Start-up AeroVanti hopes to follow in the footsteps of Wheels Up, using the Piaggio P.180 to attract entry-level private aviation users.
On the surface, Annapolis, Maryland-based AeroVanti, turns the clock back to 2013. That’s when Kenny Dichter launched the Beechcraft King Air into a mainstream private aviation charter solution using huge stars like Tom Brady and Serena Williams climbing aboard the turboprop and selling memberships through Costco. It also resurrects the aircraft that Avantair popularized before its 2014 bankruptcy.
Serial entrepreneur Patrick Britton-Harr hopes his new venture will follow the former rather than the latter. With an hourly rate of just $1,995 plus 7.5% Federal Excise Tax, like Dichter, he wants to move first-timers from the airlines to fly privately.
As with the Wheels Up founder who built a three airplane start-up into the nation’s second-biggest for-hire private aircraft operator, the 37-year old Britton-Harr has big plans. He talks about 1,200 members after the first year and expanding to Europe. A 3.0 version would include aircraft capable of transatlantic flights. For now, he’s starting with five Piaggio P.180s leased to buy from Brazos Valley Air Charter, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Brazos, which holds an Argus Gold rating, will operate the twin-engine turboprops similar to when Wheels Up launched with Gama Aviation Signature as its operator.
Britton-Harr comes to the venture as a third-generation pilot. He made his money in medical services. His first business provided dental care to residents in assisted living. The current portfolio includes medical labs, although he is fully dedicated to the new airline. His father, Steve Harr, who serves as chief pilot, is a former Navy pilot. Over a 35-year career as an airline captain, he flew for Piedmont Airlines, USAir, and American Airlines, so there is first-hand knowledge about the challenges of running a profitable aviation business. However, the idea for AeroVanti only came about last Fall after the younger Harr bought a P.180 to commute between his Maryland base and business locations in South Carolina and Arizona.
The founder says his wife liked that the Piaggio P.180 flies at 41,000 feet, above the bad weather, compared to his previous Beecraft Baron. His mom was sold on the fully enclosed rear lavatory.
For Britton-Harr, he was impressed by the roomy cabin. At 5 feet, 9 inches, it’s similar to a midsize Hawker 800XP, and at 6 feet, 1 inch wide, it has slightly more room. If you want some more comparisons, the Citation XLS and Citation X cabins are 5 feet, 8 inches high, and 5 feet, 6 inches wide. The King Air cabin is 4 feet, 9 inches high with a 4 feet, 6 inches width. There are seven seats in the Piaggio, including a two-seat divan. King Air 350s seat eight.
After flying from Baltimore to Tampa in two hours and 15 minutes in his P.180 to see a Buccaneers game, Britton-Harr’s entrepreneurial streak kicked in. He tells Private Jet Card Comparisons that he decided, “This is something we can do proper business with. Wheels Up is a great platform, but I thought the cost was too high for entry-level private jet members.”
With a cruising speed of 402 knots, P.180 compares VLJs like the Phenom 100 at 405 knots and the Citation M2 at 404 knots, according to a brochure from Piaggio, which shows the King Air 350i at 312 knots and the Pilatus PC-12 at 285 knots.
In other words, P.180 has the speed of a very light jet and the roominess of a midsize jet. Speed is essential. While the same brochure shows the King Air 350i and the extended range Avanti Evo with a similar 1,800 nautical miles’ capability, slower turboprops quickly become less cost-effective than a faster light jet if you are charged an hourly rate.
Despite the favorable comparisons, it’s noteworthy that with 235 aircraft in service, the Piaggio fleet is less than a tenth of the size of the King Air fleet. What’s more, Piaggio Aerospace is currently in the midst of selling itself after declaring itself insolvent in 2018. Britton-Harr says he is in talks with the manufacturer to buy new airplanes as he expands. Brazos has 13 Piaggios, and the plan is to acquire the entire inventory.
“(We’re) looking to grow to 12-to-15 used Avanti’s and then a large purchase order for new EVOs to then replace the current aircraft,” the CEO says. All aircraft in the initial fleet are in 2004 or later. “Interior and exterior (were conformed) to our standards before they are entered into the fleet,” he adds. Last year, Piaggio didn’t deliver any new aircraft. In 2019, there were only three deliveries, and in the prior year, only four.
So, let’s start with the good stuff first. Yes, you read the headline correctly. The hourly rate for Air Club is $1,995, plus a 7.5% Federal Excise Tax. Flights that begin or end west of the Mississippi are $2,495 per hour, plus FET.
There are three membership tiers covering individuals, families, and businesses. There is no joining fee, and you can pay dues monthly, but it ends up being $12,000, $18,000, or $30,000 per year, respectively.
Individual members or their spouses can be lead passengers. Family memberships extend to parents and children as lead passengers. The corporate membership allows you to designate four executives.
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The program is pay-as-you-go. There is no facility to deposit funds. Britton-Harr says it’s part of his streamlined “management light” approach. Since Brazos is operating the aircraft, including employing the pilots and aviation support, AeroVanti’s staff is just 10 people, and it outsources as much as possible, from marketing to accounting. Tracking member balances adds to the complexity, he says. When you make a reservation, AeroVanti uses estimated flight time, and you get a hard quote. You accept, pay, and fly.
There’s no advance booking requirement. However, the program is as available. If there is an aircraft available, you can book it. You can hold up to 12 reservations at one time. WiFi is included as is basic catering, such as packaged snacks and beverages. Pets are welcome. The minimum age for unaccompanied minors is 16 years old.
The daily minimum is 60 minutes, including 12 minutes of taxi time. There is no segment minimum, which makes the program ideal if you have several sub-one-hour flights in a single day. You only pay for occupied hours. There are no repositioning charges. There’s 24/7 customer service.
Deicing is extra. There is a $650 surcharge at a handful of high-density airports. There’s a 5% peak day surcharge on 21 high-demand days. Cancelation is 72 hours. The contract we saw says after making reservations, refunds are at the operator’s discretion, but Britton-Harr says that’s a mistake and will be changed.
The customer profile is somebody who is flexible and willing to move their trip a few hours or perhaps even a couple of days. Five P.180s will support the targeted first 300 members. After that, more Piaggios will be added, and new members will be accepted on a referral-only basis.
Combine a fast turboprop and a low rate, and what do you get? The result is flying from Boston to Naples, Florida in three-and-a-half hours for $8,415, including FET, and amortizing the Individual Membership by assuming 25 flight hours per year. Baltimore to Charleston, which AeroVanti estimates at 75 minutes prices at $3,590 on the same basis via QUICK COMPARE FLIGHT PRICING.
Currently, the Brazos certificate is only for domestic flying. However, it has applied, and expects by mid-summer to gain approval to fly to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. Britton-Harr says there won’t be any surcharges, just pass-through international fees.
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Is AeroVanti too good to be true?
Britton-Harr says the company will use a floating fleet model with bases in Sarasota and Maryland, where it is building a hangar. There will be a New York base, and Brazos is in Tulsa. Fifty percent of flights are budgeted as empty legs. But do the numbers work? At 450 flight hours per year (Wheels Up’s King Air fleet only averages 360 hours, according to financial disclosures), estimates I looked at show the operating costs for the P.180 at around $1,900 per hour. Britton-Harr says his cost structure will be lower, and the membership monies provide profits.
By the same token, Wheels Up’s King Airs start at $4,695 per hour. Hourly operating costs for King Air 350s are around $1,500 per hour, and Wheels Up has yet to turn a profit, although its goal has not been making money. Instead, it has focused on growth obtained through multiple raises and expansion.
AeroVanti is in the middle of a $6 million raise that Britton-Harr expects to be completed in the coming weeks. His plan, however, is not to raise more money but to become profitable quickly. He says that will happen when he gets to 1,200 members. If one figures an equal mix of membership types, that will yield $24 million above the hourly rate charged to cover operating costs and get out of the red.
The bottom line is there’s not much to lose financially for members. There are no deposits, and you can bill your membership monthly if you don’t want to pay the entire amount. That means $1,000, $1,500, or $2,500 per month.
AeroVanti is not for folks who need guaranteed availability on short notice. Wheels Up, for example, guarantees aircraft in as little as 24 hours. However, booking flights up to 365 days in advance and canceling up to 72 hours before departure provides a lot of flexibility for personal travel and business trips.
Even though you could conceivably fly cross-country with a fuel stop and save money, the added time probably makes flying the P.180 less than optimal. Air Club is a fit for up and down the coasts and short hops. It’s also probably a good second program for those short-leg flights.
Britton-Harr says he welcomes members west of the Mississippi, although one wonders about the efficiency of trying to serve the entire country with five P.180s. One might also question how closely AeroVanti’s future is tied to the fortunes of Piaggio.
The official launch isn’t until this coming week, although Business Insider broke the news last week. Whether AeroVanti is the next Wheels Up, Avantair, or something else, it will be interesting to watch.