Joining the ranks of the jet set
By Alene Dawson
With the addition of new, cost-effective private jet companies and brokers, flying private can make fiscal sense to industry travelers on the go.
Blue Star Jets is an air charter broker providing helicopter, prop, medium and heavy jet service. It has done concert tours, worked with film productions and jetted celebrities to and fro. "Our business took off after 9/11 when we were featured on CNN as security experts," president and founder Todd Rome notes.
Rome credits Blue Star Jets' success to affording clients a significant discount by buying and selling "empty legs" — when a plane goes from point A to point B, drops off its passengers and has to fly back to its base empty. Like bulk discount airline sites, private jet carriers are willing to sell these seats at a significant discount.
"Now flying seven passengers from Los Angeles to New York one-way starts at $16,000; a medium jet holding eight people, $21,000; and a heavy jet holding 16 people starts at $23,000. Per seat, it rivals first class," Rome says.
Blue Star Jets just launched a new discount program called Share-a-Jet Exchange. The service is a social networking site where families and business executives can split the cost of jet travel, saving up to 50%. Anyone can sign up by logging onto the Web site and picking a flight to share. "This eliminates the need for fractional ownership and carbon emissions are lessened through shared flights."
The program is also a more budget-friendly way to hightail it to posh holiday destinations like St. Barts, or score a ride to Sundance or Cannes during the film festivals. "In hard economic times, people still have to fly but they want to save money," Rome says. "People just don't want to fly retail any more."
Blue is a new division of Executive Charter Services offering flat-rate private jet service. The company has serviced celebrity golf tournaments and the Toronto International Film Festival. Private jet prices typically vary, even to the same location, depending on the plane, crew, etc. "But what makes Blue different is that it's always going to be $10,000 — all-inclusive (one-way between the metro New York area and South Florida) — covering taxes, jet, catering and car service on arrival to your destination," Executive Charter Services CEO Kevin Godlewski says. Shorter flights, like New York to Washington, D.C., have smaller customized prices.
In the future, Godlewski says, "our target market for flat-rate service will be the Hollywood crowd and the venture capital folks in L.A. and S.F." He's also looking at Cabo San Lucas and popular skiing destinations such as Whistler, Aspen, Sun Valley and Vail.
Valley Village, Calif.-based Studio Jet has serviced Disney, Fox, Spelling Entertainment, E! and Warner Bros. "In Hollywood, people need to do what they need to, when they need to do it," the company's CEO Moshe Hirsch says. "We can accomplish anything anytime."
He says his clients are savvy about how they spend their travel dollars. "Even before the economy had troubles, we had clients who would say, 'Hey, I know how much you pay for fuel. That's what I want to pay.' I had one client say on a $40,000 flight, 'If you can cut the price by $50, we'll take it.' People are wealthy because they are careful with money."
Hirsch mostly flies agents, business managers and celebrities but says that the studios' charter business is slowing. However, he says that if a client is working on two projects at once, often a commercial carrier can't meet their needs. "Not too long ago, we had an agent who had to be at two of his clients' events on the same night at the exact same time. But one was in Ontario, Calif., and one was in Hollywood, so he had to rent a helicopter. He was able to take a 10-minute helicopter ride to show his face and then go to the other one."
Private jet passengers, from the A-list to execs looking for a business-class alternative, reap the benefits of flying privately. In addition to avoiding transfers, overbooking, long lines, baggage fees and lack of privacy, the most elite mode of transportation offers the flexibility to fly a complete entourage, cast, crew, sales team and, in some cases, even family members on one flight. There's the luxury of flying entire film crews to remote locations — there are slightly more than 500 commercial airports but private aviation has access to more than 5,000 airports in the world. And Gulf Streams and Falcons can be like living rooms in the sky where clients can work on board.
"You can change the flight times to meet your needs at will," says Rick Croasdale, the director of corporate aviation for ExpressJet. "It's like you own your own plane for that day without incurring the overhead. If you fly less that 400 hours a year, you'll probably do better chartering an aircraft rather than owning."
In an age when commercial airlines are cutting back on routes and active aircraft, it's more difficult than ever to book the flights needed to make a roundtrip business trip in one day.
ExpressJet did a cost analysis for a small company flying employees commercial versus private. It determined that flying 35 employees on a commercial aircraft to a business destination, staying overnight before catching a flight home the next morning, and adding expenses like hotel rooms, per diems and driving mileage, added up to $31,602. The private jet option of flying roundtrip in one day added up to $27,600.
When time is money, there are also the advantages of members-only aviation firms.
"I tell people that I'm in the business of time," says Brian Fiske, CEO of International Marketing Associates and a 35-year aviation veteran who launched Hollywood Jets in July. "No matter who you are, you have the limited commodity of time and it's of value. Today's modern planes are time machines."
Hollywood Jets' membership-only model comes out of his commitment to security and privacy. He warns against pop-up flight brokers and cautions passengers need to know a broker's experience and whether they're properly insured.
"What's involved at Hollywood Jets is a lot of due diligence," he says. "We know who our members are, they know who we are and who our vendors are."
Fiske does a transportation analysis on all of his clients and every member is set up with a profile. "There are hours and hours of work done prior to every flight to understand security concerns; insurance requirements; the background of the operators, airplanes, pilots; the minimum amount of hours a pilot needs to fly a certain aircraft; and maintenance. We're not about someone calling us up from Vegas last minute who just won a lot of money saying, 'Hey, I want to charter a private jet.' "
He adds, "With the deaths of a lot of these big celebrities (while flying), that wakes you up a little bit. Wow, you really only have a limited time on this planet. So whether you're a doctor, celebrity, musician or business executive who wants to be back home for the night to be with your family after you've been traveling to multiple cities all day, that's what we're all about."