You’re busy. You’re paying a lot of money to fly privately so you can save time and not be inconvenienced. If you have experienced delays and service lapses – or have flights booked in the next few weeks or possibly months, I’ll start with the bottom line: Private aviation is not immune to the same issues that businesses across America and around the world are experiencing.
A recent survey by Digital.com found labor shortages are impacting 87% of business owners. Nearly three-quarters (71%) have had to change their product offerings or business hours due to labor shortages.
That’s perhaps the problem. Sellers of private aviation – brokers, and operators – have mainly tried to sell and deliver the same product as before the pandemic.
With few exceptions, the product being sold and promised is the same.
Those flyers who had recent service issues rated their providers as below average or poor by an 8-to-1 marginSurvey of Private Jet Card Comparisons’ paid subscribers – July 2021
In speaking to over two dozen executives, managers, and folks from the front line, as well as flyers, the bad news is, it’s not apparent there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Some hope operations will become smoother when kids go back to school in September, but they are concerned about the holidays. Others believe that the hiccups will continue so long as supply and labor issues ripple across the larger economy.
The good news is it’s still much better than the airlines. One in five flight attendants say they’ve had a passenger get physically aggressive with them. When it comes to private aviation, I couldn’t find any stories about shouting matches or fisticuffs in FBOs.
To give you a better view into the complicated chain of events that is behind the service letdowns in private aviation– and how you can limit their impact on you, read on.
Here’s the current situation. The volume of private flights has skyrocketed beyond any expectations.
In other words, the private aviation industry, which is really 2,000 unscheduled airlines, or rather, should I say, scheduled to meet the needs of the customer when they call, is facing a level of stress not seen before.
A survey of Private Jet Card Comparisons paid subscribers in early July found nearly 20% experienced service issues over the past several months.
The good news is most flyers haven’t been inconvenienced. And of the that one-fifth, there weren’t problems on every flight. So relatively speaking, chances are you will have a great experience.
Still, in talking to CEOs and front-line employees, it is clear delays, mistakes, and complaints have increased significantly. Two executives say their companies needed to implement new processes for handling the negative feedback as the volume grew.
Of subscribers who experienced a service letdown, satisfaction (rating their suppliers very good/excellent) was 28 points lower, 61%-to-89%, than those who haven’t had issues.
Those flyers who had issues rated their jet card, on-demand charter, or fractional provider as below average or poor by an 8-to-1 margin.
Big money is at stake. The 82% who bought jet cards averaged nearly $240,000 in deposits.
If you pay $5,000 to $20,000 per hour to fly on a private jet, so you aren’t inconvenienced, it’s easy to get frustrated when you are.
One CEO told me, “We did three demand scenarios. We prepared for the most aggressive. We’ve gone way beyond it.”
Again, the good news is it’s still a lot better than the airlines. Just last week, American Airlines canceled 10% of its flights after a series of storms and operations issues. Travelers were stranded for days – at their own expense.
TRAVEL TIPS FOR PRIVATE JET FLYERS: - Book as far in advance as possible. - With on-demand charter, ask what type of volume your broker does with the operator they are booking you on before signing the contract. - With jet cards, stay away from peak days. - In general, avoid flying Thursdays to Sundays if you can. - Be accurate about amount of luggage and pets when you book. - Find out who is doing the catering for your departure airport and if they have experience in private aviation catering. - Limit special-requests for catering such as specific brands of juices, waters, etc. - Book ground transportation at the time you book your flights. (If you weren't able to find suitable ground transportation, chances are your provider won’t be any more successful.) - Track your inbound aircraft for delays. Reconfirm with your provider before you head to the airport. - Have the FBO's phone number in case you get lost. Passenger entrances can sometimes be hard to find at certain private jet terminals. - Arrive at least 30 minutes before scheduled departure and pack some patience!
One subscriber who was delayed by a day returning from the Caribbean told me his jet card company covered the extra night at a 5-star hotel. Still, it wasn’t optimal. He didn’t get word of the delay until he was on his way to the airport.
In another case, a subscriber was unhappy after a delay, a downgrade, and only a $3,000 flight credit for his trip from Florida back to the Midwest.
A third reader was unhappy that the recovery aircraft was a 30-year-old light jet that didn’t have a fully enclosed lav. The provider told me there were no other options except waiting until the next day.
In June, NetJets, the largest operator of fractional share and charter flights in North America, stopped selling its Classic jet cards. The card type offered flights with as little as 10 hours’ notice. At 7 a.m, you could book a flight for 5 p.m from Fargo to Fresno. NetJets had to get an airplane there to pick you up. It also pulled the Citation Latitude from its card program.
In July, it stopped selling fractional shares, leases, and jet cards of its entry jets – the Phenom 300 and Citation XLS. The idea was to slow the flow of new customers and ease demand, even though it is adding over 100 new jets and hundreds of pilots this year and next.
At the time, NetJets’ president Patrick Gallagher emailed customers, writing, “Due to record contract utilization by existing fractional owners, NetJets’ flight demand is currently exceeding all other highs in their 57-year history. While most owners have experienced business as usual in their recent travels, a few have felt the challenges that coincide with heightened demand across the industry. The vast number of flights is taxing the air travel infrastructure in ways we haven’t seen in years—everything from fueling and ramp space to catering and ground transportation is being pushed to their limits in many locations. This is mainly due to demand across the industry, as well as staffing challenges. Within the company’s own operations, inventory constraints within the light jet category have reached a point that additional sales before more aircraft are delivered would put service at risk.”
In some ways, NetJets was the proverbial canary in a coal mine—record demand, and then a myriad of issues that are further stressing capacity.
If there is a lack of private jet supply for the charter market, what can be done about it?
Through June, Fly Exclusive was the fifth largest operator in North America based on fractional and charter flight hours. Mike Guina, its president, says he wants “another 40 to 50 aircraft on to our certificate to add to the current 72 aircraft fleet over the next 24 months.”
As a comparison, Alaska Airlines, the fifth-largest domestic carrier has over 400 airplanes. Private aviation is a long-tail industry. There are only 66 operators with more than 10 jets on their Part 135 certificates.
Growing could be easier said than done.
Peder Von Harten, vice president of 12th, ranked Nicholas Air, which is also seeking to expand its fleet, says pricing of used aircraft is “30-40% higher than the airframe is worth due to simple supply and demand economics.”
A potential source of increased supply is from current private jet owners.
Jamie Walker, CEO of Jet Linx, the 6th largest provider on our list with around 120 aircraft it manages for owners, says more owners, especially first-time owners, are looking for rental revenue to offset expenses. That means more availability for charter flights.
At the same time, Dan Drohan, CEO of Solairus Aviation, which ranks 9th on our list of operators measured by charter and fractional flight hours, isn’t so sure.
The California company manages a fleet of 85 Part 135 aircraft and 152 more under Part 91. Part 91 means they can only be flown for the owner’s non-commercial use – no charter flights.
Speaking about the latter, Drohan says, “Does that owner feel differently about charter now? The answer is no.”
A spokesperson for Executive Jet Management, a NetJets company that manages aircraft and is the third-largest Part 135 operator, is asked if any of its Part 91 owners are looking to put their aircraft onto a Part 135 certificate to pick up rental income from charters? “No, not as a general matter,” she says.
In terms of supply, it’s not always that there are no airplanes. In some cases, they just aren’t positioned in a place that makes sense to crew them, use duty time, and make the trip on short notice. It’s the nature of private aviation.
“Water, water everywhere. Nor any drop to drink,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Unlocking that unused capacity of private jets in the short term is proving difficult.
The CEO of one large jet card broker believes demand will tail off when kids go back to school in September and as more companies reopen their offices, something that is already being delayed by the spread of the delta variant, and something that may be spurring even more demand.
“There are a lot of customers who are taking extra trips in August. They are worried hotels might close again, and they want to get their trips in,” he says.
If demand doesn’t ease up come September, will operations improve?
“This could be the new normal for a while,” says another CEO.
From a passenger’s perspective, operators say the biggest help is to show up a bit early, only bring the luggage and pets you specified when you made the reservation, and be upfront about how much baggage you have. It’s easier to deal with these issues in advance.
If you can, avoid flying Thursday through Sunday. If you have a jet card, stay away from peak days. Contractually, providers have the right to move your departure time +/- 3 hours in either direction. One large operator recently increased that window to six hours.
While operators that own or lease their fleets like NetJets, Flexjet, Nicholas Air, Wheels Up, in part, XOJET, and Fly Exclusive simply hire and train more pilots like the airlines – still not easy, it’s less complicated than management companies.
For managed aircraft, owners are also involved in the hiring process, and owners’ flying patterns often impact whether that job is attractive for the pilot.
A captain with children in school may not want to fly for an owner with kids and or grandkids in school. Would you want to be working every time your kids are on vacation – in addition to being away from them for weeks at a time?
Many of the operators I spoke with say they face a mix of pilot shortages and challenges navigating duty time restrictions.
Pilots flying for owners under Part 91 don’t face limits those flying for the airlines – Part 121 – or private jet charter – Part 135 – 14 hours of duty time in a 24-hour period, starting one hour before the first flight, including repositioning flights. However, balancing workload can be tricky.
The CEO of one management company says as owners want to fly more, that impacts charter flights. A private aviation pilot flies for his or her owner under Part 91 rules, and then Part 135 for the jet card and charter flights.
Some owners are happy to plan their flights around charter flights as they want the income. Others own a jet because they want to use it when they want to use it.
Solairus’ Drohan says he is still getting 40 to 80 applications for each job post. However, the percentage of qualified applicants has dropped markedly.
Owners who treat their flight crews well, says another executive, are enjoying the fruits of being a good boss. It sometimes means canceling a booked charter. “They want to keep their pilots happy. They don’t want them to walk. If it’s the owner’s trip or your flight (the charter customer), you can guess who gets the airplane.”
By the way, operators can generally cancel your charter flight and return your money for any reason – including a more lucrative charter, or a big client needs the airplane. We’ll cover that in the section about charter brokers.
In speaking to several MROs, there are challenges everywhere. The bottom line is airplanes are often in the shop longer – out of service.
What are the challenges?
Why aren’t the parts being delivered on time?
“FedEx, UPS, they are overwhelmed. Maybe it’s everyone shopping on Amazon?” says one MRO executive. He claims 50% of parts shipments arrive at least a day late! That’s a day wasted for AOGs.
Then there’s staffing. Travis Stein, CEO of Fort Pierce, Florida-based TMX, says when the pandemic hit, he had a full schedule of work for the next three months. In days, every single job was gone. “Except for cancelations, it was crickets.”
He now has one five-day shift, down from two six-day shifts. He’s at half-staff. Some employees found other work after they were laid off. Others, who weren’t tied down, are roaming the world. And then, some are apprehensive about coming back.
“After the pandemic hit, they moved away. Now, with Delta, they aren’t sure they want to move back and have their lives disrupted if there’s a downturn all over again.”
In terms of staffing up, he shares that concern. “I want to be sure this is sustainable.”
Right now, he is booked up for the next seven weeks.
Training new mechanics takes time. Apprenticeships are good for the long-term but slow down the works in the present.
MRO executives say there has been a surge in demand as airplanes grounded during the pandemic now need work before they can fly again. Even more so, the spike in flying has thrown havoc into maintenance schedules.
Various maintenance is tied to flight hours, cycles – landings and takeoffs – and months. Typically, operators try to time various maintenance needs so they can be done together. Increased flying means work that wasn’t scheduled until October needs to be moved up – but squeezing it in is becoming increasingly difficult.
The MRO executives I spoke with believe it could be until next year before operations smooth out. “We’re no different than any other industry. It’s not getting better any time soon,” one executive said.
“The support at FBO facilities has been in some cases absolutely deplorable. Fueling taking over an hour, having less than adequate line staff to handle the amount of aircraft on the ramp is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Elliot Mintzer, owner of Tryp Air Charter, a Part 135 Pilatus PC-12 operator in Florida.
FBOs are the gas stations for private jets. “How can they run out of fuel? What’s the problem?” one client asked his broker when he was told that a fuel stop was required because the FBO didn’t have enough.
Since you asked, it’s several things. And it’s not that somebody forgot to order the fuel.
Marty Kretchman, senior vice president of operations at Signature Flight Support, the world’s largest chain of FBOs, says yet another issue is airlines “overshooting their allocations.” Private aviation takes what’s left.
Once the fuel gets to the airport, in some cases, the FBO is limited by the number of fuel trucks they have available to transport the fuel from the fuel farm to the aircraft. Some trucks are idle, waiting for spare parts.
In the case of Signature, Kretchman says, “We can’t get enough fuel trucks built.” He says being big is helpful in everything from getting supplies to recruiting. Still, there are issues.
An FBO manager says his team is facing obstacles everywhere they turn. That goes down to sourcing ink for the copy machine. “Each task that takes more time is cumulative.”
Two FBO managers say they are also getting more last-minute requests to secure ground transportation. It now takes more time, the solutions are often not optimal, and they are more expensive than last time. Again, a task that pre-Covid took five minutes may now take five hours of calling, waiting for call-backs, and still, the result is there are no cars available or no drivers who can do the pick-up.
At the same time, one FBO manager says smaller operators and owners don’t always book ahead. “The big operators have schedulers and dispatchers. We know in advance when they are arriving. They keep us updated if there are changes. In other cases, we track flights coming in. Sometimes, we get a call before they land. Other times airplanes just pull up.”
Yes, that’s right – think about your front-line staff – overwhelmed dealing with existing customers, and a new one pulls up to your front door, in this case in a very large private jet. They need service now! They just assumed there are always taxis or black cars a few minutes away because that’s how it was the last time they were there.
More jet owners and CEOs of companies that own jets are working from second-home locations. They are used to flying from major airports and their corporate hangars. They are not used to having to plan to get their aircraft ready to go.
At resort airports, private airplanes are parked back-to-back and adjacent to each other as there isn’t enough space to park them in a single row. It might take several hours to get the owner’s aircraft onto the ramp and ready. Normally, that’s not an issue. Schedules are set well in advance during busy holiday periods.
Now, CEOs working remotely are making travel plans as they did before the pandemic.
“At home (the corporate hangar), we can be ready to go within an hour,” one pilot told me. He says it has been challenging to let the boss know that it might take several hours to get his airplane ready because it’s blocked in.
Short notice flight requests by private jet owners tie up FBO staff moving airplanes. That means they are stretched in other areas.
Signature’s Kretchman says it can take several months for a new employee to become proficient. As much as customers may be in a hurry, employees can’t rush. “These airplanes are worth tens of millions of dollars. They are parked wing-to-wing. You have to be careful.”
This brings up a key point. While demand has surged to record levels, the traffic patterns are dramatically different. FBOs at airports in vacation locations are seeing flight levels skyrocket. In what is normally the off-season, activity is reaching levels typical of Thanksgiving or Christmas.
How long will it last? For FBO executives, the crystal ball is cloudy. It certainly makes planning for the future more challenging. When will volume drop at this location and increase at another. Historical data is meaningless these days.
As I spoke to an executive with a large catering company, he received an email from a kitchen in one of his major locations. They could no longer accept orders for specialty menu items.
He told me, “Business came to a grinding halt, picked back up slowly, and then exploded. The newer flyers (who have started since Covid) don’t have the same experience. The window of booking is much shorter. Our customers (brokers and operators) are not getting the notice. They are reserving this morning for tonight; tonight, for tomorrow morning.”
Catering was always booked last-minute in many cases, but last-minute usually meant 48 to 72 hours before departure.
“We need a bottle of Jack Daniels at 8 p.m., and the liquor store is closed. Our vendors have reduced hours. Some suppliers are closed on certain days of the week.”
Mike Linder of Silver Lining Catering operates three kitchens in South Florida. Sales have never been better, and challenges have never been bigger.
The mix of flyers has reversed from 80/20 business to leisure. The average order has doubled to around $600.
“It’s not just about getting from point A to point B. For new flyers, it’s about the experience,” he says.
That includes more requests for dishes from hot restaurants, very specific requests for hard-to-find juices and bottled waters, and more alcohol on early morning departures.
Linder runs three shifts a day, but even so, the workflow has changed.
It used to be most of the orders were out the door by 8 a.m. as business travelers headed out for the day. Now, it’s all day long and every day. That means different staffing levels and asking employees to work at different times than pre-pandemic.
What’s more, some caterers are no longer doing aviation. In secondary markets, where there was never enough business to have dedicated kitchens, private aviation caterers subcontracted to event caterers and restaurants.
“In quite a few places, if they are open or reopened, they are now focused on their core business and won’t do aviation,” says one executive.
That means flying in catering on the inbound flight, which is often problematic, as private aviation flight schedules tend to change.
In some cases, the only option is using Uber Eats or Grubb Hub. However, the deliveries are packaged for immediate consumption. Both FBOs and readers have told me it often doesn’t work out well.
“We discuss with our customer. Is it better to have something or nothing? That’s the choice.”
All caterers say the labor market has been a challenge, with one telling me his labor costs are up 30% compared to pre-pandemic. Another says there are unfilled openings at multiple locations.
Despite the challenges, Linder says expectations are higher than ever. “People think, ‘If I’m paying this much money, it should be perfect.’”
As a flyer, it’s probably worth asking your provider how the catering is being handled at your departure airport. Is there a full-service caterer? Are they using a restaurant or event service that regularly handles private aviation?
Streamlining your order to the basics will certainly help, particularly in secondary markets. There are no rules against bringing your own food or favorite beverages as well. You won’t have to mess with TSA and the hassles of big airport terminals.
One large operator says while flying is up 30%, complaints about ground transportation are up over 300%. Several other providers say the percentage of customers requesting ground transportation has risen dramatically.
“When they call themselves, they can’t get a car, or the prices for black car service are astronomical. They call us. We try. We’re in the same situation,” says the CEO of one large private aviation company.
Like all industries, there are many reasons, including many black car services don’t own the cars – or many cars, and are brokering to other companies that then are reliant on independent contractors. In the car rental sector, it’s been well covered about shortages.
The fact you are flying privately probably isn’t going to help much in terms of getting ground transportation if it’s not available. However, the requests take up time, stretching staff.
“We try. It takes time. If it’s not there, it’s not there. It usually turns out the solution we can offer was something the customer already had decided against before they called us. It was either an untested provider or outrageously expensive.”
Virtually every operator I spoke with says there is an uptick in delays due to air traffic control. They are particularly bad in the Northeast, the West and “anywhere in Florida south of Jacksonville.”
Nicholas Air’s Von Harten says challenges are acute at secondary airports. “Expected departure clearance time delays and flow control programs can make your 2 p.m. departure into a 5 p.m. departure with pilot duty issues that may trace into the next day, leaving passengers and operators at the mercy of the air traffic control system.”
Brokers are getting crunched too. One large broker says time spent per call with customers making a booking is up 50%. However, the core issue for customers is a bit different.
Many brokers have long boasted about having access to 5,000, 10,000, or 20,000 private aircraft for hire. That’s true if the jets are available.
In some cases, big players like Sentient Jet and Wheels Up, when it goes off-fleet, have contracted with operators to charter an aircraft for a week or days at a time, instead of just flight-by-flight. That gives them scheduling control of that airplane for an extended duration.
It’s those flight-by-flight charters that are the most likely to be problematic. While there are nearly 2,000 Part 135 operators in the U.S., one broker can’t be a good customer to every operator.
Good brokers focus their business on a select group of operators. For those operators, these brokers are big wholesale customers, booking millions of dollars per year. They often get priority over a one-time direct customer who was shopping on price. If there is a mechanical issue with an aircraft chartered for the client of a broker who is a big customer somebody else is going to find their aircraft getting pulled.
Several brokers told me about having aircraft pulled at the last minute. An email from an operator to one broker forwarded to me read, “We have crew issues because we are no longer able to build our schedule around your trips. Our owners and clients have flights we need to cover. As you said, this industry is crazy right now, and as you know, lift is at a premium. We do not have the ability to serve our clients and yours on these days. There is nothing else we can do to make this work.”
Speaking about another pulled-aircraft incident, one operator put it bluntly. He told me, “Next time, (the end consumer) should use a broker that has some juice. I have customers (brokers) who do more business in a week than (the broker of the customer whose plane was pulled) does in a year.”
So, what’s the message?
When working with a broker, ask how regularly they book with that operator. Are they quoting that operator because their regular operators are booked? What type of plan do they have to secure a replacement aircraft?
Brokers are working overtime to secure airplanes for clients. It may be time for an honest conversation. What is Plan B?
Yes, demand will slow at some point. There will likely be hard feelings. In the meantime, make sure you know what you are buying into.
When a replacement aircraft is secured for a one-off charter, somebody must pay extra if it costs more than the original quote. If you are a good and loyal client, your broker may cover the difference, seeking to maintain your loyalty. Otherwise, it’s you.
Most jet cards that have fixed-rate pricing offer service recovery guarantees at no additional cost. Contractual language often includes terms like “commercially viable.” That could mean tomorrow morning instead of tonight.
Ask how service recovery is handled before your buy. Ask your sales rep to review that part of the contract with you before you sign.
Staying home. What a nice idea. For Thanksgiving and the Christmas and New Year’s period, it’s something to consider. Or leave earlier and come back later.
Von Harten of Nicholas Air says, “The issues surrounding increasing delays are going to be part of the landscape for a good while to come.”
There are no DOT reports on delays or complaints about private jet companies as you see with the airlines.
Based on subscriber research and from what I can garner, it’s likely your chance of having something going awry is less than five percent. Of course, until recently, it was probably a fraction of one percent.
Aside from NetJets, outside of rate hikes and increasing daily minimums, a potential rate hike, few companies have made big changes to the product they are selling.
Unsure of its ability to fulfill increased demand, Velocity Jets, a boutique broker, halted new jet card sales for the summer.
Fly Exclusive and Air Partner both increased the lead time for bookings in the jet card programs. I expect more news on that front.
I’ll end where I started with this advice:
Lastly, I would recommend packing some patience, just in case.
If your favorite restaurant is open, it may not have a full menu and may have shorter hours.
Most of the executives I spoke with are concerned about burnout with staff working longer and harder to make for a smooth and safe journey.
Drohan of Solairus says the intensity to focus on details is stronger than ever. “Check and double-check. Confirm, check, and double-check again.”
One CEO relayed a sign he recently saw in a diner. It read, “The world is short-staffed. Please be kind to those who showed up.”