Jet cards have their benefits, including consistent service and guaranteed aircraft access. (Illustration: John T. Lewis)
Jet cards have their benefits, including consistent service and guaranteed aircraft access. (Illustration: John T. Lewis)

Stack the deck in your favor

Discounts and expanded offerings make jet cards more appealing. Here’s what you need to know.

Discounts and expanded offerings can make jet cards worth considering. Here's what's available and how to pick a winner. 

Growth could literally be in the cards for the bizav industry. Sentient Jet, which claims 4,000 jet card customers, reports 35 percent sales growth for 2014, while card purchases at Delta Private Jets set records last year and card hours flown in NetJets’ Marquis program saw double-digit growth. 

One reason may be that offerings have expanded to include more niche products and service options. In place of yesterday’s use-it-or-lose-it flight-hour policies, most card programs now simply put an expiration date on guaranteed rates; you’ll retain untapped time on hour-based cards, but likely pay more for using it. And while fractional-fleet operators formerly dominated the business with cards that provided access to a single model, you can now buy cards from charter brokers that offer a choice of models within a category. Also, NetJets offers a card that lets you split 25 hours between two aircraft models. 

Charter broker Magellan Jets, meanwhile, recently unveiled a card providing model-specific access to four categories of business jets. The cards give buyers a choice of “perks” and “add-ons,” including waived peak surcharges, two free category upgrades, 1.5-hour (rather than two-hour) flight-time minimums, fuel-surcharge discounts, waived interchange fees and free catering or ground transportation.

The availability of reduced rates for posted routes and times has further bolstered demand. Delta Private Jets offers 5 to 10 percent savings on super-midsize jets flying between many East and West Coast cities. Marquis’s X-Country Card provides discounts of more than 20 percent for transcontinental travel, and Jet Suite, which ­operates Embraer Phenom 100s and ­Citation CJ3s, has cut prices for top-tier cardholders on some routes, including Chicago–Aspen, Colorado and Nantucket, Massachusetts–White Plains, New York.

Discounts notwithstanding, jet cards arguably remain the most expensive way you can access a business ­aircraft, per hour. For the cost of flying one way on a card, you could probably “get a like airplane from a local charter operator and fly round trip,” says Kevin O’Leary, president of business aviation consultancy Jet Advisors in Massachusetts. (Of course, before the widespread availability of one-way charter pricing, jet cards’ one-way fees offered a huge advantage over the round-trip rates charter companies routinely charged.)

But if you’re interested in jet cards, you’re likely attracted not by savings but by convenience, consistent service and guaranteed access. Card providers “will get you a limo, and some will get tickets to a new play on Broadway,” says David Wyndham, president of Massachusetts-based aviation data services company Conklin & de Decker. “They try to offer concierge-level services.”

Making sure you buy a card that delivers the particular features you need takes work, however. You have to consider service areas, daily flight time (not just flight-leg time) minimums, call-out times, cancellation policies, differences in service consistency between fractional- and charter broker-based programs and even cabin layouts. 

When evaluating providers, keep in mind that often “an operator with a couple of underutilized aircraft will come up with a pithy name, print up a fancy brochure and create a jet card program” that may not be able to meet its promises, says James Butler, CEO of business aviation consultancy Shaircraft Solutions in Maryland.

You might begin your search for a provider by checking out the tools that some of them offer on their websites to help prospective customers select among card options. If you’re looking to supplement charter or a fractional share, you might also ask your current lift provider for advice. 

In any event, plan to sample the services of any company you’re considering. “I would think twice about signing up” with any provider that wouldn’t allow a revenue-generating demo, says Wyndham.

Given the amount of money involved, you might also consider hiring a consultant. “You can do the research,” says O’Leary, but “it would not hurt to have someone on your side who’s done it before. We charge about the price of one hour of flight time to get you on the right path.”

Some consultants say that besides pointing you to an appropriate card, they might even be able to save you money on its purchase. “Despite what the jet card company tells you, there’s often room to negotiate additional benefits that will add substantial value,” notes Butler. “A consultant or attorney on your side, with knowledge of where there’s room to negotiate, can add substantial value, even to a jet card investment.”

James Wynbrandt is a private pilot and regular BJT contributor.