BBC Capital

How to catch a ride on a private plane

Celebrities and the wealthy fly privately and you can too. (Getty Images)

Celebrities and the wealthy fly privately and you can too. (Getty Images)

Mike Lewis first became hooked on cut-price private jet trips when he saw a deal offering four seats on a flight from his local airport near Los Angeles on an Embraer Phenom 100 jet for just $500, plus tax. The catch: the trip was the next day. 

“The jet was going to Tucson, Arizona and I’d never been there,” he said. “So I took it.”

That was three years ago and since then Lewis, chief executive officer of property management company Concept Seven, which operates on the West Coast of the US, has become a regular private jet flyer — for business and pleasure. He takes one or two trips every month.

The bargains come from what are known as “empty legs” or “empty sectors.” That is, the one-third of private jet flights that wouldn’t otherwise carry passengers because the planes are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The next full-fare pickup for a wealthy flier or executive — or the jet’s owner — might originate in Chicago, but the jet is parked in Las Vegas. Costs for fuel and the crew add up.

That’s where passengers like Lewis come in. His deal came from JetSuite, which has become a pioneer in this area, releasing details of its cut-price “SuiteDeals” to followers on Twitter, Facebook and the web just a day before the flights. Flights cost $500 for up to 500 miles, $1,000 for 500 to 1000 miles and $1,500 for anything further, plus 7.5% federal tax.

The price includes all the seats on the jet, plus baggage, so if there are four seats, you can use one or invite friends or family and all four fly for one price. Most jets in the program offer four or seven seats.

Website EmptyLegMarket, meanwhile, currently has about 25 to 50 offers listed at any time, with the best deals available 10 days before a flight.

“It’s a real niche group of people who are able to go on these flights,” said Lewis. “They’re usually people… in their mid-thirties with the ability to jump on a flight at the last minute and [the ability] to spend the money.”

Buyer beware

Of course, there are drawbacks for both the jet owners and the last-minute fliers.

North America dominates the market, buying more than half the world’s shipments of business jets in 2013. These can fly to some 50,000 airports in the US, compared with about 550 that are served by scheduled commercial airlines. The small airfields are often more attractive to business travellers because they’re closer to meeting locations and help them avoid the hassle of excessive security procedures and waits.

That's a boon for executives who can attend several meetings in a day and still be home for dinner. But their convenience can leave potential buyers of empty legs stranded. First, travellers on empty leg flights have to figure out how to get from home to a small airport, then from another small airport to their final destination. Very few of these small airfields will have on-site car hire, so fliers might have to arrange a taxi or limo to get to their final destination. Then there’s the matter of getting home, usually on a scheduled flight at a bigger airport or waiting for another empty leg trip.

Even JetSuite, which offers some of the best deals on empty legs, has difficulty selling them.

“We post on average 10 SuiteDeals a day,” said JetSuite chief executive officer Alex Wilcox. “We sell three or four. They represent far less than 1% of our total revenue.” The company’s main business is full-rate charters. Lewis’s $500 flight to Tuscon, for example, would have cost about $6,500 at the company's normal retail rate.

Aside from charter operators selling their own empty legs, there are a growing number of brokers trying to link the fragmented private jet market by offering flights from a number of operators. Victor represents more than 100 operators, mostly in Europe, where there are more than 600,000 flights by private jets and turbo-props each year — of which around 200,000 are likely to be without passengers.

Victor typically has around 200 empty leg offers available, but they aren’t the eye-popping bargains offered by JetSuite. Recently, for instance, Victor’s website displayed an empty leg deal on a six-seat jet leaving three days later from Bristol in southwest England to the Spanish island of Mallorca for £3,630 ($6,386). According to Victor director of operations Mike Ryan, the full price to charter the same flight would be between £9,000 and £10,000 ($15,000 to $16,000).

“The sort of people we find using empty legs are already seasoned private aircraft travellers who know the system. They’re generally retired or semi-retired people with second homes in the south of France or wherever, who can be flexible about when they fly,” Ryan said.

Safety matters

While it might be more luxurious than being crammed into a coach cabin on a commercial airline, flying private isn’t entirely risk-free.

Although statistics indicate that all forms of flying are safer than travelling by road, private jets aren’t subject to the same level of regulation as commercial airlines. The minimum requirement for commercial charters is an Air Operator Certificate issued by the national aviation authority where the plane is registered. You should check that this is valid and that there has been an independent safety audit by the relevant  organisation such as ARG/US or Wyvern.

Be sure to inquire about extra charges for, say, baggage or airport fees. These add-ons are rare but know before you buy. And be aware that some firms offer deals that aren’t actually available. In some cases operators will exploit your interest in private jet travel and then try you sell you full-price flights in a classic bait and switch, telling you the advertised offer has already been sold.

Still, if you can grab the bargain, the perks are very real. “Everybody wants to fly on a private jet, as I've discovered,” said Lewis, describing how finding bargain flights can make you rather popular. “Sometimes I'll invite friends and relatives and, not surprisingly, they're pretty happy to jump on board with me.”

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