“Let me be straight with you. What I'd rather have is an airplane. We just had a third kid. I don't like flying commercial. I like to take my family to Hawaii. When I go east, I'd like to have pilots I know. ”
Navigating the Charter Market
The last decade’s boom days for fractional shares and jet cards made traditional air charter seem almost old-fashioned–and unreliable, as the charter fleet was often busy meeting overflow demand from fractional and card programs. Then the economy tanked and the upfront and hourly costs of those programs rendered them less appealing than charter to many flyers. In the few years since, innovations such as one-way pricing and guaranteed access have made charter look even more attractive.
Though prices are off their lows, charter remains a value. The average hourly charter cost of a midsize Hawker 800XP in North America was recently $3,587, according to aviation data firm Avinode, while a sampling of jet cards priced the same or similar jets from $5,700 to $7,900 per hour, plus fuel charges. And while card and fractional programs offer up to four categories of jets, the charter fleet has everything from single-engine bush airplanes to executive-configured airliners.
If you fly less than 50 hours per year, need multiple or specialized aircraft types, or have a fractional share or jet card but want the option of using the most economical solution for each flight, you’re a charter candidate. Charter has long been considered most cost-effective for roundtrips, as operators charge flyers for the outbound and inbound legs, as well as any positioning fees for ferrying the airplane to them. But as noted above, a growing number of providers offer one-way or point-to-point fares, changing the calculus and expanding the envelope of economically justifiable charter. Also, for critical “gotta go now” missions, charter often represents the best solution short of having your own jet and crew on standby. A good charter provider can usually have you in the air before a jet card or fractional share can
Your charter provider is the key to the quality of your flight experience, so locate yours before you need to book a trip. You can employ either an operator, which owns aircraft or operates and manages them for others, or a broker–a third party that arranges flights aboard aircraft supplied by operators. Operators themselves may act as brokers, arranging flights on another operator’s aircraft when necessary.
Operators in the U.S. (where more than 2,000 are registered) are bound by FAA Part 135 rules, which set the standards for on-demand charter flights, as well as by federal laws that provide protections for charter customers. Brokers (an estimated 6,000) are unregulated and have no licensing requirement or minimum qualifications. That said, many high-quality operators and brokers are in business, though not all will suit your needs.
To find one that will, ask friends and associates for recommendations. Call FBOs at local airports and ask about charter providers they work with. Use Web resources (see sidebar) to learn about providers that serve your area. Call candidates, or better yet schedule a visit and see their operations.
Think about your charter needs in terms of mission rather than aircraft type. Tell a good charter provider what you’re trying to accomplish, and it should be able to suggest a range of aircraft that meet your goals, while giving you wide choice in style and price. Alternatively, if you’re committed to a specific aircraft type, you can search for local operators that fly the model, minimizing positioning fees.
Conduct due diligence regarding the operational history and financials of all providers you consider. Ascertain that their aircraft and crews exceed FAA standards as determined by the Air Charter Safety Foundation, ARG/US, Wyvern or other respected independent organizations.
To arrange a charter flight, contact one or more of the providers you’ve selected and request a quote, stating where, when and with how many people you want to go, leg by leg. Include any additional requirements, such as for catering or onboard communication. Submit the request in writing to ensure that all bidders respond to identical requirements, and so you can ask important boilerplate questions about the operator, aircraft, crew and costs such as landing fees, fuel surcharges and overnight and per-diem charges. Inform providers if you submit your request to more than one, and limit yourself to three requests per trip; providers don’t like being pitted against numerous competitors to win the business of a customer focused on a lowball price.
You’ll receive a quote or quotes specifying an aircraft, crew and the estimated cost. You’ll pay that amount and settle the final bill after the flight, when actual costs are known. No standard charter invoice exists. If you want charges itemized, say so beforehand.
THE NEW CHARTER MODELS
Who says you can’t teach an old access model new tricks? Innovative programs and pricing strategies have brought fresh twists to air charter. One-way pricing, enabled by linked databases, forecasting software and the “floating fleet” model some operators have adopted (so called because the aircraft have no home base), drops the cost on some popular routes 20 to 50 percent. Correspondingly, many providers aggressively market empty legs–unoccupied repositioning or homebound flights. Customers can sign up on their websites for empty-leg alerts on preselected routes. The pre-purchased charter cards that a growing number of providers market may offer perks including aircraft upgrades in addition to reduced rates, while block-charter discount programs have become more flexible to meet customers’ needs–for example, by offering guaranteed access in what has traditionally been a first-come, first-served marketplace. The level of customer care has risen across the industry as well, as the concierge service developed for fractional and card programs has migrated to the pay-as-you-go world of charter.
SURFING FOR CHARTER
With its wealth of information on charter companies, postings of ever-changing discount charter opportunities, charter-price-quote engines and more, the Web has become a top destination for charter customers. These sites should be part of any charter user’s surfing safari:
Air Charter Association of North America (flyacana.org). A trade group that has established voluntary standards for charter brokers, ACANA operates a website that spells out its membership requirements, which offer a useful benchmark for evaluating the brokers. The site also lists ACANA members, who have pledged to observe its standards.
Air Charter Guide (www.aircharterguide.com). This site includes links to operators, brokers and charter aircraft, which are listed by location. A flight planner allows you to input a prospective trip and get information on available providers, aircraft and rates. The site also provides tips on choosing operators, brokers and aircraft.
Air Charter Safety Foundation (acsf.aero). This organization, which promotes safety standards for charter operators, maintains a list and links to ACSF charter operators that includes information on their fleets and home bases. A downloadable operator’s manual contains detailed data on all aspects of charter flights that can be useful to customers.
National Business Aviation Association (www.nbaa.org). The NBAA’s site lists and provides links to member charter brokers and Part 135 operators (under the Products & Services tab). The NBAA Aircraft Charter Consumer Guide and Best Practices for Air Charter Brokering, which are available from the site gratis, offer excellent tutorials for customers.
SOME NOTABLE AIR CHARTER PROVIDERS
Air Partner (airpartner.com, 888-247-7278). Global charter broker with 22 offices in North America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Access to all aircraft categories and types from vetted operators. Has facilitated more than 1,500 presidential and royal flights.
Avjet Corporation (www.avjet.com, (818) 841-6190). International aircraft charter and management company. Based in the U.S. with operations in Europe, Asia, Russia and the Middle East. Operates Boeing BBJ, Gulfstream, Bombardier and other large-cabin jets.
Chantilly Air (chantillyair.com, 800-720-5387). Washington, D.C.-based charter operator with authorization to fly in and out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Fleet includes half a dozen light and midsize Learjet and Cessna Citation aircraft.
Chapman Freeborn (chapman-freeborn.com, 954-202-0750). Global charter broker with 34 offices in 22 countries. Access to everything from helicopters to executive-configured airliners sourced from vetted commercial and business aircraft operators around the globe. Strong presence in Asia.
Delta Private Jets (Deltaprivatejets.com, 600-927-0927). Charter arm of Delta Airlines’ fractional and card program offers one-way prices using more than 1,000 light, midsize and large-cabin jets from its owned and managed fleet, and partner charter operators. Purchased Segrave Aviation, progenitor of charter’s “floating fleet” model, in 2010.
Executive Jet Management (executivejetmangement.com, 877-356-5387). Charter arm of the NetJets fleet. Offers “city pair” one-way pricing and block charter. Flat-rate program with deposit provides guaranteed pricing and discounted charter rates and eliminates repositioning fees. Block-charter program offers discounts for 50 or more flight hours per year.
Fair Wind Air Charter (flyfairwind.com, 800-989-9655). South Florida-based operator with some 20 aircraft from light to large-cabin jets in its charter fleet and access to additional lift from vetted operators. Offers airport-to-airport guaranteed prices and one-way and roundtrip per-hour rates. No fuel surcharges.
GAMA Aviation (gamagroupusa.com, 800-468-1110). U.S. arm of UK-based aviation-services provider. Operates global fleet of more than 60 aircraft ranging from Boeing BBJs and Airbus ACJs to helicopters and air ambulances. Also has access to hundreds of aircraft from partner fleets. Maintains a UAE-based charter fleet for access to the Middle East.
JetSuite (Jetsuite.com, 866-779-7770). Owns and operates a fleet of Embraer Phenom 100 VLJs in California, the Southwest, Texas and New England. Hourly rates begin at $1,499 and daily specials feature fares starting at $499. Introduced a flight-sharing program in late 2011.
Key Air (Keyair.com, 888-539-2471). Operates 22 light- to large-cabin jets based throughout the U.S. Offers blocked and ad-hoc charter programs and one-way pricing. Also partners with other operators.
Landmark Aviation (landmarkaviation.com, 800-548-1978). Charter-operator arm of aviation-services company with more than 50 FBO locations in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe. Operates some 50 charter aircraft from turboprops to large-cabin jets and air ambulances. Custom Rate Schedule provides 2 to 6 percent discount for customers chartering 50 or more flight hours each six months.
Priester Aviation (priesterav.com, 888-323-7887). One of the world’s oldest charter operators, founded in 1945. Operates some 30 aircraft, from Pilatus PC-12 turboprop to Gulfstream G550, based at more than a dozen U.S. locations. Posts available one-way flights, offers block-charter programs in 50-, 75- and 150-hour increments.
Sentient (Sentient.com, 866-406-8278). Largest provider of charter flights in the U.S. Offers one-way pricing and easy quoting on roundtrip and multi-leg trips. Access to aircraft from turboprops to large-cabin jets flown by more than 100 vetted operators.
Solairus Aviation (Solairusaviation.com, 800-359-7861). Operates some two-dozen aircraft, from turboprops to large-cabin jets based across the U.S. Also sources aircraft from vetted operators. New alliance with Hong Kong-based Metrojet offers charter services in Asia. Mobile app provides users with empty-leg availability and alerts in real time.
TAG Aviation (tagaviation.com, +41 22 717 0100). Switzerland-based aviation-services provider operates more than 30 aircraft in its charter fleet, predominating in European-based large-cabin jets, and sources aircraft from partner operators worldwide. TAG Account (requires refundable deposit) provides customized solutions and discounted flight time.
XOJet (Xojet.com, 877-599-6538). Offers point-to-point pricing on its owned and operated Wi-Fi-equipped fleet of late-model Challenger 300s, Cessna Citation Xs and now Hawker 800XPs. Offers all-inclusive transcontinental (Los Angeles-New York) rates as low as $21,000. Recently introduced guaranteed-access program.