When one looks at the jet card market, there are clearly a lot of providers and lots of concepts percolating. Since many are new and they are privately held companies, it’s difficult to tell how much traction they are getting. At the same time, there is a core of established players, and that includes Sentient Jet, which claims to have invented the jet card circa 1999. It started when an entrepreneur jet owner was frustrated his management company wasn’t generating enough charter hours. Last week, Private Jet Card Comparisons spent a day at Sentient’s new headquarters in Braintree, Massachusetts, just outside Boston to take an intense look at the company. It is part of Kenn Ricci’s Cleveland-based Directional Aviation empire. Think Flexjet, but as Sentient’s CEO Andrew Collins puts it, “We’re great neighbors, but we don’t live in each other’s houses.”
In case you don’t want to read this entire report, the bottom line is Sentient checks off all the boxes if you are shopping for a jet card, except if you are looking for a turboprop or piston solution. Within a month it will be announcing a Super Mid card with a WiFi guarantee taking away a blind spot in its program. At the same time some Private Jet Card Comparisons readers have told me you prefer flying on a company owned, fractional or managed fleet, which means you would be focused on the likes of Delta Private Jets, Flexjet, Jet Aviation, Jet Linx Aviation, JetSuite, NetJets, Nicholas Air, VistaJet, Wheels Up and XOJET instead of the myriad of broker cards.
If flying third party fleets is your concern, Sentient makes a strong case that it should be grouped with actual operators if that is one of your criteria. Circa 2004 when Thomas H. Lee Partners acquired Sentient, it brought in Starwood Hotels & Resorts’ CMO Steve Hankin as CEO. Around the same time there was a series of private aviation accidents, including the crash in Houston of a private jet on its way to pick up former President George H.W. Bush and another in Montrose, Colorado that took the life of 14-year old Teddy Ebersol, son of actress Susan Saint James and then NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol. According to executives who were there at the time, Hankin, without an aviation background, wanted a way to establish a higher level of safety protocols than just relying on standards of operators it was using. Friends at the Federal Aviation Administration reportedly told Hankin at considerable expense Sentient should set-up a safety oversight program similar to what fractional operators have. Seeing that Sentient as a broker can’t exert operational control over operators or crew, the task was pretty complicated. It’s also one reason Sentient has a head count close to 150.
Chief Safety Officer Charles H. Starkowsky came from Midwest Express Airlines, a highly regarded niche carrier that started life as the flight department for Kimberly-Clark Corporation. Adam Hohulin, a former commercial pilot at Continental Airlines’ ExpressJet unit, was recruited from Flight Options, where he was managing operations, hence bringing direct experience from a fractional flight department. On a separate track, Collins had joined a bit earlier, starting in product management and web marketing. Much of the senior management at Sentient has been with the company more than a decade, meaning there is significant stability.
In terms of the planes you will be flying on, Sentient created what is referred to as a closed fleet of aircraft. Out of the more than 7,000 Part 135 aircraft that can be sourced for charter, Sentient has certified about 1,100 planes from around 160 operators. With the operators it uses, not all aircraft of each operator are part of the pool Sentient uses. Hohulin says that Sentient will not go outside of Sentient Certified aircraft under any situation. It also audits aircraft it uses twice a year with inspectors based in Los Angeles, Teterboro and Westchester County Airport, a good way to catch jets coming and going through these high traffic ports.
Sentient has an additional team of five directors who spend much of their time on the road visiting the operators Sentient uses. During those visits, in addition to technical and operational audits, the company takes photographs of cabin interiors and verifies amenities the operator has listed for each aircraft such as WiFi. Hohulin says the Sentient Certified safety program is built like an airplane with multiple redundancies. Crews for each flight are run through the system three times before departure. Average flying time for captains is 9,400 hours. The company has a Safety Advisory Council chaired by Tom Haueter, former NTSB Office of Aviation Safety Director and Greg Phillips, former lead investigator. Hohulin says it provides an extra resource for him and his team. Haueter was profiled in a 2012 Tampa Bay Times article titled, “This bureaucrat may have saved your life” for his work with Phillips on the accident investigation of USAir Flight 427 outside of Pittsburgh.
Hohulin says the company also re-inspects its operators after material changes, such as ownership, new chief pilot or executive staff. He says that these changes can impact culture at an operator, and Sentient would prefer to put that operator on hold until it can review the company first hand. The comprehensive internal safety structure at Sentient means you won’t see it using third party rating systems such as ARGUS, Wyvern Wingman and IS-BAO in its marketing. Starkowski says he enjoys whenever a prospect wants to talk to him about Sentient’s safety processes, which is five or six times a month.
Sentient Jet claims to be the largest jet card seller. It has 6,000 members, all paid says Collins, and the minimum buy-in is now approximately $130,000. It generates over $250 million in card sales per year. Having been there when the company was selling 500 cards per year, Collins believes there is potential to grow to $500 million, but having its current revenue makes it a significant customer for the operators it works with. This gives consumers some advantageous policies compared to smaller broker card sellers as well as fleet operators whose policies are built around the capacity of the fleets they own or manage.
Sentient starts plotting its flying more than 30 days out trying to tie together as many customer flights in a line as possible. Sentient’s cancellation deadline is only 10 hours, and executives say that’s because while brokers typically book aircraft for individual flights here and there or single customer trips, Sentient’s girth means that it might be buying 30 hours over a week on a specific aircraft. It means it has the flexibility to move departure times without incurring additional expenses since the before and after flights are also for Sentient cardholders about 50% of the time. Hohulin says for a large percentage of customers, it is able to change flights even within the 10-hour window without penalty, making Sentient a good choice for those of you who want or need flexibility. When there are extra expenses, it simply quotes the difference to the customer. By comparison, Delta Private Jets, Private Jet Services Group and Air Partner have a 24-hour notice period. Magellan Jets is 72 hours. Some programs stretch out to 15 days in terms of canceling your flight, which is fine if you know your plans will not change.
Sentient’s 10-hour lead-time for regular reservations is at the better end of the scale as are its 21 peak days and 5% peak day surcharge. There’s a 15% roundtrip discount as well. Other advantageous elements of the Sentient program include no minimum age for unaccompanied minors, no expiration of hours, no CPI escalator and no fuel surcharges. There is also an option to have an escrow account, however, Collins says customers who start with one often switch after several flights since it requires three signatures for every flight thus taking away some of the convenience jet cards deliver. We still like that the option is there.
A key area of Sentient’s program is its division of categories by Preferred (manufactured in the year 2000 or newer) and Select (prior to 2000). The difference for a Light Jet is $15,000, and in the low $20,000 range for Mid and Super-Mid, meaning less than $1,000 per hour. It’s nearly a $65,000 variance for Heavy Jets. Collins says customers mainly travel in the program they buy-in, perhaps to tamp down expectation of upgrades. We were also a bit surprised Collins claimed he doesn’t use the Flexjet fleet very much. We sort of assumed since FlexJet only has the Embraer 300 and Challenger 300 in its card program, Sentient might be a nice way to ride those very nice new Red Label aircraft FlexJet is getting. It does highlight the place that many card programs don’t work well, and that’s if you need a specific aircraft make to be happy, not just a category type.
Another place Sentient reminds of a fractional provider is with its lifestyle program. During the Richard Santulli era at NetJets, the unit of Berkshire Hathaway established fractional ownership as more than a way to get from point A to B but as a lifestyle. Its “owners” were lavished with concert invites, VIP parties at The Super Bowl, Art Basel and partnerships with various luxury purveyors. Under Collins, Sentient provides his customers a 60-page catalog of special offers such as $2,500 off Roberto Coin jewelry priced at $5,000 or more, $1,000 off purchases in-store at Saks Fifth Avenue when you spend $3,000, $15,000 off a Richard Mille watch and more offers to that effect. Typical perks include second night free at Peninsula Hotels in New York and Chicago, Meadowood in Napa Valley and two free nights at Sea Island, Boca Raton Resort and others. We tallied up over $35,000 in hard savings off what you would normally pay. Sentient via a partnership with Quintevents also gives VIP access to parties during the Super Bowl, Masters, Kentucky Derby, Barrett-Jackson and The Players Championship. Look for Sentient to dip its toes into the private jet shuttle market around some of its partners.
Other perks include private gallery tours from Sotheby’s and guaranteed reservations at the restaurants of Bobby Flay, who happens to be a Sentient Jet ambassador. Collins uses the celebrity chef as an example that its partnerships are more than words on paper but are engaged both ways. As part of a breakfast for Sentient customers before The Kentucky Derby (Sentient is a sponsor), Flay was up at 5 a.m. in the kitchen cooking and then worked the line serving and chatting up diners, not just the typical step and repeat photo opportunity. It also happens Flay is a horse owner and while golf has long been the sponsorship de rigor for private aviation, Collins has gone deep in horse racing and is looking at other points of passion where he can develop partnership programs.
Collins says Sentient’s digital strategy is to meet customers where they are. That means being able to book flights via its App and get help via chat as well as providing customers 24/7/365 support by dedicated service teams. Like many private aviation companies, the team prides itself on anticipative service and figuring out whatever it takes to help customers out, from celebrations to when there are family losses. The stories range from helping customers with animal rescues to being on alert for an adoption to be approved, then making sure they were able to get a plane quickly, decorated in the appropriate baby color.
Shortcomings of the Sentient program include that your money is nonrefundable, but then again your hours don’t expire and you get a one-year rate lock, and rates do not necessarily increase annually. There is no card offering with fewer than 25 hours, something Collins says is intentional. He says it takes customer commitment to be able to provide the level of services and safety oversight that Sentient does. Sister company SkyJet, which offers on-demand charter is located in the same office space as Sentient and falls under Collins.
At the Braintree office, there is a sense of humble confidence, however, it’s clear that the Sentient way is not about lots of promotional offerings or gimmicks. “There’s no such thing as two free hours. We aren’t planning an eight and three-quarters hours card,” Collins quips when speaking about the plethora of deals. That doesn’t mean there aren’t offers to be had. During a recent sailing event in Newport, Rhode Island Sentient was sponsoring, it gave a $2,500 dining credit for cards sold on-site.
Collins estimates about 35% of his customers have multiple solutions, usually when they first come to Sentient, but he says, over time, they gravitate towards the 65% who do pretty much all their flying with Sentient, which is made easier since the company allows cardholders to access multiple aircraft at one time and doesn’t charge an interchange fee for upgrades or downgrades.