Good news: you no longer need to be a Saudi prince or a Fortune 500 CEO to fly on a private aircraft. A more competitive landscape has reduced prices and extended the $15 billion market’s visibility to newfound, uh, heights. If you’re thinking about flying private, now’s the time.
And here’s how to do it.
Define “chartered” flight.
The major difference between a chartered flight and a scheduled flight (aka the ones you book on Priceline) is that seats are booked en masse, much like a chartered vehicle for a vacation package. Essentially, you’re booking the entire plane for your trip, no individual seats sold.
What are the advantages of a private charter?
Convenience, convenience and convenience. Private planes are able to fly in and out of smaller regional airports that usually restrict larger commercial aircrafts, allowing you to avoid traffic. And larger airport hubs have FBOs (fixed bases of operation) that provide an adjunct parking lot and shuttle services to private aircrafts.
The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) places chartered flights under a “general aviation” category, so you don’t have to wade through TSA protocol or throttle it to catch your connecting flight — the aircraft only leaves when your party is ready. Your captain greets you upon arrival and asks for ID and may search passenger bags.
And the in-flight experience itself is more personalized and confidential. Aircrafts are usually equipped with modern amenities such as WiFi, cabin phones, fax machines and satellite TV. Passengers can dine whenever and hold meetings without interruption.
When landing, the flight crew notifies ground transportation so you don’t have to wait.
Who are the most popular charters?
There are thousands of private charters with various destination networks. The private airlines and services that we’ve found offer the most value and flexibility are Blue Star Jets, JetSuite, Beacon, JetSmarter, SurfAir, Victor, Skyjet, FlexJet, VistaJet, XOJet and BlackJet. Each has its own pricing models, frequent flyer membership programs and amenities.
Argus International, which services the aviation industry with risk-related data, has a CHEQ (Charter Evaluation and Qualification) program that supplies visitors with charter ratings such as safety history, flight-by-flight records, pilot logs of flights, FAA administrative records, customer reviews of the particular operation and the company’s liability insurance status.
Ok, let’s talk cost.
Charters cost more than commercial flights because you’re renting the entire plane. They’re typically quoted per person on an hourly basis. The hourly rate is a factor of miles traveled in conjunction with the type of jet: turbo-prop, light, mid-size, heavy and long-range. The larger and thus more expensive airliners are stacked with the most creature comforts.
For instance, a turbo-prop plane traveling 1,250-2,100 miles will cost $1,400-$1800 an hour. A flight from New York to London on a private charter would cost around $13k, compared to $8-10k for a first-class commercial flight. Here’s a look at hourly operating costs for 45 private jets.
The best place to find value is the “empty leg” flight. After charters drop off their high-priced clients, 40% of time, they’re empty on the return flight, so they offer discount seats, but the deals are around for a short window.
You can find last-minute empty legs flights by visiting the charter’s website or on some of private jet services listed above (like Victor) and clearinghouses, such as PrivateFly. Private charters also offer frequent flyer memberships. The monthly retainers are worth it if you intend on flying a lot (flights on JetSmarter, for example, can essentially be free in some cases with membership).
What are the caveats to booking chartered flights?
If discount flights are offered, they’re usually limited to one-way travel. And your bill may be loaded with landing, airport fees and/or de-icing fees, so read the small print. If you book an empty leg, you probably won’t get a tricked-out airliner either. And there are safety concerns: private charters result in the most crashes, usually due to pilot error. The FAA provides a consumer’s guide to chartering a private aircraft.
The previously mentioned Argus International also provides pilot ratings, including full background checks, level of pilot training, any history of complaints against the pilot, any past safety infractions, experience level and pilot certifications.
— Eric Brown