After you wire your funds or send in the check to your jet card company, here’s what happens to your money
You just signed the contract for a jet card or private jet membership. The next step is wiring funds or mailing a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Chances are you never met the folks you’re sending the money to. Many sales are consummated and completed via phone and email. So, what happens to your money?
When JetSuite grounded its fleet and filed for Chapter 11 protection, some members of its SuiteKey jet card program assumed their money was protected.
JetSuite had publicly secured investments from JetBlue and Qatar Airways, which were featured on its website.
It had the backing of high-profile investors such as the late Tony Hsieh, who was represented on the Board of Directors.
Bankruptcy court filings revealed the operator had less than $1 million in cash left when it grounded its fleet.
Jet card customers found out they were unsecured creditors. In total, around 1,000 members lost $50 million.
This brings us to what happens to your funds when you join a jet card or private jet membership.
Joining and Membership Fees
Let’s first look at joining and membership fees.
For the most part, these fees are non-refundable. They are going straight into an operating account, and your money is being spent however the company sees fit.
These joining fees are most typical of pay-as-you-go programs or programs that use dynamic pricing, but there is no set rule.
In some cases, these fees can run up to $50,000. However, the norm is between $5,000 to $20,000.
When you buy into a program, the term deposit is often used. You are paying for flight hours you expect to use in the future. Flying is the withdrawal.
Deposit levels are often set in dollars. For example, you deposit $100,000, $250,000, $500,000, etc.
They also are described in hours, for example, purchasing 25, 50, and 100 hours.
Either way, you are sending a considerable amount of money.
The amount you are paying for hours-denominated programs is calculated by multiplying the contracted hourly flight rate times the number of hours you are buying.
For example, you buy 25 hours on a light jet card, and the hourly rate is $7,500.
You end up paying $187,500 (25 x $7,500). You also typically prepay for the 7.5% Federal Excise Tax, $14,062.
That means your payment is $201,562.50.
So, what happens to your money?
While some programs are refundable and others are non-refundable, that’s unimportant when it comes to the question at hand.
Essentially there are three places your money could end up.
- Escrow Account
Your monies are put into a formal escrow account. To use the funds should require your signature.
That means doing business during weekdays and during bank hours. The bank is likely located near the jet card company’s headquarters, so possibly in another time zone.
It also means you need to reserve flights with enough lead time ahead of the booking deadline factoring in the bank approval process.
Programs that offer escrow accounts often offer them as an option, and sometimes there are extra fees.
However, different providers handle escrow accounts differently, so enquire about the specifics.
- Segregated Accounts
Some providers have Segregated Accounts for jet card deposits. Funds are held there until members book flights, or the flight is taken.
However, unlike escrowed funds, monies can be transferred out of the account without your signature, so it is a bit of an honor system.
- Operating Accounts
Your funds go directly into an operating account that is then used for daily needs, from paying salaries to paying rent and the costs associated with flying you, be it an operator buying fuel or a broker paying an operator.
In the case of JetSuite, SuiteKey funds went into operating accounts, and hence they had already been used.
What are my options?
How can you protect your money? Aside from the escrow account, it’s difficult.
There are only a few providers that are publicly traded.
It’s easy to look at Wheels Up as they must report quarterly financials.
Flexjet, Sentient Jets, FXAir, and PrivateFly are all part of Flexjet, Inc., which provided financials as part of their plans to go public via a SPAC merger.
(Update: The Flexjet group decided not to go forward with their IPO and remain a private company.)
The same is true for FlyExclusive.
NetJets is part of Berkshire Hathaway, and Jet Aviation is part of General Dynamics.
Neither breaks out their financials, but you can at least make assessments based on their parent companies.
Most providers are privately held, and many are small companies.
What’s behind the website? In our comparisons, we provide when they were founded, how many employees they tell us they have, the name of their CEO, and the headquarters location.
This enables you to do a bit of your own research.
You can buy a credit report from Dun & Bradstreet for under $200. I can’t tell you if it’s foolproof or not.
At the end of the day, this is the aviation industry, and airlines go bankrupt. I always tell subscribers not to use their kids’ college funds.
The good news is bankruptcies and shutdowns are rare.
Often they are connected to allegations of fraud rather than mismanagement.
However, if you lose your money, it probably doesn’t matter.
Why give a jet card your money?
On-demand brokers have long highlighted the risks of losing your funds as a reason not to join jet cards or membership programs that require deposits.
However, here’s what you give up:
- Having funds in an account so you don’t need to wire the money at the last moment
- Bank and credit card fees
- Guaranteed availability
- Fixed or capped hourly rates
- The ability to book quickly without going back and forth, reviewing various quotes, often each with different cancelation and recovery terms
After the JetSuite bankruptcy, I spoke with several SuiteKey customers who also lost money with Avantair.
They were angry, but several were philosophical.
In both cases, they felt like they had a good ride and received good value.
One SuiteKey member who lost about $100,000 in unused funds told mean he had flown about 200 hours with JetSuite before went Chapter 11.
The way he looked at it, the loss just meant his past flying cost him about $500 more an hour than he thought it had, and it was still a relatively good way.
How you want to view it is a personal choice. There are tradeoffs in everything we do, and there are few guarantees. Jet cards, private jet memberships, and deposits are no different.
Information about Escrow Account options is in Column BC and Hidden Column BD on the Program Details tab in our Comparisons Spreadsheet.
READ: Caveat Emptor: Avoiding private jet scams, bankruptcies, and shutdowns