In this article, I want to explain the differences in how aircraft for various jet card programs are sourced. Of the subscribers to Private Jet Card Comparisons, I estimate about 75% are flying via on-demand charter, but after getting tired of the work it takes for each trip to compare quotes, quality of providers and varying charter terms, they are seeking an easier solution but don’t necessarily want the long-term commitment of leases and fractional shares, hence jet cards. The benefit of jet card programs is once you choose the right program, arranging your flight is generally one phone call or can even be handled online or through an app. Of course, finding the right provider and program takes a bit of work. We’ve identified over 65 places that the card programs vary, which depending on your flying needs can be critical or incidental.
So back to the subject of the day – the difference in how jet card providers source the planes you will be flying on. There are four different types of jet card products when it comes to sourcing – broker, fractional fleet, managed fleet and owned fleet jet cards.
Broker jet cards generally refer to companies that don’t own or operate aircraft. You’ll find a disclaimer on their websites along the lines, that “Wonderful Jets arranges flights on behalf of its charter clients with FAR Part 135 air carriers that exercise full operational control of charter flights at all times. Flights will be operated by FAR Part 135 direct air carriers that have been certified to provide service for Wonderful Jets clients that meet all FAA safety standards.”
I say generally because operators also act as brokers. For example, XOJET, which operates a fleet it owns, also sells jet cards where it serves as a broker. In its case, that’s partly because its owned fleet is exclusively super-midsize Bombardier Challenger 300 and Cessna Citation X jets, but to cater to a wider market, it sells light jet and midsize cabin jet cards acting as a broker. Virtually all operators – managed fleet, owned fleet, and fractional fleet – act as brokers from time to time when they need to go off-fleet for extra capacity during peak times or sometimes just when they don’t have one of their aircraft positioned for a revenue flight.
You will sometimes hear that phrase “closed fleet.” This is a marketing term some broker programs use to connote that they are not just chartering from the more than 2,000 operators and over 7,000 aircraft that are eligible under Part 135. Instead, they have developed relationships with a specific group of operators, which sometimes includes just select aircraft from that operator. Some of the standards for sourcing operators that you will see mentioned are ARGUS, Wyvern, and IS-BAO, which are each third-party agencies that rate operators based on their own varying criteria. You’ll also often find some broker cards have additional levels of scrutiny, which may include hands-on oversight. For example, Sentient Jet has inspectors at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles and Teterboro, the main private aviation airport serving New York City. The idea is the aircraft that it uses from its closed fleet of operators are frequently passing through both airports, so its inspector can check the aircraft while they are on the ground.
If you are considering buying a jet card from a broker, in addition to various policies on fees and usage, you are going to want to focus on what standards they have for sourcing aircraft and the pilots who will fly you. While business aviation in the U.S. is statistically very safe, it still is a worthwhile point of discussion, particularly if you are flying to or from mountain airports or other remote airports that pilots might not be familiar with on a day-to-day basis. While the cheapest rate doesn’t necessarily reflect less safe, aircraft maintenance, pilot salaries, and training are expensive so operators that invest more in those areas need to reflect it in their pricing. Perhaps they save in marketing and other cost areas but make sure you are comfortable with the answers you are getting.
One last point, while we reference here Part 135, each country has its own national governing body certifying which private aircraft are eligible to be offered for paid charter flights. You should expect a broker card provider to be knowledgeable about these as well especially if any are covered in your primary service area.
Broker programs tend to sell by category where you buy into an aircraft size – light jet, midsize, super midsize, large or even turboprops, but then are usually able to upgrade or downgrade the aircraft size base on the mission, often without any extra fees, generally referred to as interchange fees. This means if the number of people in your party varies significantly or you tend to have a mix or longer and shorter flights, a broker jet card might be the best solution. While folks looking for a specific aircraft type might not be a fit for most broker programs, there are exceptions, namely Magellan Jets and OneFlight International which offer fixed rate, guaranteed availability jet cards for specific aircraft types. Another place broker cards tend to excel is the ability to have guaranteed multiple aircraft at the same time under a single card, meaning if multiple members of your family will be flying or you are buying for company use, broker cards may have an advantage.
Because brokers are sourcing from various operators, you are going to get different aircraft types within a size category and even configurations, particularly with super midsize and large-cabin jets where the seating layout is based on what the owner of the aircraft selected. You might find two of the exact same aircraft types, one with couches, the other with just club seating, and certainly differences in in-flight technology be it entertainment or maps.
With broker cards, you will also find some have 90-minute segment and 120 minute daily minimums even for light jets or turboprops, so if you do lots of short flights, make sure you review minimums when comparing card programs.
You are also one step removed from the operator, which in fact doesn’t mean much if your jet card provider has its act together. In the broker jet card segment there are small providers that range from mom and pop shops with five or six employees and several dozen clients to large firms such as Sentient Jet, which is part of Directional Aviation (Flexjet, Skyjet, PrivateFly, Nextant Aerospace) selling about $300 million in cards per year.
In other words, when dealing with a broker, you need to do some extra due diligence as a beautiful website might not mean much. With smaller brokers or companies – including operators where you can verify financial strength – I strongly recommend requiring an escrow account. Lastly, since brokers are using various operators who each maybe sourcing planes from a variety of owners, confirm that their pet policies provide guaranteed access for the type and number of pets you have at your contracted rate.
Fractional fleet jet cards are simply jet cards sold from unused inventory of fractional share operators. NetJets and Flexjet are the only two national fractional operators, and there are several regional fractional programs that also sell jet cards. Both Flexjet and NetJets say about 20% of their flights are on behalf of jet card clients. And in a trick question, flights for fractional owners take place under Part 91 while for jet-card users fall under Part 135, so yes, an operator can hold multiple certificates the same aircraft can operate under both.
Fractional fleets generally have several aircraft types with each type being configured the same way, the idea being that for the fractional shareowners they get a standardized experience making it closer to full ownership. With fractional jet card programs, you are for the most part buying into a specific aircraft type. If you love the Gulfstream GIV, NetJets offers it in 25 or 50-hour jet cards. For the popular Embraer Phenom 300, Flexjet features it in its jet card programs. If you want a specific aircraft type, you will want to review the fractional programs. If you are toying around with fractional ownership or a lease, a jet card is a good way to see if you like the provider and service levels. Fractional programs also tend to have lower daily and segment minimums, typically 60 minutes.
This is a tricky one. Some will say pricing for fractional jet cards is higher than other options, although this isn’t universally true. Others will say jet card customers who buy in 25 and 50-hour denominations are second-class citizens to fractional share or lease customers who have a commitment of multi-million dollar contracts that can last five years or more. Whether that’s true or not, the various terms I’ve seen from fractional jet cards in terms of lead time for reservations and cancellations, as well as peak day policies and even number of peak days, are generally in line with other types of card products. During peak days will jet-card users be the first to get sourced out to other operators? It’s hard to say. While it might be easy to say yes, it’s just as likely that decisions will be made based on which aircraft within the fleet are best positioned for all customers, shareowners or card fliers.
A managed fleet operator is an operator that manages aircraft for individual owners who then make their aircraft available for jet cards sales when they aren’t using them. Three of the most prominent companies in this category are Delta Private Jets, Jet Linx Aviation and Jet Aviation.
It’s relatively easy to do due diligence from a safety and operations perspective as you are dealing with the operator. Many management contracts are based on the management company selling charter hours onto that aircraft, so jet card customers are an important part of the business formula. Managed fleet operators tend to also sell by aircraft size category, but allow customers to trade up or down like brokers so if you have a variety of party sizes and types of missions, managed fleet jet cards might make sense. Some like ProspAir Jet Charter, which sells jet cards on its parent Dumont Aviation’s owned and managed fleet, enables customers to buy cards onto specific aircraft. In the case of Delta Private Jets, while it sells by category, you can choose by size category for each trip without any interchange fees. It also lists each aircraft in its fleet on its website, including interior photos and even seat maps so there is a high degree of transparency.
The actual aircraft you will fly on will vary based on which aircraft are under management, so like with broker cards, you will see a variety of types and configurations. Another question to ask with managed fleet operators – as well as fractional and owned fleet providers – is what percentage of jet card flights are operated by third parties. Business aviation flying is peaks and valleys, so at times owners are using their aircraft, managed fleet providers need to act as brokers to fulfill their jet card commitments. Since management companies operate aircraft based on restrictions imposed by the jet owners, if you travel with pets, again triple check that they will guarantee an aircraft for you and Fido at your contracted rate.
Owned fleets refer to jet card programs supplied by providers that own their own fleets – although they don’t necessarily operate them. Yes, it’s confusing. For example, Wheels Up owns its fleet of nearly 100 Beechcraft King Air 350i, Cessna Citation Excel/XLS, and Citation X aircraft, however, it has contracted to GAMA Aviation to operate its aircraft. VistaJet which is known for its shiny silver uber luxury super midsize and large-cabin private jets is an EU based company, so in the U.S. it contracts with Jet Aviation to operate its U.S. registered aircraft since foreign ownership laws prevent it.
With owned fleet jet cards, you know who will you be flying you and you know which aircraft are available. Owned fleet programs allow you to either select the aircraft you want for each mission, or you buy into a specific type and are able to change based on your needs, although there is sometimes an interchange fee and other restrictions.
If you want the same type of interior configuration to specify a specific aircraft type, Owned Fleet jet card programs should be a focus. With an owned fleet, you are most likely to find a generous blanket policy on pets, since the operator makes the decisions and doesn’t need approval from the aircraft owner. If WiFi is a must, you are again likely to find connectivity fleet wide. Like fractional jet cards, you are also likely to see more generous minimums, typically only 60 minutes per segment and even per day, whereas broker cards often range from 90 to 180 minutes for super-midsize and large-cabin jets.
My first question would be what percentage of jet card flights are off fleet. While going off-fleet might mean an upgrade to larger cabin aircraft, if you have pet travel requirements or must have WiFi, it’s worth making sure that those requests will be accommodated off-fleet at your contracted rate. Another disadvantage of owned fleet jet cards is that you may be limited in the types of aircraft you can access at your contracted rate. For example, VistaJet doesn’t have light and midsize aircraft whereas Wheels Up doesn’t have large-cabin jets.
While it’s easy to generalize about each jet card type and sketch out some advantages and disadvantages, moving around multi-million dollar aluminum tubes on notice as short as eight hours while dealing with pilot duty time, weather, air traffic control, scheduled and unscheduled maintenance and so on creates lots of complexities. In discussing what percent of the time owned fleet, fractional fleet and even managed fleet jet card providers fulfill jet card member flights via third-party charter, the general answer is they try to minimize it. This seems to be particularly true for those providers that are selling the benefits of flying on their aircraft since outsourcing flights mitigate the original reason for buying from them.
I get to analyze the needs for quite a few subscribers who use our VIP Jet Card Decider service and one thing I can say is in quite a few cases there is no single provider that will perfectly fit all your needs. While the reason to buy a jet card makes sense, keep in mind that you may still find it advantageous to hit the on-demand charter market for certain trips. Many jet cards don’t expire funds or will allow you to roll them over, so, for the most part, you won’t have to worry about using hours before you lose them.