Dan Drohan, CEO, Solairus Aviation
Not too long ago, chartered jet travel was only for the affluent traveler, with easy-to-reach airports, quiet terminals, no lines or long waits, reliable departure times, and a peaceful flight.
Local airports are starting seeing an uptick in charter travel, with the advent of charter membership travel in Napa County, offering more convenience and lower fares, and a new corporate hangar, and the arrival of a new charter airline in Sonoma County this fall.
“Flying a chartered aircraft is a cool business tool, we see it all the time. If you fly a commercial airline, you are on their time. It limits you as a business person. A chartered plane flies on your schedule,” said Josh Hochberg, owner, Sonoma Jet Center, located at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.
Hochberg said he is seeing an increase in both individual and business flying. Sonoma Jet Center, which manages and services private airplanes, recently completed a new 21,000-square-foot hangar, exclusively for a local corporate tenant. Cost of the hanger was $4 million, and Hochberg emphatically stated he plans to build more hangars in the future, for both individual and corporate tenants.
KaiserAir also manages and services private airplanes at the Sonoma Airport and in Oakland. They also offer charter service. While most of the travel out of Oakland is for business, in Sonoma, travel is about half business, half leisure, said Gregg Rorabaugh, vice president, KaiserAir ground services and administration.
“In Sonoma, the population growth is creating an opportunity for businesses to purchase their own aircraft,” he said, adding KaiserAir has expansion plans there.
Negotiations are also underway with another charter company to be based at the airport, pending an October decision, according to Jon Stout, airport manager. The company, which he declined to name, is currently seeking permits for a 14,000 square foot hanger.
In 2015, across nationwide private aviation segments, market analyst Argus reported a flight activity increase of 2.9 percent and projects a similar size increase moving forward into 2016.
A survey carried out by industry magazine Corporate Jet Investor found that nearly one in four (23 per cent) of private aviation companies said that the growth of membership schemes and online charter is fueling demand for jets, while companies are becoming increasingly likely to opt for jet membership scheme for business travel.
While quality used to be the major driver in the charter flight marketplace, now, it’s also price. And while paying $4,500 an hour (or more) for a private plane is still relatively common, upstart companies are now allowing travelers to book single seats rather than entire planes—making charter travel relatively affordable, and especially attractive to those who fly for business.
San Diego-based Surf Air offers an all-you-can-fly club memberships within a specific region. Members pay a flat-rate monthly rate to fly regularly-scheduled flights on six-eight-seat single-engine turboprops between a group of cities at fixed departure times. Customers get guaranteed reservations for a certain number of flights and space-available ones for the rest of the month. After a $500 fee to join, members pay a monthly fee of $1,750.
A one-time trial flight is available for $500 one-way or $1,000 round-trip.
Members can book flights by smartphone and need arrive only 20 minutes before flight time to be checked in by a concierge.
Founded 2013, Surf Air flies 17 daily flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Membership also includes choice of flights to Napa, Burbank, Hawthorne, San Carlos, Oakland, San Jose, Santa Barbara, Truckee, Carlsbad, Monterey, Sacramento, Palm Springs, and Las Vegas.
Though these clubs focus primarily on frequent business travelers, they are starting to broaden their appeal by adding leisure destinations and sometimes offering guest passes and discounted memberships for families.
Last year, Surf Air expressed interest in flying to Sonoma, from Los Angeles County and San Carlos in the South Bay but instead opted to fly to Napa. The airline flies weekends between Los Angeles and Napa, for mostly leisure travel, according to company spokespersons. Passenger loads vary from month to month, as visitors travel for seasonal events.
Although companies like Surf Air make charter service more affordable for the average flyer, luxury private charters, with prices in the thousands of dollars per hour, are still flourishing.
Based in Petaluma, Solairus Aviation manages about 100 business and individually owned aircraft nationally, and 25 between Sonoma and Napa.
Solairus provides each client with a team of four staff members, offers catered food service, and special orders, whether it’s take-out from Burger King or top shelf whiskey.
“We don’t play on price. We are the most expensive in town. We believe we’re worth it,” Drohan said.
Between 2014 and 2016 Solairus flew 228 flights out of Napa, where it has a base, and 22 out of Sonoma, where it doesn’t.
Since starting in 2009, the company has had “rocket ship” growth rate, Drohan said.
In 2015, Solairus expanded its office space in Petaluma by 20 percent, along with opening a new office in Purchase, N.Y. The company has 35 locations around the country, most of which are small offices in private hangars.
“Many are surprised that a global player in a big industry is here in little Petaluma,” Drohan said.
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