Nicholas Air’s Southern charm and fleet of modern private jets have helped the Mississippi-based fractional and charter operator expand nationwide
Jet card and fractional share options range from the Pilatus PC-12 and Phenom 100 to the CJ3, Phenom 300, Latitude and Challenger 300
In an industry that is often in turmoil or controversy, since founding the company in 1997, Nicholas Correnti remains the CEO nearly a quarter-century later.
While companies in the sector seem to come and go, executives and customers say continuity, a personal approach, and a state-of-the-art fleet have helped Nicholas Air thrive in a competitive market.
Recently, Private Jet Card Comparisons caught up with Correnti and vice president, sales & marketing Peder Von Harten.
The duo discussed how the Oxford, Mississippi-based operator is moving forward in these challenging times. They also reflected on the company’s growth, its diverse private jet and turboprop options, multiple jet card programs, and its unique group of customer-ambassadors, including an Oscar-winning actress and two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback.
How is Nicholas Air doing during this crisis?
Peder von Harten: Well, certainly no company has been impervious to the effects of the past two months, but from where I sit, Nicholas Air has done substantially better than some other brands in the industry. I believe that our corporate structure, being privately owned by our founder, CEO, the location of our corporate headquarters in Oxford (Mississippi), and the (travel) patterns of our member base have proven to be positions of strength due in large part to not being concentrated in the major metro areas that have seen the largest incidences of business disruption.
Our weekly footprint spans from Atlantic to Pacific, Canada to Central America, and into the Caribbean given the diversity of our fleet– Peder Von Harten, vice president, sales & marketing, Nicholas Air
Many brands, being based in those large metro areas, have seen serious displacement of their staff, and disruption of their operations, as well as the virtual elimination of all flight traffic in and out of those areas. Our members have continued to fly, and our operation team has remained in our offices since day one to ensure that our first-class service levels remained unchanged.
With the current situation in mind, is Nicholas Air doing anything extra in terms of cleaning or COVID-19 risk prevention?
Nicholas J. Correnti: Even pre-pandemic, we had a division of our company that was dedicated solely to ensuring our aircraft are detailed frequently by way of mobile units that crisscross the country every day.
The fact of the matter is that our standard procedures for years now have included the sanitization and deep-cleaning of aircraft by way of our detailing team, and the incredible amount of dedication by our flight crews as well. Our crews take exceptional pride in their aircraft and its one of the many reasons why the Nicholas Air fleet continues to be as well-regarded as it is.
Since Mid-March, those efforts have multiplied as we spent a great deal of money to bring aircraft into our facilities, take them out of rotation for a couple days, and perform an even deeper clean on them. It’s no simple task given we have remained flying throughout all of this.
Lastly, prior to every leg, our pilots complete a cleaning routine on the airplane and are immediately able to reassure the oncoming passengers of the exact time that airplane was last sanitized and cleaned for their comfort. Given the good amount of flying we are doing each day, this means that cabins are taken care of before every member flight.
Tell us a bit about the history of Nicholas Air?
PVH: This company has been around a lot longer than most people think, over two decades in fact. It is quite an accomplishment given the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ nature of many companies entering the space, but our staying power is largely based on our corporate structure and being able to make responsible, calculated moves along the way.
It’s not always about chasing the shiny new thing in the business, but rather staying true to your values and your core initiatives. Leadership plays a huge role in that as well, and without digging too deep, our CEO is the longest-tenured at any single company in this industry, which speaks volumes to our stability along the way. As anyone in aviation knows, you don’t get to stay in this business for this long unless the foundation is incredibly solid and you have made all the right moves along the way.
What differentiates Nicholas Air from competitors?
NJC: Quality and Service. No question about it. We are maniacal about taking care of our members and making sure their customer service experience, both on the phone and planeside, is unlike anything they’ve seen in this industry before.
We train our people extensively in aviation of course, but we also partner with some of the top hospitality organizations on the planet to share best practices and up the ante when it comes to how quality customer service is done.
There are a lot of people who use Southern Hospitality as some form of a punch line, but we live and breathe it every day. You’d be hard-pressed to find kinder, more genuine people in this industry to work with each day.
I know you are privately held, but can you tell us a bit about the size of the company, number employees?
NJC: Yes, we are 100% privately owned, and that is a great thing for us. We aren’t private equity-backed, which means that we don’t need a fund manager’s approval to go and pivot in order to meet market demands, and additionally, don’t have union interference with our people.
It is a bigger company than most think as well, with well over 100 full-time employees including our pilot group, all of whom are full-time employees and dedicated solely to the Nicholas Air fleet.
We are one of the largest owner/operators in the jet card space specifically (Editor’s note: Using Argus Traqpak data counting fully owned and fractional fleets, Private Jet Card Comparisons pegs Nicholas Air in the top five or six), so elements like operational control, quality standards, and fleet growth are part of our DNA at a time when others are contracting their business out, shedding payroll, or pursuing some asset-light model because it removes them from the ultimate aviation responsibility of operational control.
Simply put, we are the real deal. I’m not sure of any other aviation company in this space that has 23 years of accident-free operations, owns and operates a fleet of new aircraft, and has the same owner and leadership since it was founded. We have stability in our organization, and this allows us to do what many other companies in this sector cannot.
You offer jet cards, leases, fractional ownership, and management. Are there any areas that are a particular focus?
NJC: The jet card is surely a strong focus given the current environment, but the lease program and management programs are always of interest and make up a consistent base of new business. Our jet card is just very simple for the consumer to understand, and I have seen a drastic shift of people moving away from the fractional model and going into a Nicholas Air card product.
Let’s face it, the fractional model is majorly flawed, and I think irreparably broken, which the consumer is becoming more and more aware of. We see a lot of new customers leaving large fractional companies and going with programs like ours simply because they are unsure of tying up capital for several years, unsure of what the political and tax environment will look like after all of this, and frankly, they are tired of overpaying by millions of dollars over the life of those fractions.
For the fractional company, they make money hand over fist when you factor in the inflated fractional share price, which is well over the actual value of the aircraft. There are high management fees, and then pile on hourly rates and fuel surcharges, and before you know it, you’re paying $10,000 per hour when all along you thought you were only paying $7,000 per hour. The consumer has figured this out, and as such, we continue to see the demand for programs such as ours which are more transparent.
What’s the profile of your customers, including geography, the type of flying they do, where they are flying, etc.?
PVH: Our customer profile ranges from retired executives, entrepreneurs, celebrities, athletes, and all the way up to Fortune 500 companies. Traditionally, the majority of Nicholas Air’s Member base has been east of the Rockies, but with the expansion of our fleet, referrals from our members to their friends, and people from coast to coast looking for a change in their flying relationships, our business is truly a national and international brand.
Our weekly footprint spans from Atlantic to Pacific, Canada to Central America, and into the Caribbean given the diversity of our fleet. Our corporate headquarters and brand-new state-of-the-art Member Operations Center is proudly based in Mississippi.
You also have some high-profile ambassadors. How are they are helping get the word out?
PVH: Yes, we have great supporters! With brand ambassadors like Nicole Kidman, Eli Manning, Steve Stricker, and others being very public about their relationship with us, private flyers in all areas of the country have become aware of the aircraft-quality, service level, and efficient program options we offer and have come to us seeking an alternative to other options.
Brand ambassadors with Nicholas Air have all remained paying members of our program and through their passion for our brand and the deep relationships we have with them and their teams, they have graciously offered their likeness and words in support of us.
I think that’s unique in an industry where other aviation brands pay handsome sums of money to celebrities to push content, use their likeness, or portray a relationship of sorts. We don’t do that here at Nicholas Air and we do not believe our members should have to subsidize a celebrity’s air travels.
Can you talk to about the fleet – the types of aircraft and access?
NJC: The fleet is possibly the most unique blend of aircraft that you will find in an owned and operated fleet given that it covers all ends of the spectrum, particularly in a market going forward that likely won’t favor long-haul international flying.
Having the (Pilatus) PC-12 in a jet card for the short-haul or cost-conscious flyer, and transitioning upwards to the Phenom 100, the (Citation) CJ3, the Phenom 300, the Citation Latitude, and the Challenger 300, all show the range of options a member has on a trip by trip basis.
Our members choose with each trip the aircraft type they want to fly on, rather than being forced onto one type only or having no ability to choose what airplane model they are on with programs that are category-specific versus aircraft specific. Our members come to us because they want consistency. When you book a trip and request a Phenom 300, you get a Phenom 300, unlike many companies where you can only book based on category such as Light Jet. One day you may get a 2000 Beechjet and another day a 2010 Learjet. There’s no consistency with programs like that.
What about the configurations?
NJC: Our Phenom 300 fleet holds eight passengers comfortably in the cabin, plus an additional seat in the lavatory if a ninth seat is needed for a child or smaller adult. This is a distinct advantage for us on the Phenom 300, allowing a Member to fit more people onboard without being forced to upgrade into a larger airplane as they would elsewhere. It is the perfect balance between aircraft capability and sensible economics.
For the new entrant into the market, the Phenom 100 is the sensible solution for those that are needing an economical airplane for low passenger counts or short-haul flying, but desire to be on a jet for its speed, service ceiling, and comfort. The Phenom 100 continues to show high demand, and in recent weeks, that has increased as new flyers enter the market.
What about pilot training, operations, and safety standards?
NJC: We are fortunate that many of our current pilots have incredible pedigrees, ranging from former airline captains wanting a more stable and enjoyable way of life, to combat pilots who have completed their service to our country and are looking to fly for a brand who upholds the same standards of honesty, integrity, and safety that they prescribe to in our military. Our flight training is conducted at Ivy League centers such as FlightSafety and CAE, while being supplemented here on-site at Nicholas Air Academy. Nicholas Air Academy is the confluence between pilot CRM programs, industry best practices, tabletop scenarios, and the elite customer service training we put our pilots through.
How do your trips work? Is it a floating fleet?
PVH: By nature of the program, the fleet floats around the country, but we have always spent a lot of resources to continually bring the aircraft to our base locations throughout the country to ensure that they are detailed, sanitized, and stay in pristine condition for the enjoyment and safety of our members. It’s incredibly important to us that these airplanes are seen by our detailers often, and even more so now given pandemics and the increase of allergens in our society. Our leadership is passionate about maintaining the cleanest and highest quality fleet in the business and the feedback from our Membership is that we’ve succeeded.
You have a unique jet card program with options to buy by deposit, hours, or membership, then pay-as-you-go. How do I know which one is right for me?
NJC: In theory, our three jet card options are all the same. It just depends on the customer’s mindset. Our BLUE Card is aircraft specific but still gives the ability to interchange between the other aircraft types in the fleet when needed. The RISE card is deposit based with set hourly rates depending on which aircraft type you request for each trip. The SMART card is pay-as-you-go for the less frequent flyer.
In any of our programs, our members get to choose the specific aircraft type they desire for the trip, allowing them to maximize their dollars, maximize their efficiency, and to enjoy a much greater level of consistency and service than they’ve seen elsewhere.
In terms of policies for your jet card program, are there any specific areas you can highlight that give you an advantage?
NJC: Simplicity. We make it very easy to join. You don’t need to spend thousands for your attorney to review a 20-page contract. We keep it simple.
What about specifics?
PVH: Certainly, the peak day program must be in the mix as a true benefit there. Not only does Nicholas Air have a relatively few number of peak days, but the guaranteed booking window is from my vantage point the most generous peak day policy in the business. Our pet policy, while strictly following the guidance from the FAA, enables our passengers to bring their pets with them onboard. While some operators will limit the way passengers travel with pets or exclude them entirely, we know first-hand that pets are a member of the family and as such, should always be welcome on board.
I know these are different times, but what are your future plans for expansion? Are there any particular areas of the fleet you plan to grow?
NJC: I don’t feel the timing is wrong to expand the business, albeit responsibility. The truth of the matter is that many brands have made some very costly bets in recent years that could prove financially catastrophic, but that has never been or will be Nicholas Air’s brand vision.
We have proven over time to make much more calculated decisions about our strategic initiatives, to not make decisions based on their short term benefits, and to avoid the trappings of doing deals that while attractive initially, are unsustainable and create a lot of financial exposure for the brand.
Given the economy, this has proven to be of great benefit for us and for those who have made the inquiry, they have been pleasantly surprised that the stability of our company and its direction are on such solid footing. Our expansion is based on our members’ needs. Our members our not just customers, they are our partners. The entire senior leadership team frequently communicates closely with our members to see what they need and what their future plans hold so that we as a company can ensure we have the best product offering for them. I am not sure of any other aviation company this size that the founder/CEO directly communicates with individual members on such as frequent basis.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
PVH: I’d say that the industry overall seems to be in a very competitive space right now but that there is much confusion out there. The buyer in this space wants to make sure that every box is checked and rightfully so. In short, never has there been a time where working with a company that owns and operates its fleet been more important than it is now.
The companies own and operate their fleet offer stability and consistency that the open fleet and charter broker market cannot, while being able to look a customer in the eye and truthfully tell them they know everything that went into making that airplane safe.
Anything else you see on the horizon?
PVH: I see the open fleet model declining exponentially as some of the supply to those programs dries up and forces pricing higher, which in turn creates financial strain for those brands. Additionally, those open fleet models are still lacking operational control, equating to inconsistent service experiences, a lack of guarantees on aircraft type or performance, and in this age of enhanced cleanliness, an inability to have a real impact on the how often or well an aircraft gets taken care of.
As an operator, it’s our responsibility to take care of our fleet, which in turn takes care of our customer. There are few brands left in this space that can actually claim to do that, and objectively, I see those brands doing well going forward. Add in the customer service levels that Nicholas Air is known for and you can see why I am quite bullish on the future of our brand.