““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
The Airlines Want You Back
Some commercial carriers are hopping aboard the private jet bandwagon.
With more and more business travelers and high-net-worth individuals fleeing security lines, inconveniently located airports and crowded airplane cabins in favor of private jet travel, a thought has apparently occurred to some airline executives: Why not try to hang onto those passengers by offering them what they want?
No, you still can’t fly privately on JetBlue or Ryanair. But some airlines that have long focused largely on the high end of the commercial market now run full-fledged private jet operations, most of which offer basic, pay-as-you-go charter. Chief selling points typically include the companies’ reputations, seamless connections to their international commercial flights and use of their VIP airport lounges.
Without question, the carrier with the biggest and oldest footprint in the private jet world is Delta. It has apparently been in this market longer than any other airline and is the only one offering jet cards and a large, dedicated private fleet.
Delta Air Lines started providing business jet service way back in 1984 via Comair Jet Express, a part of its wholly owned Comair subsidiary. The airline rebranded the service as Delta AirElite in 2001 and as Delta Private Jets in 2010. It claims to have been the first private jet operator to introduce a membership card and the first card provider to maintain its own dedicated fleet of managed aircraft. It has about 40, ranging from small models like the Citation CJ2 to large ones like the Challenger 604, and plans to have 50 by the end of 2014.
The carrier—which also has access to more than a thousand airplanes supplied by affiliated charter operators—now sells two kinds of jet cards. The Delta Private Jets Card offers locked-in pricing for up to two years, and has no fuel surcharges and no fees for switching among aircraft categories. You purchase or renew a card by funding it with $100,000, which you can use to pay flight-hour costs that start at $5,250 an hour for a light jet in the U.S. Higher rates apply for larger aircraft, international use and peak days, and there are daily minimums of $7,000 in the U.S. and $15,500 internationally. The highest daily minimum, for international use of a large jet, is $25,900.
Delta’s Fractional Jet Card offers the same hourly rates but with lower upfront costs—just $25,000 plus an annual $2,500 fee. The carrier isn’t using the word “fractional” the way most private-jet companies use it—it has nothing to do with fractional ownership. Instead, the card allows you to try out Delta Private Jets’ offerings for a fraction of the usual cost. You can upgrade to the $100,000 card at any time and if you do so within 60 days, Delta will apply the annual fee to your account balance. Payments are nonrefundable and balances are forfeited if not spent within 24 months. Delta touts such advantages as no fuel surcharges, locked-in pricing and the ability to choose different aircraft for each trip with no interchange fees.
The business jet products are a “differentiator,” says Delta Private Jets executive vice president and COO John Daly, who adds that when the airline negotiates with large corporations on travel contracts, “this is something we can offer that nobody else has.” He adds that “with a card, customers can not only purchase travel on Delta Private Jets but through our concierge service, they can book airline travel as well. So it provides a very seamless travel opportunity.”
When cardholders opt for Delta Air Lines flights (for which they can use their card balances), they receive discounts on some domestic and international flights and enjoy the benefits of the carrier’s Sky Miles Diamond Medallion status. (Mileage credit isn’t offered, but that’s something that has been “looked into for possible future expansion of the program,” Daly says.) The company also operates charter flights and, for customers who own their own jets, aircraft management.
While we’re not aware of any other airline offering jet cards or any that has been in the private jet business for nearly as long as Delta, it is not the only commercial carrier to venture into the space. Here’s a look at five others:
Emirates Executive—The newest kid on the block, this charter operator launched in August 2013 as a subsidiary of Emirates, the Dubai-based airline. Flights are on a customized Airbus A319 bizliner, which has a range of about 3,700 nautical miles and carries up to 19 passengers. (In airliner configuration, it typically holds 124.) The jet, which Emirates says can be booked on short notice, features 10 private suites, a lounge, a dining area and a shower spa. The airline has not revealed pricing but has described it as “competitive.”
Korean Air Private Jet Service—Korean Air offers private jet charter flights on its own medium- to long-range Boeing Business Jet and Bombardier Global Express XRS, both of which it bases in Seoul; it also provides transportation in South Korea via a Sikorsky 76C+ helicopter. Within the U.S., it employs the Flexjet Connect service to offer short-range flights on Bombardier Learjet 45XRs and cross-continental flights on Bombardier Challenger 300s. The company does not give private travelers premium status but does provide mileage credit in its Skypass frequent-flier program, according to John Jackson, Korean Air’s vice president of sales and marketing for the Americas.
“We have a number of customers whose travel profiles work very well with this [private jet service],” Jackson adds. “A high-net-worth individual or C-level chairman or a CEO will typically fly us first class out of our [international] gateways transpacific. Then they may connect to one of our business jets. Or we’ll have a team of developers or architects or maybe a touring band that’ll fly business class and then use the business jet to get around Asia.”
Lufthansa Private Jet—This division of the German airline has partnered with NetJets, which operates all of its flights. You can book travel on short notice and can fly to more than a thousand locations in Europe, the Russian Federation, North Africa and North America. The airline promises VIP treatment on the ground, including access to its first-class lounges at all departure and destination airports and complimentary limousine service at four airports in Germany and Switzerland. It also touts “effortless” connections to Lufthansa and Swiss first-class intercontinental flights. (Swiss had long operated its own private jet division but closed it as part of a reorganization in 2011.)
Qatar Executive—Qatar Airways launched its own private carrier in 2009 “to accommodate the increasing market demand for luxury travel,” says Akbar Al Bakar, the airline’s CEO. From its base in Doha, Qatar, it operates seven wholly owned Bombardier aircraft, including three Challenger 605s, three Global 5000s and one Global XRS, and provides charter services worldwide.
In addition to business-jet charter, Qatar offers airliner charter and, for owners, aircraft management and maintenance. Qatar also offers its commercial passengers the option of connecting to a Flexjet private jet via the airline’s gateways in Chicago, Houston, New York, Washington and Montreal.
Saudia Private Aviation—Founded in 2009, this division of Saudi Arabian Airlines operates charter flights worldwide on the Falcon 7X and Hawker 400XP. It also offers leasing options (100 to 800 hours per year), aircraft management and ground services.
Of course, these airlines have entered a crowded field of companies that specialize exclusively in private jet travel, and many of those boast more diverse offerings. Still, you may find it comforting to buy your transportation from a subsidiary of a large, well-established airline. Depending on your travel needs, you might also find it convenient to be able to do one-stop shopping for private and commercial flights for multi-leg trips. If so, you may discover that there’s still a place in your life for the airlines.
As the article above indicates, some of the airlines now offering private jet services are doing so partly or entirely via flights operated by other companies. Lufthansa Private Jet Services, for example, works with NetJets, while Quatar Executive and Korean Air Private Jet Service farm out flights within North America to Flexjet. Other airlines, while opting to stay out of the private jet business entirely, have formed alliances that make it easier for customers to combine private and commercial travel. Singapore Airlines and India's Taj Air, for example, have partnered with Lufthansa's Private Jet Service to allow commercial customers arriving in Europe and India to continue on to their destinations via private jet. Beijing Airlines, meanwhile, has formed an alliance with OrientSky, a private jet charter firm headquartered in Thailand.
Jeff Burger is the editor of Business Jet Traveler.