How to Keep Your Options Open When Flying Private

There are many avenues toward the perfect private jet experience.

Flying private can be confusing. It’s often thought of as a luxury—a nonessential service reserved for the uber wealthy—even as many travelers justify paying top dollar for first-class seats on commercial airlines.

Whether you are exploring private jet travel for the first time or are already a seasoned flyer, the landscape flying privately has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. And, as we begin to enter a new post-pandemic world, it is more important than ever to understand your private jet options so you can select the best solutions. That’s right—solutions, plural.

There is no single private jet company, card, offering, or app that will always meet your needs. Rather, I advise clients to combine two to three solutions for the right mix of flexibility, cost efficiency and responsiveness.

The fact is that there is no single private jet company, card, offering, or app that will always meet your needs. Rather, I advise those interested to combine two to three solutions for the right mix of flexibility, cost efficiency, and responsiveness. And if you decide to read no further, just remember these two things: First, just because a friend says a solution works for them, doesn’t mean it will work for you. And second, if sounds too good to be true, it likely is. With that, here is a quick trip through the landscape of flying by private jet, with pros and cons for each popular option.

Paying Per Seat 

Several companies have recently begun offering individual seats on private jets. While this “pay-per-seat” model can be economical and lets you skip the dreaded commercial terminal, you are still onboard a plane with seven to 10 people you have never met before. You will not have personal control of the cabin environment, your ability to work productively or stream entertainment will depend on the plane’s Wi-Fi or lack of it, and food and beverages will be what is provided, not necessarily what you prefer. Furthermore, if most of the other seats are booked by members of the same party, it can be a socially awkward experience as well.

Pros: Avoid the crowds and skip the commercial terminal and bag check.

Cons: Flying with strangers, limited routes, less control, inflexible departure times.

Traditional “On-Demand” Charter

First introduced in the 1960s on early private jets like the Learjet 23 and Falcon 20, traditional airplane charter allows you to fly anywhere in the world, on your timetable. Also known as on-demand charter, there are no long-term contracts or deposits. Just specify where you want to go and when, and the charter company provides a range of jets to choose from—with the amenities that matter to you. Aircraft are either leased by the charter company or owned by individuals who open their plane to these charter trips when they are not using it in order to offset the cost of ownership.

Pros: No long-term commitments or blackout days, nearly infinite aircraft options, cost efficient for most flights.

Cons: Hourly fees vary, different aircraft for every flight, service level varies by company.

Read more of Scott Cutshall’s thought leadership.

Branded Jet Charter

Another new entrant within the past 10 years, branded charter is similar to traditional charter with one key difference. The planes, just like a commercial airline, are part of a fleet of similar models, painted alike and branded with the logo of the company that owns them. Because every plane looks the same, aircraft and crews are often changed out in between flights. For example, you may be on plane A from L.A. to Dallas, but your flight the next day from Dallas to New York could be on plane B with a different crew.

Pros: Every plane is painted the same, with similar interiors, and a consistent level of service.

Cons: Aircraft and crew often change between flights, which can reduce flexibility, dynamic pricing based on availability, limited models to choose from. 

Jet Card Products

More of a product than a service, a jet card is just a different way to buy traditional or branded charter, since all flights through a jet card are flown by charter or fractional planes. Jet cards are typically sold in prepaid hourly increments of 10, 25, or 50 hours, with some funds refundable and some nonrefundable. As a jet card holder, you are guaranteed fixed hourly rates for sizes of aircraft (light, midsize, super midsize, or large). Most jet cards offer both one-way and round-trip hourly rates by aircraft size, and you only pay for the hours when you are onboard. But as your mom taught you, there is nothing free in this world, so the rates are higher than charter to account for repositioning the aircraft before and after your flight. Also, there’s a chance you may get left with some unused value on the card, which could waste money.

Pros: Fixed hourly rates.

Cons: Less cost efficient on some routes, especially round-trip flights, prepay locks up your funds months before you use them, you won’t know the model of plane you are flying on until a few hours before departure, and there can be blackout days (such as holidays and other peak travel periods).

Fractional Ownership

Fractional ownership of aircraft is a much bigger investment, involving partial ownership of a major asset that involves a capital outlay and recurring monthly or yearly costs. As the name implies, with fractional ownership you purchase a portion of an aircraft—an eighth, quarter, or half, for example. Each share accounts for an equivalent number of flight hours annually. Since you own part of the asset, you pay a much lower cost per hour when you fly, in addition to a regular monthly fee that covers fixed expenses such as crew and maintenance costs. Length of terms vary, and there is a buyback provision at the end of the term. Given the complexity of these structures, I highly recommend engaging an aviation attorney with specific experience purchasing fractional ownership.

Pros: Scheduling flexibility, consistent service, asset depreciation for tax purposes, aircraft are painted and outfitted the same.

Cons: Less cost efficient due to exit structure, limited makes and models to choose from, ownership is in a specific make and model.

Learn more about Clay Lacy’s approach to aviation.

Full Aircraft Ownership

You decide to purchase an aircraft for your own use, whether that is business, personal, or both. The make and model you want, painted in your favorite colors, outfitted exactly the way you like, flown by trusted crew members whom you choose personally. Full ownership offers the ultimate in customization in both the aircraft itself and the onboard experience. Just say where you want to go and when. From a cost perspective, jet ownership makes sense if you fly more than 150 hours annually.

Since ownership is complex, it is wise to engage an aircraft-management company to provide turnkey oversight and operational services, including employing the crew and managing maintenance, flight operations, finance and accounting, safety systems, and so forth. To have a positive and cost-efficient experience there are four key people every jet owner should work with: a management company, aviation attorney, aviation CPA, and aircraft broker. This team will work together to ensure your interests are protected and goals are achieved.

As an owner, you may also elect to have your plane chartered when not in use. This provides revenue to offset a significant portion of your ownership expenses.

Pros: Complete flexibility and customization, asset depreciation for tax purposes, same crew for every flight for the best service.

Cons: Capital outlay, not cost justified if flying fewer than 150 hours annually.

I hope this overview of private jet travel options will help guide you toward identifying the combination of options that make the most sense for your specific situation and objectives. One thing I can promise you: Once you fly private, you’ll never want to go back.