSA lines but passengers’ names are checked against no-fly lists.)
You must be flexible, though. When you book a flight on BlackJet (which can sell individual seats because as a broker it does not need an FAA operating license), you choose either a departure in the a.m. (between 7 and 10) or p.m. (between 4 and 7). Also, the amenities on the jets vary.
“Flying private has always been an aspiration because the commercial experience is rarely fluid and easy and hassle-free and pleasant,” said Josh Rubin, the founder and editor-in-chief of the art and culture site Coolhunting.com and a BlackJet member.
It’s still a splurge (although as an early adopter he pays less than new members), but he recalled a day in February when he and friends who had just been at a TED conference were driving to Van Nuys Airport in California and got stuck in traffic.
“We ended up getting to the airport 10 minutes before the scheduled wheels up,” he said, “and it was no big deal. We parked the car, got on the plane and were off.”
Private jets have also allowed Rubin to travel easily with his Sealyham terriers, Otis and Logan, a process he blogged about on Cool Hunting. The trade-off, he said, is that the planes he’s been on have been small and lacked Wi-Fi.
“People think it’s the ultimate luxury,” he said, “but not without some sacrifice.” (That includes sharing a small jet with strangers, technically making the experience semiprivate.)
This year, BlackJet is trying to revolutionize how reservations are made by selling seats online and through an app of the same name, which is not surprising considering that Garrett Camp, a founder of the app-based car service Uber, is an investor (along with boldface names like Ashton Kutcher).
Other new brokers are also trying to lower the cost of flying private. Jumpjet, for one, offers monthly memberships from $2,350 to $5,500 for 10 round-trip flights a year (how far you can travel depends on your membership level). The website promises “a new way to fly for the approximate cost of first class airfare.”
“I would describe us as luxury for less,” said Will Ashcroft, Jumpjet’s chief executive.
Operators often keep member profiles with details ranging from family birthdays to whether they want their car heated when the flight lands.
“If they want sushi from Nobu,” said Gregg Slow, senior vice president for sales and national accounts for XOJet, “we figure out how to get them sushi from Nobu.” (XOJet agreed to take me on a flight so I could check out the bells and whistles.)
Saving time, avoiding hassles
But those who fly private — mostly for business (41 percent of the industry’s revenue) but also tourism (about 27 percent of industry revenue) according to the research firm IBISWorld — do not do so for these extravagances alone. They do so to save time, safeguard their pets and collaborate with colleagues on confidential projects.
“The reason they call it private travel is because it’s supposed to be private,” said Jordan Hansell, chief executive of NetJets, which plans to spend $17.6 billion for as many as 670 aircraft over the next decade and whose client perks have included a complimentary Plácido Domingo concert at the Royal Palace in Spain. “On our planes and with my business associates we work the entire time. I don’t have to worry about anybody listening in.”
That sort of lavish, personalized service is hard to replicate when using an app to buy a seat.
As Stewart of XOJet put it, apps can work for younger customers who fly private a couple of times a year, but not for Fortune 500 clients.
“If you’re a 59-year-old guy running a $30 billion company,” he said, “you want a throat to choke.”
However, yet another company called JetSuite is betting it can use technology to lower prices. Its chief executive, Alex Wilcox, a founder of JetBlue, wants to be the Southwest Airlines of private jet travel.
His dream? When consumers visit a commercial flight search site like Kayak.com, they also see private jet availability. For instance, a trip from New York to Charlotte, N.C., might pop up for $400 on JetBlue, but $1,000 a person for a four-person flight on JetSuite. What’s preventing that from happening, Wilcox said, is an availability tool that would allow jet companies to instantly notify Kayak when they have extra seats.
“We can’t deliver that information fast enough right now,” he said, adding that he plans to change that in the next year or two. (Perhaps having Tony Hsieh, the chief executive of Zappos.com, on the board will help.) In the meantime, JetSuite offers deals on one-way flights at Facebook.com/jetsuiteair and Twitter.com/Jetsuite.
Back on the XOJet flight, Slow put his feet up on one of the leather chairs that swivel almost 360 degrees, the jet gently rocking us into the sort of daze usually achieved in a hammock on a summer afternoon.
“This is nap central,” Slow said. “Put a little Golf Channel on in the background, and I’m out.”
Some 147 miles and 31 minutes later, we were descending.
For the first time since I was a kid, I was sad to be getting off an airplane.