United Airlines didn't curdle the commercial flying experience all by itself. The company's recent fiasco only highlights a gradual but inexorable decline that's been happening for decades. Now the national conversation has shifted to a question that was all but unthinkable a few years ago: Is it worth the extra money to fly private?
For the thriftiest bargain-hunters, the answer is simple: No. The range of options we'll get into here involve a premium of some sort, and no amount of negotiation or research will land you on a private flight that's priced close to the cheapest commercial tickets. But if you have the means, and are truly fed up with the state of mass air transportation, welcome to the new world of flying private. And navigating the current options means first determining how many hours you intend to fly private per year.
Less Than 25 Hours: Pay-As-You-Fly
The most infrequent private fliers have no business buying into a membership plan. Instead, you should price out and charter individual flights with an app, such as Skyjet's. And unless you're extremely well-heeled, don't bother pricing out one of these trips unless you can gather a large group of fliers. For example, a round trip flight from Boston to Orlando costs a heart-stopping $35,663 via Skyjet, and on-board a Nextant 400XT. Split between two fliers, that's still a rather serious investment for a single round-trip flight. By comparison, two roughly equivalent non-stop commercial flights would add up to $1,680 for economy class, or $1,904 for first class.
But don't run just yet. Let's say you're planning a trip with a large group of family or friends. Upgrade to an eight-passenger Citation X, and you pay $46,703 for a round-trip. That's around $5,800 per passenger, compared to between $840 and $902 per person flying commercially. Still a painful step up in price, but what if you round up an even bigger group, and fill up a 16-passenger Gulfstream G450? At $69,464 for that round-trip flight, the per-passenger cost is $4,341.
Granted, even that would be around five times the price of a similar first-class trip. But consider the perks. Gulfstream G450s are among the most luxurious aircraft on the planet, and the 2.5 to three-hour flights (depending on which way you're flying) would be more pampered than anything first class has to offer. That premium also gets you on board without navigating airport security — you park in a special lot and take a shuttle to the plane, bypassing the standard TSA experience altogether. That means arriving to the airport closer to departure time, and no frantic sprints to the gate.
Another possible perk: Avoiding major airports entirely. Charters can usually be scheduled to operate from small, regional airports, including nearby ones that you never realized existed. For this writer, for example, Skyjet flights are available from an airstrip a 16-minute drive away from my home, as compared to 40 minutes drive-time to Boston's Logan Airport, or well over an hour with typical traffic.
Finally, there's the fact that chartered flights happen precisely when you want them to. When I checked for dueling private and commercial flights taking off around 8 p.m., the commercial nonstop options either didn't exist (forcing a change to much earlier departures), or else meant leaving close to midnight. This, of course, typifies the commercial flying — you're at the mercy of the airlines, even before you book. Those compromised departure times also assume that commercial flights won't be delayed for any number of reasons. Private flights have to contend with weather, but by operating out of smaller airstrips, they can sidestep the gridlock that can result from a cascade of delays at a sprawling hub.
25 to 50 Hours: Jetsetting With Jet Cards
Because even the wealthy have good reason to save money, anyone taking more than a dozen or so private flights per year should look into a jet card. These are the luxury air travel equivalent of a prepaid phone card, where you purchase a set number of hours in advance. Sentient, for example, offers a 25-hour jet card for anywhere from $124,825 (for access to small aircraft built before 2000) to $350,325 (the biggest and newest models).
To break that down per trip, let's stick with that Boston to Orlando route. The cheapest Sentient option amounts to some $4,993 per hour aboard a seven-passenger plane. Assuming a full aircraft and three hours of flight time in both directions, that's $4,280 per person, per round-trip flight. That's only slightly less than a maxed-out 16-passenger flight with Skyjet, but there's less need to pile a large group into the aircraft to offset the cost.
In reality, though, jet cards are geared more toward single fliers or small groups. Sentient's biggest aircraft can only hold 12 passengers, and the cost savings only factor in when compared to booking multiple private flights on mid- to small-size planes. If this sort of travel is already part of your lifestyle — whether because of your own personal fortune, or your company's — then, chances are, you've already heard of jet cards.
50 Hours and Up: You Own (Part of) a Jet!
Only the most excessively rich wholly own their own private jet. For those who live somewhere between millionaire and billionaire status, or who work for a company that regularly sends its employees on private flights, there's fractional ownership. That entails paying a large sum of money up front — think $500,000 to $1 million or more — as well as hourly flight-time fees, in exchange for a share of a specific aircraft. Flexjet and NetJets are the major players in this market, and in both cases partial ownership also allows access to other aircraft in the company's fleet. A flight on a plane that's larger or smaller than your fractionally owned model will involve a correspondingly greater or lesser hourly fee. Shares typically start at 1/16th of the aircraft, and contracts are extremely flexible and negotiable. A share might be owned by a group of people, for example, or multiple companies.
As for how this option breaks down on a per-trip basis, that depends on any number of factors, chief among them how many people or organizations have gone in on a single contract. Fliers also have to purchase flight hours in advance, such as in increments of 50 hours. The math is beneficial, but only relevant to people who likely haven't flown commercial in years, and might be surprised to know that a company like United Airlines is still around. There are additional perks to fractional ownership, such as being able to schedule a flight with just 10 hours of notice, and the bragging rights that come from mentioning to the rest of the yacht club that you own a fraction of a jet.