When a charter operator needs to reposition an aircraft for its next charter flight, that flight leg often is flown empty—without paying passengers—thus the term, empty leg (aka “deadhead”). The outbound flyer typically already paid for the repositioning leg, so any revenue generated by the empty leg is found money for the operator. Thus, operators often offer these flights to the public at somewhat reduced pricing. By some estimates, as much as 40% of all private jet flights are empty legs. Now, more than ever, third party brokers utilizing the internet have gotten into the game, aggregating empty legs from various operators and offering them for public consumption.
Empty legs generally are available on rather short notice and often are best found when you can fly at times and in directions that few others find attractive. For example, the day of the Super Bowl, there may be many empty leg flights into the host city that will pick up customers after the game. The day before and the day after the game-not likely.
Empty legs can provide a “win/win” for the private flyer and the charter operator—discounted pricing for you and unexpected revenue for the operator. But, as with anything else in private aviation, price shouldn’t be your most important consideration. Here are just a few points to consider before committing:
- Your first and foremost concern always is safety. Find out the specific operator, aircraft and crew you’ll be flying with. Do they have top safety ratings from services like Wyvern (Wingman) or ARG/US (Platinum)? How many hours do the pilots have flying that particular type of aircraft? What avionics and other safety equipment are on the aircraft?
- Most empty leg offers will list the type and model of aircraft, a particular departure date or a range of departure dates and point-to-point cities or airports. Often times, these dates and locations are meant to identify general preferences, but there may be flexibility, with the trade-off often reflected in pricing (more flexibility = higher pricing).
- Understand that empty legs can disappear. If a full fare inbound flight is canceled, the empty leg repositioning flight will be canceled. That sort of variability is just part of the deal. So you’ll need a Plan B, just in case.
- Pricing is often negotiable. Some providers even auction empty legs. But don’t expect or frankly, jump at, a crazy low price. (If it sounds too good to be true...) Make sure you understand whether the pricing is “all in” and guaranteed? If not, find out the nature and extent of any additional/variable costs.
- In some cases, the company advertising an empty leg is acting as a middleman, putting you and the charter operator together for a fee. Determine with whom you actually are contracting. If something goes wrong, you don’t want to be in the position of having the middleman and the operator each telling you to look to the other.
In sum, don’t be in a rush and don’t be so blinded by the advertised discounted price that you forget to do the proper due diligence. This isn’t like a flash sale on Groupon. You’re putting your life and the lives of your family members in the hands of an operator, its aircraft and pilots. As always, the three most important rules are: “Safety First,” “Buyer Beware” and “Get it in Writing.”
Side Note: If you’re paying full fare for a one-way charter flight, negotiate with the operator to receive a full or partial rebate if the operator sells the repositioning empty leg.
Editors Note: For some examples of costs, we reached out to Magellan Jets who provided some sample empty leg prices compared to normal market pricing:
|Journey||Jet Type||Empty Leg Pricing Range||Regular Pricing Range|
|New York - Florida||Light Jet||$7,500-$9,500||$11,000-$15,000|
|New York - Florida||Mid Jet||$9,000-$12,000||$14,000-$20,000|
|New York - Florida||Super-Mid Jet||$14,000-$20,000||$18,000-$28,000|
|New York - Florida||Heavy Jet||$15,000-$25,000||$28,000-$45,000|
|Los Angeles - Hawaii||Heavy Jet||$20,000-$35,000||$55,000-$75,000|
|New York - London||Heavy Jet||$40,000-$80,000||$95,000-$125,000|
Anthony Tivnan, President at Magellan noted “If your flight is business-related we strongly recommend against booking an empty leg. The 20-40% in potential savings could put an important meeting, worth much more than the savings, at high risk. “
Mike Farley at Private Jet Services stated “99% of what is marketed as an "empty leg" is a marketing ploy or often a bait and switch by "bedroom brokers." Larger aviation companies are doing their best to minimize empty legs as they represent inefficiency in our business model...that said they do exist from time to time.”
Mike continued “Our empty legs are marketed to our clients first. We want to ensure our client service team provides our clients with the first opportunity to take advantage of the positioning legs." And he added “Our pricing is dictated by how well the clients routing matches the repositioning leg. Perfect matching allows for steep discounts of 50-70% off normal pricing. If additional flying or alternate flight paths are needed- the discount may not be as steep.”