Should you buy a jet card?

Buyers' Guide » 2012
Should you buy a jet card?
The answer could be “absolutely”–or “absolutely not.” It all depends on your circumstances.
Tuesday, August 7, 2012 - 1:30pm

Jet cards, introduced just over a decade ago as bait for fractional-ownership programs, are now the access option of choice for many business aviation users. The cards are even finding a place in the wallets of numerous aircraft owners and dedicated charter customers.

These debit-style cards were created to mirror the benefits of fractional shares, with one-way pricing, guaranteed access to a specific model of jet and concierge service–all without the capital investment or commitment of ownership. But today, card programs may offer roundtrip discounts, peak and off-peak rates, use of multiple aircraft models with no interchange fee and refundable deposits instead of a “use it or lose it” policy on pre-purchased flight time.

Before comparing program details, evaluate your business jet usage to see whether a card would make sense for you. Cards aren’t inexpensive on an hourly basis compared with other private-jet alternatives, but particularly if you fly 15 to 40 hours per year, they can offer a simple and convenient way to go. A card locks in costs and, unlike charter, guarantees you an aircraft whenever you need it.

The pricing model favors flyers who make one-way trips, as there are no roundtrip or repositioning charges. (Card prices do, however, reflect the fact that holders basically subsidize one another’s one-way travel, which isn’t as cost-effective as round trips. And as noted above, some cards offer round-trip discounts.) A jet card can also be a smart solution if you own an aircraft and occasionally need supplemental lift or access to one or more other business jet categories.

Fractional companies, business jet manufacturers and charter operators and brokers all sell jet cards. (No reliable numbers on overall card sales exist, according to aviation data service Jetnet.) Sponsors often tout the benefits of their particular business model, such as access to an exclusive fractional fleet or a fleet maintained by the manufacturer; or access to hundreds of quality aircraft in the case of broker-backed cards. But the business model generally matters less than program details that determine which cards best suit your preferences and needs.

One common element: all quality card programs use auditing services (Air Charter Safey Foundation, ARG/US and Wyvern) that vet aircraft and flight crews to standards higher than the FAA requires. Consider such auditing a must, then focus on the following variables:

Dollars or hours. You can buy dollar-value cards–typically redeemable for $50,000 to $250,000 worth of flying–and flight-time cards, which are generally available for 10 to 50 hours. The more money advanced or hours purchased, the lower the hourly rates. Hour cards are generally best for travelers who use one category of aircraft and like to keep tabs on their available flight time. Dollar denominations are preferable for flyers who desire access to a fleet, where hourly rates vary with aircraft category. Several programs sell both types of cards. Charter broker Sentient, for example, offers one card for fleet access and another for 25 hours of flying on specific categories of aircraft.

One model or many. Cards may provide access to an entire fleet, a category of aircraft such as light or midsize or a specific model. Most programs allow aircraft interchanges for a fee and adjust customer accounts accordingly. If you anticipate using multiple aircraft types, consider a card program that has no interchange fees, like the one from Delta Private Jets. If you’re particular about aircraft types, you can choose a model-specific program, like CitationAir’s, which uses only Cessna Citations, or Magellan Jets’, which offers 10 hours on an Eclipse 500 very light jet.

Peak, off-peak and blackout dates. All cards have peak travel days, during which cardholders may face restrictions on access or added costs, based on their membership level. The number of peak days and associated rules vary. If your schedule is flexible, consider a card that offers lower rates for restricted access, such as Flexjet’s 275-day or 325-day Calendar Card. If you need the ability to go anytime, a card that provides uniform pricing for all dates with no restrictions, such as NetJets’ Marquis Card, may be best. If your travel includes round trips, consider a card that offers round-trip discounts, such as charter operator Jet Aviation’s PT Jet Card.

Expiration rules. Most jet cards have a finite life–typically one or two years–after which unused hours or dollars evaporate. Some cards–Flight Options’ Jet Pass Select, for example–never expire and others allow you to roll unused credits into a new card. That’s a plus if you’re unsure about your access needs. Also check the card’s replenishment policy; some programs allow deposits of additional funds into a card account before it expires, a boon if you need just a few additional hours, while other programs require purchase of a new card.

Included costs. Make sure you compare apples to apples when evaluating card costs. Prices of some cards don’t include the 7.5 percent Federal Excise Tax charged on all flights within the U.S. Some cards add a fuel surcharge, others don’t. Other costs that may or may not be bundled into the price of the card include crew overnight fees, catering and ground transportation. Check flight-cancellation policies and minimum per-flight and daily charges. Determine whether hourly rates, fuel surcharges and other costs are locked in for the life of the card or subject to change. If you fly outside your home country, pay attention to international rates and any additional charges levied.

With their evolved program features, today’s jet cards provide great opportunities for maximizing value. But they can also deliver some costly surprises if you don’t read the fine print. Analyze your travel needs and the offerings carefully, and you’ll be holding the trump card when it comes to choosing the best program for your travel needs.

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-VistaJet founder and chairman Thomas Flohr, on the company's unusually brief, easy-to-understand contracts