Saturday, September 24, 2011

Private planes for regular Joes: Social media, charter companies and brokers are opening the world of private jet travel to people at prices on par with first-class.

Article by: MICHELLE HIGGINS , New York Times
Updated: September 24, 2011 - 11:41 AM

Flying in a private jet may not be as far out of reach as you think. Though it's still not cheap, prices are rivaling first- and business-class tickets -- and even, occasionally, coach -- thanks in part to new websites, social media and a greater willingness by charter companies and private jet brokers to negotiate in an era of high fuel prices. 

Here's how you can land a seat on a private plane for less.

Search for last-minute, one-way discounts: Air Partner, a charter broker based in London, introduced www.emptysectors.com last year to help fill empty legs (when the aircraft flies without passengers back to base or between jobs) at discounted rates. Travelers can view which flights are available online but must call for pricing. Other brokers and private jet operators like JetSuite also make empty legs available to individual travelers, so it can pay to shop around.

"The dirty little secret of the industry is, about a third of our flights are empty," said Alex Wilcox, chief executive of JetSuite, based in Southern California, which began posting last-minute $499 deals on Facebook for empty legs on the company's four-passenger Embraer Phenom jet. "Say a Gulfstream pulls into San Francisco and is going back to Vegas empty," he said. "A few years ago, if you were to say, 'If I give you $500 will you take me and my family?' you would get laughed at." But the recession changed such attitudes, Wilcox said. Now, he said, more companies are saying, "Sure, it'll help pay for the gas."

But empty-leg flights involve a bit of a gamble. If the private jet owner's arrangements change (say, the client they were planning to meet in Miami cancels at the last minute), you're out of luck.

Split the cost through social media: Social media are also opening new avenues to private jet travel.

Last month, for example, JetSuite started SuiteShare, which allows a customer to charter a four-passenger aircraft and then offer seats that won't be needed through Facebook (facebook.com/jetsuiteair). Each time another customer joins your flight, the price everyone pays falls, though JetSuite makes a little more.

Here's how it works: A four-passenger jet from Oakland, Calif., to Las Vegas starts at $1,500. If a second person joins, you pay $750. If a third joins, you pay $375. While that may not be cheaper than simply buying a one-way first-class ticket from San Francisco (such seats were going for about $285, based on a recent online search), if a fourth person joins, the person who booked the charter gets to fly free. The other passengers pay $450, $600 and $750 respectively, based on booking order, and JetSuite makes an additional $300 on the deal.

Social Flights, a new collective buying company in Smyrna, Tenn., started an online service in February that uses social networking to help charter companies fill seats and travelers lower their costs by sharing a plane. Already 57 private plane operators have signed on.

Travelers register with the site, socialflights.com, and post messages to online groups called Travel Tribes, which are based in the same city or share similar interests -- for example, football fans who want to follow their team to the Super Bowl. If enough people want to travel to the same place at the same time, each passenger simply pays the cost of his seat.

SocialFlights also posts one-way empty legs. A recent search pulled up open seats from $200 between Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn., and $300 between Teterboro, N.J., and Big Flats, N.Y.

Use a broker to find you the best deal: If you don't have the time or inclination to hunt online for empty legs or to organize a charter flight, you can hire a broker to do it for you. For a commission, independent private jet brokers can act as your agent to solicit bids and negotiate the best rate from jet companies they have vetted.

They can also help walk you through the fine print of the contract. "If something happens with your child or your health and you can't fly, you need to have a reputable broker who can be your advocate," said Chet Dudzik Jr., president of JetWay Private Air. "If that broker or agent has a good relationship with the charter company, the chances are good you can cancel." In addition, he said, "We assume every aircraft won't take off, so we have a recovery aircraft in place," and no one is left on the ramp.

Even if flying private costs more than you'd like to pay, when you factor in all the hassles of commercial travel that you can avoid -- from long security lines to overcrowded airplanes to long drives to major airports -- some travelers may find the splurge worth it.

"Once you've had a taste of it, it's really hard to go back to commercial," said Katrina Garnett, founder of www.mylittleswans.com, a high-end travel site that partners with Lufthansa Private Jet, a brand of the European carrier, for connecting flights in Europe.>

Check safety ratings: Like commercial carriers, charter operators must adhere to government rules, called Federal Aviation Regulations. Still, it is a good idea to check the safety record of the private jet company you are considering flying on. While the number of private charters involved in crashes has dropped in recent years, accidents do occur more frequently outside the commercial mainstream of scheduled flights.

To ensure the plane and crew you're getting are up to snuff, ask for an Argus TripCHEQ or Wyvern PASS report, offered by the two largest private jet safety firms -- Argus International Inc. and Wyvern Consulting Ltd. -- which audit charter companies and conduct background checks on crew members, making sure pilots have the requisite number of flying hours. Either your broker or the private jet company itself (if you're booking directly) should be able to provide this.

http://www.startribune.com

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