Cheap private jet flights: 11 big mistakes private flight buyers make

By Doug Gollan, November 28, 2020

Don’t believe articles that technology is lowering private jet prices. Promises of cheap private jet travel are often based on misleading press releases and a lack of knowledge

Promises of cheap private jet flights invoking Uber analogies and claiming technology breakthroughs that lower charter costs are common themes of uninformed coverage. The articles are wrong. Apps don’t impact how much you will pay. In fact, most online pricing tools for private jets don’t even give you hard quotes. They are simply tools to capture your contact information so sales reps can follow-up.

Much of the charter rates you see online are estimates. And for every slick app, you’ll find if you aren’t familiar with the industry’s ins and outs, it’s easy to make big mistakes when buying private flights. With COVID-19 causing more consumers to shop for private aviation options, if you are serious, buyer beware.

Shopping for private jet flights based on price can be costly and even deadly. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin lost over $200,000 when JetCard Plus closed shop. Soccer star Emiliano Sala lost his life when his private charter flight crashed into the English Channel.

Between those two extremes, plenty of novice private aviation flyers find thousands of dollars in extra charges they didn’t expect. Others show up at the airport and find out that when your private jet flight cancels, it’s different than with the airlines.

11 mistakes private jet buyers make chasing cheap prices

To help ensure your private aviation experience gets off on the right foot, we’ve identified 11 mistakes consumers (not you, of course) make when buying jet cards, jet memberships, or renting private aircraft on a one-off basis, typically called an on-demand charter.

1. Illegal Charter

Illegal charters are when you pay to fly on a private aircraft – even if you are ‘borrowing’ a friend’s jet – that has not been granted the authority to conduct commercial flights, a charter. This authority comes from a nation’s aviation regulatory body. In the U.S., these operators and aircraft operate under what’s referred to as the Part 135 regulations. This applies not only to the operator but the aircraft.

Part 135 requires more experience by pilots, entails regular medical check-ups, random testing for drugs and alcohol, and a higher level of maintenance scrutiny than is required under Part 91, which governs private aircraft that owners simply use for their own missions. A deadly 2018 crash in South Carolina, an illegal charter, showed that maintenance on the braking system, what would have been required under Part 135, wasn’t carried out.

The death of European soccer star Emiliano Sala in January 2019 came aboard a flight where neither the pilot nor aircraft were legally able to provide the service. Both Wyvern and Argus have programs certifying charter brokers. They can also provide pre-trip reports covering operators, aircraft, and pilots. Many brokers will provide these or similar reports as part of their service.

2. Empty Legs

Empty leg flights can save 50-70% off normal private jet prices. However, they come with some words of warning. The empty leg you are buying is connected to a repositioning flight. That is a flight to pick-up somebody who paid the full charter cost or returned to base after dropping a charter customer.

That means if the other person cancels at the last minute, your flight will also be canceled. You might even be at the airport. The same goes for if there is a mechanical. Chances are the replacement aircraft will be coming from somewhere else, and in either case, it is likely from another operator. Again, your flight is off.

With reduced airline schedules and private jets often using airports without commercial service, make sure your plans are flexible if you want to fly with empty legs. You can keep find empty legs weeks and, in some cases, months in advance. However, keep in mind the majority of empty legs are only posted within 12 to 48 hours of departure.

3. Deicing and WiFi

Like airliners, private jets have to be deiced. If you are doing a lot of winter weather flying, a good number of leading jet card programs include deicing in your contract hourly rate. They’re not necessarily more expensive than those that don’t. Deicing charges vary by aircraft size and airport but plan between $1,000 and $10,000 per incidence. If your charter flight is being repositioned in, you might find a double deicing charge on your post-flight invoice.

In terms of WiFi, many jet cards include WiFi in the pricing. For those that don’t and when you charter on a flight-by-flight basis, be careful if WiFi is not included in your contract. WiFi is charged based on usage. All those fun videos the kids created during the flight could end up costing thousands of dollars in Internet cost.

4. You cancel your flight

Both jet cards and on-demand private jet charter flights have cancelation terms. With cards and jet memberships, you can compare the cancelation terms before you buy. They typically vary by peak and non-peak day, with longer windows for peak periods.

If you charter on a flight-by-flight basis, chances are you go to two or three brokers to get quotes. Keep in mind that the cancelation policies are set by the operator in most cases. That means three quotes from one broker can have three different policies. It’s also not unusual to find some quotes are non-refundable. That means, if you need to cancel for any reason after booking, you could lose all your money.

5. Your provider cancels your flight

The day before your flight, your broker calls. The owner of the aircraft changed his mind. Or on the day of departure, there’s a mechanical or a pilot is sick. Here’s a surprise. When you charter on a flight-by-flight basis, in virtually every instance you will need to get a re-quote. On short notice, the price for the replacement private jet could be from 25% to 100% higher than the original price. If you can wait a few days, prices typically go down.

Most fixed-rate jet card programs that offer guaranteed availability provide service recovery at your contract rate, and sometimes will even compensate you with flight credits or free flight hours. Since jet cards start at $25,000 and there are quite options that begin at 10 hours where deposits don’t expire, most folks should compare jet cards even if they are just looking at a single trip.

6. You didn’t know about Daily and Segment Minimums

Shopping for jet cards by looking at websites and just ordering a few brochures can be expensive. You’ll often see comparisons against other companies with lower hourly rates. These private jet prices don’t tell the full story. Ask about Daily and Segment Minimums, something all card and membership programs have.

Here’s a good example. Provider A advertises its light jets at $6,000 per hour. Provider B offers its light jet card at $5,000 per hour. The difference is Provider A has a 60-minute Daily Minimum while Provider B’s minimum is two hours. Without adding in taxi time, for a 60-minute flight, Provider B will charge you $10,000. In other words, you’ll pay $4,000 more for that one-hour flight than Provider A, despite “saving” you 17% on the hourly rate.

7. What’s a Primary Service Area?

I’m glad you asked about the Primary Service Area (PSA). When you buy a fixed-rate, guaranteed availability jet card, there is a PSA. That’s the geographic area where your one-way rates apply. In other words, no ferry fees. Some programs have surcharges for the Caribbean, Mexico, and Canada. Some offer transatlantic, European, and global PSAs. Others are limited to just the Continental U.S. or even a region.

Once you go outside the PSA, you will be paying dynamic pricing, which means your trip is based on market pricing, and your quote has to take into account repositioning fees and other charges. If you are away for a length of time where the operator needs to get the aircraft back to base, you will likely be buying two roundtrips.

It’s why when your friend who uses her jet card for flights to Palm Beach says Company A is the best, it may not work for you if your home is in the Bahamas, even if it’s just 90 miles away.

8. You didn’t understand how roundtrip discounts work for private jets

When you buy a ticket from the airlines, a roundtrip pretty much means starting and ending in the same place. For private jets, roundtrip and multi-stop discounts are based on billable flight hours. Within a PSA, it entails averaging typically two flight hours per day. The Key is averaging. Here’s an example—Fly Leg 1 on Day 1 for three hours. Fly back to the starting airport on Day 3 for another three hours. Your six hours of billable flight time over three days averages two hours per day. It works the same with intermediate stops. Additional qualifications are that flights need to be conducted within your crew’s duty limits and with the same aircraft for the entire trip. Some programs offer roundtrip discounts of up to 40%, while others don’t offer any.

9. Private jet prices for long-flight discounts

Some 70% of Private Jet Card Comparisons subscribers have multiple private aviation solutions. That might be a jet card for some core missions and charter for others. Some fractional and full aircraft owners buy jet memberships when they need extra flight hours, or their aircraft isn’t ideal for certain flights. Several providers offer significant deals for flights over 3.5 hours. These companies, including well-known brands with top-safety ratings, can save you well over $30,000 on a single roundtrip flight.

10. Your provider goes bankrupt

Bankruptcies and fraud are two “buyer beware” aspects novice private aviation users often don’t consider. When JetSuite, backed by JetBlue and Qatar Airways, went bankrupt earlier this year, jet card members lost over $50 million in prepaid flight credits. Its Chapter 11 filings revealed it had struggled with profitability and ran through more than $100 million of investor and SuiteKey member cash in since 2016.

In other cases, like JetCard Plus and Zetta Jet, there have been charges of fraud. In his lawsuit against JetCard Plus, Mnuchin asserts its owner has now opened a new broker under the UbeJets banner with his son at the helm, something we reported on before his filing. Others like Wijet went bust twice (once in the U.K. and then in France), always making promises of coming back.

Before you buy, find out if your provider has an escrow account. Research senior management if they are not listed on the website. Figure out how big that company behind that sexy website is? In other words, know before you buy.

11. Lead generation websites and private jet cost

Lead generation websites purport to help you identify the best private aviation providers for your needs. They do so for free. However, to get their analysis, you have to provide your contact information. Lead generation websites make their money from providers who buy your contact data for telemarketing and e-mail marketing or pay the site referral fees.

There’s no free lunch. In either case, they are incentivized to guide you to those ‘partners’ who pay them. The problem for the user – besides getting nuisance calls and emails – is the programs they are ‘recommending’ may not be the best for you.

You can easily spend $25,000 or more than you needed on just a couple of flights where comparable options are available. Of course, their service is free. And in case you were wondering, Private Jet Card Comparisons does not sell the contact data of paid subscribers or free subscribers if you just sign up for our newsletter and breaking news emails. We also don’t accept referral payments from jet companies. Our goal is to provide you with unbiased data and insights.

Closing Thoughts

Once you fly privately, it’s hard to go back to the airlines. There are lots of benefits to private travel. However, before you jump in, take the time to educate yourself. It may slow the process down by a few hours or days, but when you are spending big bucks and entrusting others for the safety of you and your family, chartering a jet or buying a jet card isn’t something you should take lightly.

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