The takeaways from the 2020 Argus TRAQPak annual review of private jet activity in the U.S. underscores two key trends: Consolidation and acceleration of what has a nearly decade-long move from full private jet ownership to fractional shares, leases, jet cards, and on-demand charter. Looking ahead, Argus analysts don’t expect the total industry to return to pre-COVID-19 numbers until the second half of 2021.
In terms of the movement from full ownership (Part 91) to charter, jet cards, and fractional ownership, the latter (Part 91k and Part 135 flying) has been on the uptick since 2012. From a 43.7% share of the market back then, it climbed to 48.6% in 2017, hovering there through 2019 when it made up 48.5% of private flying.
With the COVID-19 pandemic closing offices and cutting back on business travel, even by private jet, Part 91 flight hours plummeted 28.5% in 2020. By comparison, Part 91k (fractional operators) was down 18.6.%. Part 135 (charter operators) was off by just 15%. The net effect was to push combined fractional and charter flight hours to 52.5% of the total industry last year (below). How that continues as company jets takeoff again remains to be seen.
|Year||2020 Total Industry Hours |
|2020 Fractional/Charter |
The entire U.S. business aviation industry saw a 23.9% drop in annual flight activity. However, following a 48.9% drop in the second quarter, flights had recovered within 20% of pre-COVID levels in Q3 and were down just 15.2% year-over-year in Q4. While this would be bad news in regular times, numbers from the TSA show the number of airline passengers passing through its checkpoints was still down 63% in Q4.
Much of the rebound was attributed to new or returning flyers who hadn’t been using private aviation immediately before the pandemic. Driven by COVID health concerns and decimated airline schedules, the newbies helped some jet card sellers report triple-digit increases in sales.
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The good news is that 96% of the newcomers say they will continue to fly privately post-COVID, according to a recent subscriber survey by Private Jet Card Comparisons. Over 4 in 10 (41%) say they will use private aviation regularly.
Of course, buying and flying didn’t necessarily correspond. While six of the 10 largest companies operating Part 91k/135 fleets posted flight hour increases, a good portion of it was due to consolidation.
Overall, the 10 largest U.S. charter and fractional operators accounted for 44.3% of Part 91k/135 activity and 23.2% of total business aviation flight hours.
By comparison, the five largest airlines control 71% of the U.S. domestic market of scheduled carriers, and the top 10 have a 90% market share.
One thing not changing when it comes to business aviation is who’s at the very top. Despite a 27% drop in flight hours between its NetJets and Executive Jet Management units, NetJets, Inc. had no trouble maintaining its dominant position with 336,252 flight hours, more than the next three largest competitors combined. It ended 2020 with an 18.3% share of the fractional/charter market and 9.6% of the overall market.
That said, the lead closed. Flexjet, part of Directional Aviation’s OneSky Flight LLC, saw hours increase 3%. That boosted its Part 91k/135 share to 7.3% and share of the total market to 3.8% It was perhaps boosted in part by the launch of FXAIR, a broker selling charter on around two dozen of its aircraft that had been retired from the fractional owners’ use.
2020 Rank –
| Annual |
| Annual |
|1. NetJets, Inc. (1)||336,252||462,574||-27%||18.3%||9.6%|
|2. Directional – Flexjet (2)||134,481||130,379||3%||7.3%||3.8%|
|3. Wheels Up Partners (11)||107,592||18,618||478%||5.9%||3.1%|
|4. Vista Global (4)||71,343||65,344||9%||3.9%||2.0%|
|5. Jet Linx Aviation (7)||31,175||31,354||-1%||1.7%||0.9%|
|6. PlaneSense (6)||31,150||35,648||-13%||1.7%||0.9%|
|7. Mountain Aviation (12)*||27,661||17,714||56%||1.5%||0.8%|
|8. FlyExclusive (10)||25,872||20,764||25%||1.4%||0.7%|
|9. Jet Edge (9)||25,461||22,549||13%||1.4%||0.7%|
|10. Solairus Aviation (8)||20,968||28,352||-26%||1.1%||0.6%|
Wheels Up Partners, which started in 2013 selling memberships on a fleet of three King Air 350s, jumped onto the list in the 11th spot in 2019 after buying Travel Management Company, a light jet operator. Acquisitions last year of Delta Private Jets and Gama Aviation Signature, two of the largest Part 135 operators, pushed it into the 3rd spot last year, with a whopping 478% increase in flight hours. Its purchase last month on 7th ranked Mountain Aviation puts it neck and neck with Flexjet.
Dubai-based Vista Global Holding, which has a minority stake in XOJET Aviation, saw flight hours increase 9% as it took scooped up Red Wing Aviation.
Last year, Jet Linx acquired Meridian Aviation’s charter and management business. It moved up two notches to 5th place despite seeing a 1% flight hours drop.
Who’s who of the largest charter and fractional operators in the U.S.:
A unit of Berkshire Hathaway, NetJets, Inc., kept its top position. With plans to add around 40 new private jets a year for the next decade, it will be hard to catch the leader. While NetJets dominates the fractional ownership market, its management and charter arm Executive Jet Management clocked the third most hours among Part 135 operators in 2020. About 20% of NetJets’ hours are estimated to be jet card flights for its Marquis Jet program.
NetJets is also a dominant player in Europe. Its QS Partners is a large broker of used aircraft, helping aircraft owners sell their jets and transition into fractional shares from NetJets. About half of share customers start with its Marquis Jet jet card program. It has a 59% share of flight hours by Part 91k operators, according to Argus.
Flexjet is part of Directional’s OneSky Flight unit, including jet card provider Sentient Jet and charter broker FXAIR in the U.S. and PrivateFly internationally. Italian operator Sirio and UK-operator Flairjet are also part of the portfolio. It recently acquired Associated Aircraft Group, a leading helicopter operator in the Northeastern U.S.
We estimate Sentient Jets, FXAir, and PrivateFly account for over $550 million in charter flights. However, a portion of that is on the Flexjet operated fleet. Last year, Flexjet officially launched a European fractional program. It’s also the launch fleet customer for Aerion’s supersonic jet and Gulfstream’s G700.
Flexjet has a 26.4% share among Part 91k operators, according to Argus.
Two years ago, Wheels Up sold memberships on an owned fleet of King Air 350is and Citation Excel/XLSs operated by Gama Aviation Signature. After acquiring Travel Management Company in 2019, it became the 11th largest for-hire operator. Last year’s acquisitions of Delta Private Jets and Gama elevated it into the third spot. Its January acquisition of Mountain Air puts it neck-and-neck with Directional Aviation’s Flexjet.
Before the Mountain acquisition, its CEO Kenny Dichter said the group was on target to hit the billion-dollar sales mark. However, the biggest news has been its upcoming IPO via SPAC, valued at $2.1 billion. The Wheels Up brand remains its sales arm.
Dubai-based Vista Global Holding was formed in 2018 as a vehicle to acquire XOJET Aviation. As a foreign company, it isn’t allowed to have a controlling interest in a U.S. operator. Hence, XOJET’s brokerage was split into XO and later merged with the brokerage business of JetSmarter, a 2019 acquisition. Included in the number are VistaJet foreign-tail flights into and out of the U.S.
Last year Vista Global acquired the fleet of Red Wing Aviation and a minority interest in the operator helping boost its flight hours 9% in 2020. Expectations are Vista Global will remain active in the M&A space. Not included is an estimated $150 million in off-fleet revenue generated by its XO brokerage.
Jet Linx Aviation continued its growth in 2020, acquiring the charter and management arm of Meridian and opening a base in Minneapolis, following a similar acquisition of Elliott Aviation’s Part 135 business. It moved up two notches to the 5th spot.
The Omaha-based management and jet card provider has been on the upswing over the past five years, first appearing at number 16 in 2013. In 2019 it added bases in Austin, Boston, Chicago, and New York. It is ranked as the 4th largest Part 135 operator.
Since Jet Linx charters off-fleet for guaranteed availability jet card customers from third-party operators, we estimate as much as $50 million in off-fleet revenues.
PlaneSense sells fractional ownership and leases on its fleet of Pilatus PC-24s and P-C12s. While flight hours were down 13%, it still outperformed the overall fractional market, which dipped 18.6%. Its share among fractional operators is 6.2%, according to Argus.
Mountain Aviation moved from 10th to 5th among Part 135 operators, good enough for the 7th spot on the combined Part 91k/135 list. Last month it was acquired by #3 Wheels Up Partners. Its 27,661 flight hours puts its new owner in a dead heat with Directional Aviation’s Flexjet for the second spot on our list. However, since our list is based on the market at the end of 2020, we’ll have to wait.
FlyExclusive is the second dance for its owner Jim Segrave who sold Segrave Aviation to Delta Air Lines in 2010. It’s the 7th largest Part 135 operator and climbs to the 8th spot from 10th place on the combined 91k/135 list. Since 2018, its flight hours have more than doubled. Last year it added 1,113 hours by acquiring Gulfstream GIV operator Sky Night LLC. It also launched a jet card membership program.
What do you get when you combine the 9th largest Part 135 operator – Jet Edge – with the 23rd largest – Jet Select? The 9th largest for-hire provider. The January 2020 deal gives Jet Edge around 85 mainly large and super-mid jets under management. Jet Edge Partners, launched in 2019, focuses on used aircraft sales. Jet Edge recently launched a dynamic-pricing jet card program with deposits starting at $100,000.
Solairus Aviation held onto the 10th spot, dropping two notches. In addition to on-demand charter, Solairus offers a jet card program.
Poised to break into the top 10 is Nicholas Air after its Part 91k/135 hours jumped to 17,153 from 10,071 hours. Last year it added two Phenom 300s to its fleet with plans to add more aircraft this year.
TRAQPak analysts estimate that flight activity for the six months of 2021 will grow 25.4% over the same period in 2020, but will decline 13.2% from the same period in 2019.
January 2021 private aviation flights were down 10.4% from January 2021 and 10.8% off 2019 numbers.
Its analysts forecast:
Overall, Argus estimates the whole industry won’t return to pre-COVID levels until the second half of the year.