Private jet travel is booming. And no, you still can't afford it

Zoe Man poses with one of her pet dogs onboard a private jet during her Japan trip. Picture: Life Travel/Handout via Reuters

Zoe Man poses with one of her pet dogs onboard a private jet during her Japan trip. Picture: Life Travel/Handout via Reuters

Published Nov 29, 2022


By Andrea Sachs

Warren Buffett and I inhabit very different worlds. He is super rich; I am not.

However, with the ongoing meltdown of commercial air, I think I have a better understanding of the famously frugal billionaire who changed the name of his private plane from "Indefensible" to "Indispensable."

Commercial aviation has experienced a rough couple years with mass cancellations, interminable delays, widespread staff shortages and violent outbursts by unruly passengers. More disruptions are expected this holiday season and into next year.

One possible antidote is the relative calm of flying private, a sector that has boomed during the pandemic.

"Once you've flown private, you won't go back to commercial," said Maurie Cohen, a professor of sustainable studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

"You don't have to deal with the petty inconveniences. The perks of first and business class don't compare."

According to tracking data in Argus International's TRAQPak, private plane travel in North America increased by 17 percent in the first half of this year, compared with 2019. WingX, a research and consulting firm, noted that private jets constitute a quarter of US flights.

"I can't see this as plateauing. It's not going to go away," Cohen said. "It's not just the Taylor Swifts and Kylie Jenners of the world. This is the normal way to travel for many people."

As a longtime citizen of coach class, I am more than ready for an alternative. But, I must uncouthly ask, at what price? Charter plane fares can cost at least 10 times more than a first-class ticket, which for many travellers is a splurge in itself.

Before the pandemic, private aviation occupied a stratosphere out of most travellers' reach. During the global health crisis, however, it seemed to enter the realm of possibility for travellers who could afford the privilege.

The wide spectrum of options, from purchasing a jet for millions to flying on a semiprivate plane for hundreds, opens up this category of travel to more people. Stratos Jet Services even had a Black Friday special that shaved a grand off its $14 500 (about R250K) annual membership.

"Private travel has become more accessible," said Justin Crabbe, founder and chief executive of Jettly, a Toronto-based private jet charter business. "We have a database of operators we can book like Expedia."

The ease of booking is one thing; having your credit card company freeze your account is another.

"Is it going to be affordable to the masses?" asked George Hobica, founder of "I don't think it's ever going to be affordable."

The advantages of flying private

Private air differs from commercial from the ground up.

Passengers depart from smaller executive or private airports that do not fall under the purview of the Transportation Security Administration. Instead of scanning machines and pat-downs, the company will conduct a background check and may ask the guest for a photo ID upon arrival.

Travellers can show up 15 to 20 minutes before boarding, or earlier if they wish to partake in the free hot beverages and other posh amenities in the airport lounge.

Like all flying objects, private planes are affected by inclement weather. Delays can happen, but not on the scale of commercial flights, which contend with a host of other challenges beyond force majeure, or acts of God.

"It is more efficient and reliable," Hobica said. "You're more likely to get [to your destination]."

Other advantages: No restrictions on the number of bags or amount of liquids, though the company may limit the weight, depending on the size of the plane.

Flights are nonstop, unless the pilot needs to refuel. Cellphones do not need to be switched to airplane mode, so you can chat up the groundlings below.

You can even put the dog, who may be resting uncrated at your feet, on the phone to say hello.

"I've only thought of flying private when I wanted to bring my dog," said Hobica, who a few breaths earlier had described private aviation as "immoral," because of the financial and environmental wastefulness.

You can debate the value of money, but there's no denying the harmful effect that private planes have on the environment, especially when they are used like the family station wagon.

Case in point: In July, Celebrity Jets, a Twitter account that uses flight tracking data to follow famous private fliers, called out Floyd Mayweather for his 10-minute flight from Henderson, Nevada, to Las Vegas. The professional boxer's Gulfstream guzzled 568 pounds of fuel and emitted a ton of carbon dioxide.

By comparison, an average passenger vehicle releases 4.6 metric tons per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The cliquish culture of private aviation is no friend to the climate, either. The passenger list is typically small and intimate. Empty seats will remain empty, because you're not running a high-altitude bus, after all.

How to arrange a private flight

At the top of the chain of privilege and convenience is buying a plane, which can cost millions for the aircraft alone.

For example, the going rate for Swift's jet-of-choice, the Dassault Falcon 7X, is about $54-million for a 2022 model, or less for a used model.

Additional expenditures include the crew, fuel, hangar, insurance and maintenance. SherpaReport, which covers the private aviation industry, calculates the financial outlay at about $6 400 per hour for the Falcon.

In return, the owner has total control, from the flight schedule to the colour palette.

"It's your jet. If you want to paint it pink or blue, you can," said David Gitman, president of Monarch Air Group, a charter provider. "It gives you the height of flexibility and customization."

However, planes have expensive needs and demands.

If you're not ready to take the plunge, you can wade in private aviation with fractional ownership. The arrangement resembles a timeshare: You purchase a portion of a plane and are allotted a set number of flight hours per year.

Fractional owners pay at least six figures for their slice of the plane, plus a monthly maintenance fee, an hourly flying rate and a hodgepodge of other charges, such as fuel. Two of the biggest fractional ownership companies are Flexjet and NetJets, which Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway presciently purchased in 1998.

"It's a three- to five-year commitment," said Kevin O'Leary, president of Jet Advisors, which advises private jet owners, "and you pay a penalty to get out of it."

Travellers not ready for an expensive toy should consider a jet card, which resembles a debit card filled with prepaid flying time. The cards are typically valid for a year, and the hourly price is locked in. "It's a guaranteed rate, like a forever stamp," O'Leary said.

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