If you are considering private aviation for your future travels, this article will give you a good introduction to chartering an aircraft for the first time.
The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) held a very good session providing tips for first time charter buyers, during their online conference VBACE at the end of 2020. Mike Nichols, the NBAA's SVP, Strategy & Innovation, hosted the session and mentioned that most people who use business and private aviation are also frequent flyers on the (commercial) airlines. As Mike noted, a key factor in their travel decisions is “about using the right tool for the right mission” and added “health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, have compelled many new entrants to consider business aviation options.”
“When chartering an airplane, you decide the schedule, who is on board with you and where you will fly,“ said Mike Nichols. In other words, the plane you charter will fly exactly where you want to go, when you want to go, with the only people on board being the ones that you choose.
There are roughly 5,000 public use airports in the United States compared to just 500 airports that are served by commercial airlines. “With business aviation serving approximately 10 times the airports served by the airlines, you can start closer to your home or arrive closer to your meeting destination,” said Mike Nichols.
Note that the phrases business aviation and private aviation tends to be used interchangeably, so whether you are flying for business or leisure, you will have the same planes available to you. You can use different aircraft for different types of flights, choosing a smaller aircraft for a shorter local trip or using a bigger, more expensive aircraft for a cross-country or international flight.
“As a rule of thumb, chartering is advantageous for up to 50 hours of flying time each a year,” says Mike Nichols, adding “with more than 50 hours, fractional ownership may be more advantageous.”
In terms of costs, “you only pay for what you use” and the costs are known ahead of the flight. If you fly for business, the costs may tax deductible.
Examples of aircraft that are available for charter vary from 4-seater piston-engine planes, such as the Cirrus SR-22, with a range of about 1,200 miles and a cruising speed of about 210 mph. There are a variety of single engine and twin-engine turboprops, planes such as the King Air, that can seat up to 8 or 9, have a range of up to 1,500 miles and fly at 360 mph.
Jets fly at faster speeds and start with light jets, such as the Phenom 300, through mid-size jets, super-mids, large and ultra-long range jets. The largest business jets such as the Gulfstream G550 or Global 5000 can fly over 7,000 miles, can carry up to 19 passengers and reach speeds over 580 mph.
You will hear about different products as you start to look into charter flights. The one that has been around the longest, and in some respects is the simplest, is on-demand charter, in which you book and pay for your trips one flight at a time.
As you do your research, you will also come across jet cards and membership programs.
“Flights flown under these three options are at the core the same – they are air charter,” says Mike Nichols. “The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) operating rules that charter operators must follow are under part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations,” notes Mike, and so charter operators are often referred to as part 135 operators and charter flights may be called part 135 flights.
A jet card is essentially a prepaid charter program, that provides a specified number of flight hours on certain types of aircraft. The card company may have their own aircraft or may arrange flights through other operators.
Jet cards can really be useful if you do a lot of trips that last longer than a day or two, because the hourly pricing structure is a one-way price. For instance, if you go on vacation for a week, with a jet card you would pay for the hours flown to the vacation location, then a week later pay for the hours on the return flight back from vacation. In comparison, with on-demand charter you would typically have to pay for your flight on the plane to your destination, but also have to pay for the plane to return to its base, and then a plane will come and pick you up for your return trip. So, if you stay somewhere for say a week, you may end up having to pay for four flights if you are chartering. (the charter plane returning to its base is know as an "empty leg" or "dead head" flight)
If you are doing a day trip or a quick overnight trip then the plane is likely to stay with you, and chartering may be more effective.
Membership programs are the newest offerings from companies such as Wheels Up and XO. They provide access to both owned fleets and third-party operator fleets, with some levels of fixed hourly rates, depending on the membership level.
Operators & Brokers
Charter flights can be arranged either directly through a part 135 charter operator or through a charter broker.
At the VBACE conference, Sonnie Bates, CEO of Wyvern, noted that there are about 2,000 air charter operators in the USA, of which about 570 are jet only operators. In addition, there are many hundreds of charter brokers who will arrange flights for you.
The charter operators vary from locally focused firms with just one or two aircraft, to large national and international firms that may have hundreds of aircraft. Brokers can also be small one person operations, or can range up to large national firms with thousands of clients.
Bradon Miller, Director of Charter Sales at Desert Jet, suggests getting a referral from a friend or colleague, as a good way to find a broker or operator. He also recommends just looking in your local market, potentially at your local airport and the local private terminals (“FBOs”), adding that talking to “local experts who know local nuances”, can be a helpful step to take.
The local operators can be a good place to start to see if they can meet your needs. They may or may not end up being a good fit, for instance if they only have small piston engine planes, when you want something larger to fly across the country.
There are various questions to ask either brokers or operators as you select the ones you want to work with. This earlier article has some good questions to ask when looking for a charter service and this article covers how to find a charter broker.
As Sonnie Bates explained, brokers that have been in business for a while don’t just connect dots. Instead, the good ones carry their cell phone day and night, and help clients through difficult times such as if an aircraft has mechanical issues, or if weather affects the flight, they will help you through all this.
Trip Quotes & Booking Flights
Once you have found the company you want to work with, you can arrange your first flight.
You specify your arrival and departure airports, the day and time, the number of passengers and any specific requirements such as carrying lots of sports equipment for a skiing or golf trip, or any dietary requirements for the food and drink on board.
Bradon Miller notes “everyone’s travel is unique.” Good brokers and operators will work to understand your mission requirements and ascertain what you need compared to what you want. For instance, certain planes are good for certain missions, so a large jet may not be able to get into a smaller rural airport or into an airport in the mountains. Or a small aircraft may need a refueling stop on a long trip, whereas a larger plane could complete it without a stop.
The operator or broker should provide a full quote that includes the hourly fee, any overnight fee, fuel costs, taxes, and any other charges. This earlier article has examples of the types of items you may see.
Safety & Security
All operators have to meet FAA part 135 requirements. The good operators go over and above this with best practices to the industry’s highest standards. External audits by companies such as Wyvern or ARGUS are signs that the operator is meeting these higher standards.
One key part of the security is that you are only flying with the people you invite on the plane. Even so, private aviation companies do check TSA no fly lists and makes sure all passengers are vetted. They also have a whole suite of security protocols that are in place but are not discussed so they don’t give away the counter measures.
In the age of COVID, operators were quick to introduce further safety protocols, and the very nature of private aviation, leaving from quieter private terminals make it safer than busier commercial terminals.
Pricing & Contracts
“Pricing can be a sticker shock” notes Mike Nichols, especially when compared to commercial flying where you are sharing the cost of the plane with hundreds of other passengers.
Bradon Miller reiterates this, saying “know it’s going to be more than airlines, more than first class.” The aircraft cost goes up as the size of the plane increases. A piston engine plane may cost a few hundred dollars an hour, but a large, ultra-long range jet can be well over $10,000 an hour. This again emphasizes the “know what you need” message, because if you want to use a bigger aircraft than you really need, it will cost you more.
Your broker or operator will send over a contract. The contract will specify terms and conditions, what deposit is required, and the payment terms. You should know the exact plane and the crew ahead of time.
Good brokers/operators will also have a detailed conversation with you for each flight. They can talk through questions to make sure you have a great experience. Ideally planning ahead for concerns about the weather, for potential schedule changes, arranging ground transportation and fine tuning any catering.
Last Pieces Of Advice
From Sonnie Bates it was “don't rush, take your time, have the discussion well in advance.” Bradon Miller said “build relationships” so that the operator or broker gets to know you and your travel preferences.