Wheels Up and Vista have more deferred revenue from jet card sales to cash. Private jet flyers keep buying. Here’s why.
In the past couple of weeks, private jet charter providers Wheels Up Experience, parent of Wheels Up and Air Partner, and Vista Global Holding, which includes VistaJet and XO, were in the news about their finances and their amount of jet card sales for future flights compared to cash.
It wasn’t the only troubling news. AeroVanti, another private flight provider, and Jet It, a fractional operator, have also made the headlines in a bad way.
Between Wheels Up and Vista, they represent over $4 billion in annual revenues: Wheels Up had $1.58 billion last year, and Vista had $2.49 billion.
Over $2 billion were sales for their jet card membership and subscription programs.
Wheels Up continues to lose money on both a net ($101m in Q1 on $352m in revenues) and an EBITDA basis ($49m); its founder and CEO Kenny Dichter stepped down, replaced with the CFO Todd Smith on an interim basis.
It slashed its Primary Service Area to cut repositioning legs where its airplanes fly empty. It hopes its slimmed-down program will enable it to move towards profitability, something it has promised for 2024.
At the end of March, it had $363 million in cash and $976 million in deferred revenue – deposits from members for future flights.
Vista Global was spotlighted by the Financial Times in an article by investigative reporter Dan McCrum titled, “Private jet disrupter: the debt-fueled ascent of Thomas Flohr’s VistaJet.”
McCrum’s FT bio reads, “He has covered business and finance from both sides of the Atlantic and has a particular interest in accounting fraud and corporate misbehavior.”
He is widely known for his reporting on Wirecard.
Vista’s Pro Forma Adjusted EBITDA for 2022 was a hefty profit of $844.7 million, but there was a $139.5 million net loss and over $400 million in combined net losses over the past several years.
Company Founder and Chairman Flohr mounted a defense on CNBC.
He pointed out that the very document seemingly used as the source material by McCrum was Vista’s own $500 million, 512-page bond offering.
The offering was sold out within a day.
The net losses were due to how he depreciates its fleet, he told the business channel.
The debt is from acquisitions and buying aircraft. They are part of an investment cycle to support his growth plans, Flohr said.
Vista has grown revenues by a multiple of 10 over the last decade. He wants to triple his fleet by 2030.
The group could have a net profit if he changed how he depreciated his aircraft, Flohr argued.
Unlike a subscription to the FT, when it comes to jet cards, the stakes in real dollars are high, and the risk versus reward is harder to assess than one might think.
That’s because how private jet companies handle your money for future flights varies, as do their business models, and then if not a jet card, what are the other options, and what risks do they have?
Still, there were $832 million jet card payments taken for future flights versus $134 million in cash as of Dec. 31, 2022.
Flohr dismissed it as a single-day snapshot, nothing to see.
Spoiler Alert: Vista ostensibly added half a billion dollars from its bond offering to its checking account in recent days.
However, for jet card buyers, it rightly raises the question about how the entire product works, which varies quite a bit based on the provider’s business model.
When it comes to flyers – not investors – the most salient part of the reporting about Wheels Up, the third-largest U.S. private jet provider, and Vista, the biggest global player, is how much – or little – cash they have or had compared to how much they collected for future flights.
In accounting speak, getting customers to pay for their product or services weeks, months, or even a year in advance of consuming it is called deferred revenue.
It’s not limited to just jet card programs.
Fractional private jet programs collect deposits well in advance of the customer’s airplane being delivered.
Cruise lines and airlines sell tickets a year or more ahead of your journey.
So do the ticket brokers who sell those Taylor Swift concert tickets, as do sports teams that sell season ticket packages, as does Airbnb for vacation rentals.
Newspapers like the FT sell annual subscriptions where you pay now and get a year’s worth of access.
Unlike a subscription to the FT, when it comes to jet cards, the stakes in real dollars are high, and the risk versus reward is harder to assess than one might think.
That’s because how private jet companies handle your money for future flights varies, as do their business models, and then if not a jet card, what are the other options, and what risks do they have?
The direct costs at the time of takeoff to fulfill a flight for a broker program that must find an airplane and pay an operator is different than an operator that already has invested in airplanes, maintenance, spare parts, hangars, pilot salaries, and training.
We’ll cover that in detail, but first, why would you buy into specific jet cards like VistaJet’s Program, VJ25, or fund a Wheels Up account?
In case you didn’t know, Wheels Up has a pay-as-you-go option.
You pay a membership fee to join and then keep a credit card on file that is charged on a flight-by-flight basis.
Nobody is making anyone buy into VistaJet’s jet card subscription programs. You can charter from them on a flight-by-flight basis as well.
So, what are the alternatives to giving providers six-figure sums of money?
Private Jet Card Comparisons has over 80 providers of jet cards, memberships, subscriptions, fund accounts, etc., in its database, with over 900 different offerings.
The program rules change, as does pricing. The database has been updated over 70 times just this year, some of it to track fuel surcharges.
However, once you join, you are typically locking in pricing and terms for at least 12 months.
One would think with so many companies that means you will have a lot of alternatives.
Hint: It’s not a one-size fits all market.
The database tracks over 65 variables that impact which providers and programs fit a subscriber’s needs.
Sometimes there are 10 or more options, but mostly, there are between four and eight, and sometimes, it’s one, two, or none.
|Flight Solution||Entry Cost||Minimum Commitment||Annual Costs||Risks|
|Private Jet Ownership||$3-$78 million||Until you can sell your jet||Hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars||Value of asset; Ability to exit quickly; Costs of operations, insurance, staffing, unexpected maintenance|
|Fractional Ownership||$800,000 for a 1/16th share on a Phenom 300||5-years||$155,000 per year in management; $200,000 in flight costs, including hourly rate and fuel variable||Residual value; Stability of providers; Early exit penalties; Service levels; Changes in your flying needs|
|Typically $100,000 to $250,000, but as low as $25,000||10-25 hours||Avg. spend of $289,000||Stability of providers; Choosing the wrong program; Service levels; Aircraft consistency|
|On-Demand Charter||Cost of your flight – $15,000 to $300,000||Next booking||Varies||Variable Pricing, Cancelation Fees, Recovery Fees, Finding a competent broker, Service levels|
In other cases, it makes sense to join multiple programs or mix a card with a fractional share or on-demand charter.
For some subscribers, cards don’t make sense.
Seven percent of paid subscribers are owners of private jets.
Why would jet owners need jet cards?
Jet owners buy cards for supplemental lift – when their jets are in the shop, one of their pilots left, is sick, or is on vacation, or their airplanes aren’t a good fit for specific trips.
You have a small jet and need to fly a larger group. You have a large jet but need to access a small airport. Then sometimes, you need more than one jet solution at the same time.
I always say it’s like cars in your driveway. Chances are you have more than one, a convertible for the beach, an SUV for the place at the lake.
But first, let’s talk about why people buy jet cards, to begin with.
Jet Cards are a product of convenience. It is scalable on-demand charter.
Jet cards are also a risk-reducer, a sort of insurance policy.
They save the cost of recovery flights when the operator cancels last minute.
Cards also enable their customers to cancel or change plans on short notice.
Some cards include in their hourly rates additional fees you pay when chartering on-demand that can add up, such as deicing, WiFi usage, and catering.
There are card programs that guarantee you can travel with your pets, something that must be sourced on a request basis when you charter one-off.
Jet cards and memberships operate under the same Part 135 rules in the U.S. or AOC (Air Operator Certificate) regulations internationally, as do on-demand charter flights.
Jet cards are a bit like buying a case of beer instead of going down to the store each time you want to pop a cold one.
Although with cards, it’s not necessarily that you get a better price from purchasing flight hours in volume. In fact, sometimes you will pay more than if you shop flight-by-flight.
Jet cards like those sold by Wheels Up and VistaJet offer a capped or fixed hourly price with guaranteed availability.
There are currently 42 providers with similar programs and a further 15 providers with fixed/capped rates that don’t guarantee availability. Others use dynamic pricing.
The fixed/capped hourly rates enable members to accurately budget flight costs, something that’s important to both individuals and companies.
According to The Jet Card Report by Private Jet Card Comparisons, consumers want this type of membership product by a 12-to-1 margin over dynamic pricing, which is how you pay if you buy flights one-by-one.
Wheels Up and VistaJet card programs with guaranteed availability provide the assurance that there is supply available when you need it – at your contracted rate – with VistaJet on as little as 24 hours’ notice and for Wheels Up as few as 48 hours before departure.
You’ve locked in what you are paying per unit.
It’s more convenient going to the fridge when you want a beer than to jump in your car and go to the local store each time you’re thirsty.
|Jet Card Features||Jet Card Benefits|
|Guaranteed Availability with Fixed Hourly Rates||Book flights on as little as 24-to-96 hours’ notice with contracted pricing; Budget annual travel costs accurately|
|Easy Booking||Save time booking via phone, email, text message, or apps confirming flight within minutes|
|Rate Locks||Lock rates from 12 months to, in some cases, the expiration of funds|
|Guaranteed Recovery at no extra cost||Get a replacement aircraft when the operator cancels your original airplane without a requote|
|Flexible Cancelation||Cancel without penalty as little as 24-96 hours before to departure compared to stricter terms with on-demand charters|
|Inclusions||WiFi, Deicing, FBO, Hangar Fees, and Catering are among the inclusions offered by Jet Cards compared to on-demand charters|
|Occupied Hours Pricing||Within the PSA, you only pay for the time you are in the airplane flying and don’t have to pay for repositioning flights. This can mean flying from or to a more convenient airport|
|Peak Day Price Guarantees||Some cards have no or minimal surcharges on Peak Days when on-demand charter prices are the highest|
|Pet Friendly||Many card programs guarantee you can bring pets at your contracted rate|
|Lifestyle Perks||Members get value adds and discounts from lifestyle partners|
Detractors, mainly operators, and brokers that don’t sell cards, paint the entire category as a Ponzi scheme.
After all, the beer isn’t truly in your fridge even though you paid for it, although the point is it’s easily accessible.
Cards are not a new product; some schemes popped up out of nowhere.
Jet cards like what Wheels Up and VistaJet sell have been around for 25 years.
Again, more on that in a minute.
So, what’s the alternative?
If not for jet cards, you would have to shuck out millions to tens of millions of dollars to buy your own private jet, hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions for a fractional share, and then hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars per year to fly.
If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you would need to charter flight-by-flight.
The stories about brokers that offer easy and instant digital booking, like Expedia or Google Flights, are either misleading or much more limited than what they are made out to be.
Booking on-demand charters is a process that takes multiple back and forth, transferring monies on short notice, including bank fees, credit card fees, and often much stricter cancelation or change penalties.
Jet cards are a tool of convenience.
In a way, jet cards are not necessarily different than depositing money in a bank instead of keeping cash under the mattress, although sometimes it could turn out to be Silicon Valley Bank.
You are essentially funding a debit card that is drawn down as you fly.
And, yes, flight providers do fail, and clients do lose money.
Last year, I wrote “Six reasons not to buy a jet card.”
Reason #4 was you don’t want to put money on account.
I noted, “Understandably, many people don’t want to wire $250,000 for flights they aren’t going to take for a year or haven’t even planned.”
In 2020, at the beginning of Covid, JetSuite grounded its fleet and then filed for bankruptcy protection.
Members of their Suite Key jet card lost $50 million.
Court records show it had less than $1 million in cash and had run through over $100 million of investor and customer deposits in the previous several years.
However, as mentioned, it’s not just the jet card segment where you have business failures.
In the fractional space, if Jet It is down for good, it will follow Avantair’s 2013 bankruptcy.
Outside of private aviation, Crystal Cruises shut down in 2022, costing consumers over $100 million in money they had paid for future cruises, according to Bloomberg.
The industry refers to itself as business aviation. The backbone of what it does is to support commerce, getting businesspeople to and from places the airlines don’t serve or don’t serve effectively.
No Plane No Gain reports 42% of private flights are to towns with little or no airline service. The same percentage of trips include multiple stops. For example, the franchise owner visits multiple locations in a single day.
In the U.S., private aviation serves over 5,000 airports compared to less than 500 by scheduled airlines, like American and United.
Both Vista and Wheels Up are getting widely panned on social media, accused of building faux empires with plentiful low-cost financing, debt, and PR machines, backed by a funnel of celebrity endorsers and willing lifestyle journalists looking to write about something sexy that the rich-and-famous do.
Detractors are skewering the companies for their frequent and aggressive PR, which has brought them millions of dollars in editorial coverage, referred to as earned media.
They are following in famous footsteps.
The industry’s profile – and growth – has always been backed to some degree by stars of Hollywood, sports, and the business community.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was images of Frank Sinatra, the Rat Pack, and Arnold Palmer that helped make the Learjet a cultural icon, drawing interest to private flights from a wider swath of the population.
In 1974, Palmer flew a Learjet around the world as a promotion for the OEM. It included a segment calling in live to ABC’s Good Morning America from above the Pacific.
The 1987 movie Wall Street and Brian Burrough’s 1989 book Barbarians at the Gate popularized Gulfstreams as a must-have for the barons of finance.
Business media’s version of Tom Brady and Michael Jordan, Warren Buffett, made fractional ownership of private jets a thing via his 1998 purchase of NetJets.
He and Bill Gates posed for a NetJets ad in the early 2000s.
That said, there are some excellent companies that go a year without issuing a press release and don’t have PR companies on retainer.
It’s understandable why they think there is too much fluff coming out of some providers.
The PR from Vista, Wheels Up, and others are often designed to reach new consumers and the next generations of wealth, including those 20-something tech types.
They are trying to expand the market, which isn’t easy.
Before Covid, a McKinsey analysis estimated only 10% of folks who could afford to fly privately were doing so.
After all, this is an industry that serves a fraction of the top 1%.
A net worth of $10 million is considered an entry point. The true action is with UHNWs, households with a net worth of $30 million, and corporates, from the Fortune 500 to lawyers and car dealers.
Statista reports there were 233,590 UHNWs in the U.S. as of 2021. There are over 130 million households.
Since the interests of the super-rich are diverse, as a marketer, it’s like finding needles in a haystack.
You’re as likely to find a UHNW at the Bisby fishing tournament in Los Cabos, running a triathlon in Hawaii, or at a college football game as at a polo match in Palm Beach.
It’s a hard and expensive market to reach via paid advertising since the target market represents such a small portion of any media property’s total audience.
It’s why the industry spends heavily on Google search ads, trying to be where prospects are when they are researching private jet flight options.
Since advertising is expensive compared to PR, it makes sense to build your brand through public relations and glitzy partnerships.
To skewer companies because they can get glossy publications to write 500 words about an exclusive salmon dish from Nobu or a partnership with Pantone is, in my opinion, irrelevant to whether they have programs that fulfill the needs of private flyers.
In the same year Buffett bought NetJets, the jet card was invented in the Boston suburbs by a company that today is known as Sentient Jet.
It’s now part of Directional Aviation, which includes Flexjet, the second-largest fractional operator behind NetJets, on-demand charter broker FXAir, and in Europe, PrivateFly, which sells on-demand charters and jet cards.
Sentient reported $450 million in jet card sales last year.
Jet cards are both the ultimate gateway drug for new flyers and a 12-step program for ex-fractional and whole aircraft owners as well as retired CEOs who no longer have company jet access.
The guaranteed availability, fixed/capped rate jet card product it pioneered fills a very wide gap in the market.
On the other side is on-demand charter, which means calling several brokers or operators for quotes each trip, then waiting for responses.
You then need to scour the terms of each quote since inclusions, extra fees, and important cancelation penalties vary from quote to quote.
For people where time is money, the core benefit of flying privately is saving time. It often cuts door-to-door travel time by hours to days.
Jet cards bring all the benefits of marriage but the low commitment of steady dating.
They are both the ultimate gateway drug for new flyers and a 12-step program for ex-fractional and whole aircraft owners as well as retired CEOs who no longer have company jet access.
Prior to shelving its program during the Covid surge (it has now been restarted), NetJets said 50% of its fractional owners came from its jet card, and 20% of its flying was for card clients.
Card buyers were able to dip their toes into private aviation 25 hours at a time before diving into the deep end of the pool.
Fractional owners who didn’t want to commit to another five years could keep flying privately, buying in 25-hour blocks.
In fact, it was Wheels Up’s Founder and former CEO Kenny Dichter who brought the concept to NetJets.
In 2001 he struck a deal with NetJets’ then-CEO Richard Santulli to resell time on its fleet in those 25-hour increments via a separate company, Marquis Jet Partners (which NetJets bought in 2010).
One poster on Reddit says, “Justifying NetJets vs. a private jet is easy. You don’t have to deal with pilot HR or $45k inspections on landing gear or $200k avionics failures etc. etc. You get out of the business of running an airline. Freebie hours for friends and deadheads are gone. Compliance with property tax, sales and use tax, part 91/135 FAA: all gone…Weather and mechanical delays are solved by someone else who is better equipped to solve it.”
Another poster compares flying privately to the upgrade from commercial airlines, writing, “I feel like chartering individual private flights is a different experience from something like Netjets from a psychological perspective. When we book individual private flights, it feels so expensive, and the quality of the planes can vary a lot. You can’t get them easily on short notice or for big holiday weekends.
“With NetJets, it’s obviously a huge cost. But it really encourages us to travel more and travel on holiday weekends. We used to avoid traveling around Thanksgiving and holiday weekends because it was such a shitshow at the airports, especially with little kids. Since we got NetJets, we travel almost every holiday weekend, and we try so many new places because it’s easy, and we can cancel last minute if needed. We’re more likely to take other people on trips with us. I realize this all doesn’t make sense from a financial perspective – we could just invite people to fly with us on Delta and pay for their seats – but it’s just a different mindset.”
Subscribers tell me all the time they like the cards because it encourages them to take trips they wouldn’t have if they had to call a broker each time to get quotes.
And it’s easy to spend your hours. The money is sitting there. One call or text message, and you’re booked to Vegas or wherever.
The entry point for the traditional jet card concept (fixed/capped rates with guaranteed availability) includes a deposit, typically $100,000, $250,000, $500,000, or an amount that equates to 25, 50, or 100 hours of flight time. You also prepay the 7.5% Federal Excise Tax.
There are also pay-as-you-go options that give hourly prices and availability guarantees. You pay a joining and annual membership fee.
You generally pay a higher price per hour, and they are more restrictive – longer booking and cancelation windows, more peak days with extra charges, blackout dates, and so forth.
However, the trade is you don’t have to deposit funds.
There are also cards that start with as few as 10 hours or $25,000.
Some deposit programs are refundable for unused hours, although they may have restocking fees; many are non-refundable, including VistaJet and Wheels Up.
In return for signing a contract (some are over 30 pages) and funding a jet card, you are entitled to reserve an aircraft at a fixed hourly rate within a Primary Service Area, or PSA, so long as you do so a specific number of hours or days before your flight.
Within that PSA, a geography that would typically include the Continental U.S., and possibly Canada, the Caribbean, and Mexico, you only pay occupied hours.
That’s the time from takeoff to landing. Most providers add on an additional 12 minutes per segment to cover taxi time.
There are a handful of programs that include Hawaii in the PSA.
VistaJet and a couple of other providers offer intercontinental PSAs. It’s slim picking, though.
You can book your jet card flights with one phone call, an email, online with many companies, or now even by text message.
For the time-poor, jet cards both save time booking flights and enable users to better budget their flying in advance since they have contracted pricing.
Another aspect of jet cards customers like is one-way pricing.
It’s the basis for virtually all fixed-rate card programs.
While most consumers think of roundtrips as flying from one airport to another city and then returning to the same airport or city days or weeks later, that’s not how it works in private aviation.
Most of their private flying is what is referred to as one-ways.
Roundtrip pricing in the private jet charter market is based on leaving and returning to the same airport with the same flight crew and same aircraft staying with you the entire journey.
It generally only applies to flying out and back the same day or when demand was lower, two hours per day of flight time, so if you made a three-hour flight out and three hours back, you could get roundtrip pricing if you returned by Day 3.
When you see on-demand brokers offering light jets from $3,500 or $4,500 per hour, that’s based on roundtrip pricing.
When you book on-demand, you are often paying for the roundtrip even though you are just flying one way.
This came to light when Twitter, under Elon Musk, refused to pay for charter flights booked by the previous regime on-demand.
In responding to the lawsuit by flight provider Private Jet Services Group, Twitter lawyers stated, “Market rate for next-day private air charter services, roundtrip, coast-to-coast on midsize jets are estimated at $70,000 to $96,000, and on large jets, $88,000 to $156,000. These ranges are substantially less than the $194,000 total invoices PJS sent Twitter.”
They were convoluting one-way and roundtrip pricing.
They assumed because the former Twitter executive only flew one way in each direction, they didn’t need to cover the cost of getting the airplane back to its base.
In other words, when you buy into a jet card giving you one-way pricing, your provider is paying for those repositioning flights, although it is obviously baked into your contracted hourly rate and something they try to minimize.
There are no free lunches in private aviation.
It highlights jet card providers with fixed hourly rates that guarantee availability lose money on a portion of their flights.
The jet card business model for guaranteed availability, fixed/capped rate jet cards at a very top line is a calculation by the provider it can fulfill your flights for less than they are charging you and everyone else in aggregate.
Another benefit of many guaranteed availability, fixed/capped rate jet cards is the cancelation terms.
When you book one-off one-way flights on-demand, often the flights cannot be changed or canceled after contracting.
Once you lose $40,000 on a golf trip because you twisted your ankle a few days before the departure or $200,000 when your client in Zurich canceled next week’s meeting, you may also see the benefit of the jet card program cancelation terms.
Another reason consumers end up buying jet cards is what is referred to as Guaranteed Recovery.
When an airline cancels your flight, you go to the desk or call up, and they rebook you on another flight.
When you book an on-demand charter or even some card programs, when the operator cancels your flight, you are offered a refund or a requote.
It happens more than you think. JetASAP, a direct-to-operator charter platform, says 12% of charter flights are canceled by the operator due to a mechanical.
You can buy insurance for 2.5%-4.5% of the charter price.
If your flight gets canceled on the day of, getting a replacement aircraft – the requote – can be a 50% premium.
If you have a one-week villa rental or are headed to a wedding or critical meeting, you can either pay up or get a refund and try to figure out alternatives.
Depending on the relationship you have with the initial provider, you may have to wait a couple of days to get the refund while paying the money to the replacement provider for your new flights.
While it could take from two hours to the next day – depending on where you are and if it is a high-demand day, many cards get you that recovery flight without any additional cost.
If you are flying from Barbados to New York and it’s in your PSA, your provider could be losing $50,000 to $75,000 on that single recovery flight.
If you booked the flight on-demand, you would be paying, or you could, of course, fly JetBlue.
Wheels Up’s Core Membership, VistaJet’s Program, VJ25, and XO’s Reserve membership offer recovery flights at your original price.
While subscribers will move from one card program to another, it’s very rare for jet card users to move to exclusively on-demand charter unless they have very specific needs that card programs cannot fulfill.
One recent example was a subscriber who was flying to medical appointments.
After a couple of delays, he wanted the aircraft positioned at his airport the night before. A jet card won’t do that at your contracted rate.
I see subscribers who join fractional programs still using jet cards when they need extra hours.
Fractional owners buy cards instead of upgrading or downgrading within their programs since the interchange rates can often make it a poor use of their hours.
In the case of NetJets, upgrades aren’t guaranteed.
When throwing around figures on Deferred Revenue to Cash, it is helpful to understand the different business models, something Flohr pointed out during his interview on CNBC.
So, here we go.
There are three jet card business models on the supply side, in other words, how your provider sources your aircraft: Operator, Broker, and Hybrid.
The Hybrid model can vary quite a bit, even for offerings within a company.
Wheels Up is a hybrid using its fleet of over 200 aircraft and third-party operators.
VistaJet’s VJ25 and XO Memberships are hybrids, while VistaJet’s Program is an operator model.
More and more broker jet card programs are moving to hybrid models.
Jet The World recently added an owned Hawker 800 and is setting up its own Part 135.
They are all doing this in part to secure supply for members of their jet card programs, which guarantee availability at fixed one-way prices, including recovery flights with no additional cost.
Jet card flyers who have had delays and cancelations may snicker at hearing about Guaranteed Availability.
Guaranteed Availability, in theory, means so long as you call a specified number of hours or days prior to departure, you are guaranteed an airplane of the type you reserved or better.
Oliver King is the CEO of Avinode, an online sourcing platform that brokers and hybrids use to find aircraft for their on-demand and jet card customers.
He’s a former executive with British Airways.
Having started my reporting career covering the Part 121 airlines, like BA, American, Delta, etc., when I chatted with him during EBACE in Geneva, he voiced what always amazes me about the Part 135 charter operators and jet card providers.
Scheduling private jet charters is far more complicated than scheduled airlines.
The airlines offer “a product built nine months before when the schedule was loaded into OAG, the pricing was set. You have to build that on the fly in a bespoke offering to the customer in real-time,” King noted.
Before Covid, there were jet card programs that offered guaranteed availability with fixed/capped hourly rates on as little as eight hours’ notice.
In other words, you could call from Bismarck, North Dakota, at 8 am, and by 4 pm, you could be flying to wherever you wanted in your program’s PSA with a contracted hourly rate.
It was up to your provider to find an airplane, get it to Bismarck (an empty leg), and then bear the cost of wherever it was headed next, again empty.
You, the customer, only paid for the time you were on the airplane.
Yes, the risk in private aviation goes both ways.
Some Broker and Hybrid jet card providers mitigate that risk and generally ensure they can have airplanes available to meet demand through the expense of what is called Guaranteed Revenue Programs or GRPs.
Under GRPs, the jet card provider contracts with third-party operators to buy out airplanes in their fleets for days, weeks, and even months.
It gives them scheduling control of the aircraft so they can fly customers more efficiently. It takes scale and risk, as they could be paying for a jet to sit empty.
Wheels Up dove into GRPs at the beginning of 2021 as demand surged. Of its over 12,000 members, probably around 10,000 have some type of capped rate availability guarantee.
At one point, it had contracted at least 30 additional jets beyond its own fleet on a GRP basis, spending around $37 million just in deposits just to secure the lift and then over $125 million last year for flights.
King says one of the reasons for the lack of availability in the on-demand market was big players spending tens of millions of dollars to lock up charter jets for their exclusive use.
During the surge, I was visiting an operator and chatting with the head of sales. In the hour we were together, he got no less than four messages from major card and fractional companies that wanted to see if he had any aircraft available for GRPs.
While investing in GRPs didn’t necessarily prevent delays – 34% of Private Jet Card Comparisons subscribers said they had experienced delays, moved departures, and cancelations – the GRPs represent one reason a provider may spend your cash before you fly.
A former jet card executive says the complexity of scheduling and the fact that customers can fly anywhere they want within the PSA at a fixed rate with such short notice make running a jet card program somewhat of a high-wire act.
There are two general groupings of aircraft used for jet card programs: Owned/Leased/Fractional Jets and Managed Jets.
Owned refers to the operator owning the aircraft you are flying on.
However, long-term leases are also used.
FlyExclusive enters long-term triple net leases giving it full control of the asset, in fact, painting and refurbishing the aircraft to its brand standards. These leases can last five years or more.
Fractional aircraft are owned by the program’s fractional owners, although the providers additionally invest in and own what is called a core fleet.
The core fleet is designed to give them enough capacity to fulfill same time demand of owners when it outstrips the capacity of their fractionalized aircraft.
The fractional fleets are operated by the fractional provider, for example, NetJets and Flexjet. They also use them for their own jet card programs.
|Private Jet Sources||Characteristics|
|Owned/Leased Private Jets||The operator owns/leases the airplanes and has control over the scheduling|
|Fractional Private Jets||Fractional share buyers own the airplanes, but the operator has control over scheduling|
|Managed Private Jets||UHNWs and Companies own the airplanes allowing their management companies to make them available for charter at their discretion; Some owners require their approval for every charter request others give blanket approval; Each owner can mandate specific conditions on the type of charter flights they will accept and conditions such as no pets|
Managed aircraft are owned by an individual or company that hires a management company to manage the airplane, including hiring pilots, complying with regulations, and adhering to maintenance schedules.
Airplane owners pay for the pilots and costs of flying and maintaining their jets, billed to them monthly by their management companies.
Airplane owners who want to offset some of their expenses allow their management company to make their airplanes available for charter when they aren’t using them.
With Managed Aircraft, some need owner approval for each charter, while others have blanket approval from the owner to generate as much charter revenue as possible with whatever parameters the owner chooses.
Some fleets are mixed, with an operator owning some airplanes and managing others.
Because of Covid supply chain issues, operators have been spending millions of dollars building an inventory of spare parts so the airplane isn’t grounded for weeks and even months when something breaks.
Learjet windshields apparently can take months. Engine blades for a specific aircraft type are not plentiful, one operator told me earlier this year. You need all of them to fly.
Some parts need to be replaced after a certain number of cycles (landings and takeoffs), and others after a specific number of flight hours.
The surge in demand moved up necessary maintenance in some cases by months. There was an is a shortage of maintenance techs.
NetJets says it invested $63 million in spare parts. It currently has an inventory of over 900,000 spare parts in stock.
According to Vista’s bond offering, “For all of the Premium fleet, and a large portion of the White Label Fleet, we participate in engine maintenance programs. These programs provide for an hourly payment to be made to the engine maintenance program provider so that when engine expenses are incurred, no cash is required from us. As of December 31, 2022, we had prepaid expenses of $167.6 million.”
Jet card buyers who have guarantees want to fly based on the terms of their contracts.
With all charter aircraft, there are two flying models: Floating Fleets and Based Aircraft.
Based aircraft fly to meet the customer, pick him or her up, drop them off, and then return to base.
Floating fleets pick up the customer, drop them off, and then fly to pick up the next customer, drop them off, fly to the next customer, or float, so to speak, instead of returning to base.
Floating fleets tend to fly fewer loss-making empty legs, and the empty legs tend to be of shorter duration.
A floating jet may drop a customer in Palm Beach and fly empty to Ft. Lauderdale to pick up the next customer.
Based aircraft fly as much as 50% of their flights empty.
An aircraft based in Palm Beach takes its passengers to Nashville. The crew then reposition back to their Palm Beach home without passengers if the empty leg can’t be sold.
Vista, which employs a floating fleet model, says only about 30% of its flights are empty, according to the bond offering.
All of this is worth noting as the model used impacts the cost for a provider to fulfill flights varies.
The owner of a managed aircraft is footing the bill for paying the pilots and maintenance. That’s less cost for the management operator, but the availability of the jet for revenue-producing charter flights varies based on the owner’s needs.
If that management company has a guaranteed jet card, it could mean going to another operator if it doesn’t have an airplane in its fleet available.
Whereas a broker is probably paying 80% of your hourly rate before other overhead to source your flights, a management company could pay their aircraft owners anywhere from 60-to-90%.
According to Flohr, the undefined direct cost of a flight hour is 22 cents on the dollar for Program customers flying on his owned fleet.
In other words, in some models, the provider has big cash outlays prior to your flight, whereas a pure broker without GRPs is going to need the cash to pay an operator for your flights when you call to book months later.
Hybrid models could be all over the place.
The point, as Mr. Buffett might say, is it’s very hard to figure out who’s swimming naked.
We’ll get to how you can protect your funds via escrow accounts some providers use.
However, those programs may not fit your needs or could be more costly.
In other words, as I think you are seeing, everything in buying private aviation is expensive and is some type of tradeoff.
There are three types of pricing for jet cards and memberships: Fixed Hourly Rates, Capped Hourly Rates, and Dynamic Pricing.
Fixed Hourly Rates and Capped Hourly Rates are similar in that you know how much you will pay on a per-hour basis for flights within your program’s PSA.
For example, a light jet is $7,500 per hour, a midsize jet is $8,500 per hour, and so forth.
If you have a fixed-rate card, a two-hour flight on a light jet is going to run $15,000, plus taxi time if that is charged – not all programs charge it.
With capped rates, you could pay less if you are flexible to fly on days with lower demand.
There are more rules, including daily and segment minimums. There’s a reason the contracts are dozens of pages long.
Dynamic pricing is what it says.
It’s market-based pricing.
Your price is based on when you call and where you are flying.
Suppose you are flying between Teterboro and Palm Beach, where there are a lot of charter jets.
In that case, you will pay less than the shorter flight from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Stillwater, Oklahoma, where the provider will likely have longer repositioning legs on both ends.
If you book, then cancel, and want to rebook again, your flight will be repriced with dynamic pricing.
With fixed/capped rate, guaranteed availability, your price is based on occupied flight time, so the flight between North Dakota and Oklahoma costs less than New York to Florida so long both are in the PSA of your program.
Dynamic pricing works better if you are flexible. You could save a few thousand dollars if you are willing to fly out of Palm Beach instead of Opa Locka Airport in Miami if that’s where the aircraft being quoted is based.
Using dynamic pricing on peak days can mean paying 100% premiums, whereas some fixed/capped rate, guaranteed availability jet cards have no surcharges on peak days.
Benefits of Jet Cards aside, let’s do a quick 101 about on-demand charters.
You don’t have to buy your private jet flights by the case.
You can buy your private jet charter flights one by one.
They are priced trip-by-trip with market prices based on where and when you are going.
Chances are your airplane will be taken to use for that customer. You will get a call saying there was a mechanical or some other Bubba story and a ‘very sorry, we don’t have another plane. We’re sending your money back. Have a nice day‘
Terms vary by operator, so if a broker gives you three quotes, cancelation terms could differ for each.
The best deals are must-moves or empty legs.
A must-move could be the jet owner is coming back from Nantucket after spending the last two weeks there. After dropping her off when she got there, the crew returned to Dallas, where she and they are based.
Now she is coming home. The management company might market that must move via Avinode, FlyEasy, or directly to consumers an empty leg flight from Dallas to Nantucket.
They may give you an option of a day or two before the owner is due to fly back.
If you buy it, it’s 100% non-refundable.
If the owner decides she is staying in Nantucket for an extra week while you are driving to the FBO, your flight would be canceled. You would get a refund and a so sorry.
You can also get one-way pricing from Floating Fleet operators, either directly or via brokers.
The pricing is generally around what you would find if you joined a jet card program.
Cancelation terms vary.
They can be 100% after booking, as your flight is a piece of the puzzle. Your flight from Tampa to Houston could be sandwiched between Boston to Miami and Dallas to Aspen flights.
By the same token, larger floating fleet operators that have invested in sophisticated AI may offer cancelation terms similar to jet cards.
It’s also hit-and-miss, depending on availability.
The issue is that you don’t get a tail number until about 24 hours before departure.
If you are booking on your own directly with the operator as a one-off or through a broker that doesn’t do a lot of business with that operator, you could find out what it means to be the low man on the totem pole.
Let’s assume the airplane designated to fly a top-level jet card customer of that operator or for the customer of a big wholesale account doing millions of dollars in charters has a mechanical.
Chances are your airplane will be taken to use for that customer.
You will get a call saying there was a mechanical or some other Bubba story and a “very sorry, we don’t have another plane. We’re sending your money back. Have a nice day.”
The more expensive option is that you essentially end up paying for the roundtrip even though you are only flying one way.
Internationally, you are probably looking at a 100% cancelation penalty from the time you sign the contract on anything but buying the roundtrip, even though you are only flying on one leg.
If you are booking Miami to Sardinia two or three months in advance, a broker using a preferred operator might be able to negotiate a 30-day out, depending on the operator or business model.
I asked a top on-demand broker what happens if you need to cancel inside that window.
He says, “I’d explain, per the contract, we have a problem.”
He would try his best to negotiate a partial refund.
Keep in mind the owner of that jet may have given up other trips to accommodate you, and the owner may have even moved his schedule.
If the aircraft has already been repositioned, you are likely out the full amount.
In the best case, the operator will want to be compensated for work already put in and fees for permits, booking crew hotels, and so forth.
Assuming there is no refund coming, the broker said he would try to market your flight as an empty leg, reselling it so you could recoup your losses.
By the way, a one-way Miami to Olbia Costa Smeralda Airport is around $190,000.
If you broke your leg waterskiing a few days before you were due to leave, you could be out $380,000 for your flights over and back.
If you are booking flights for business and you were flying from Boston to Seattle and your client calls you to cancel, you could lose the typical $40,000 to $80,000 flight cost.
Of course, if you cancel inside the notice period for your jet card, you lose your money as well.
If you need to book or change your flights with under 24 hours’ notice these days and don’t want to rack up cancelation fees, get your own airplane and pay salaried pilots to be on call 24/7.
You’ll need three to account for vacations and pay for the landing gear when it needs to be replaced.
Or buy a fractional share with NetJets or Flexjet.
They are all good options. You may also just want to buy a 25-hour jet card from a provider whose program fits your needs.
Still, I’ll say what I tell subscribers. A good broker is worth their weight in gold.
Vista’s Founder and Chairman Thomas Flohr told CNBC he only needs 22 cents on the dollar to fulfill flights for members of VistaJet’s Program.
As of Dec. 31, 2022, the date of the financials provided in the bond offering documents, Vista had $134 million in cash compared to $831 million in payments from customers for future flights.
As noted, he has since raised $500 million via a bond offering.
However, Program clients sign-up for three-year contracts – subscriptions, as Flohr rightly calls them.
There are penalties to get out of your contract. Vista collected $35 million in 2022.
But in terms of risking your money, even though it’s a three-year contract, you only need to pay quarterly or annually in advance.
A client who is buying 100 hours of flight time annually for a Global 5000/6000 is probably paying around $1.75 million annually, or $437,500 quarterly.
At the same time, they are flying point-to-point from the U.S. to Europe, Europe to Africa, and Asia to the U.S., all with one-way pricing, only paying for occupied hours.
They can book and cancel without penalty as little as 48 hours before departure internationally and 24 hours domestically in the U.S.
Vista has bought the airplanes. The list price for its fleet of Globals is between $50-to-78 million, and Vista is paying salaries to flight crews to have them on call and all the associated overhead expenses of providing an extensive worldwide PSA.
Where did the money go?
As noted in the bond offering, $167.6 million was spent on prepaid engine programs.
And what about money coming in?
Flohr noted that the cash was a snapshot of how much he had on Dec. 31, 2022.
Since his Program and VJ25 are three-year contracts, some portion of payments is quarterly versus annually, and VistaJet continues to sell, it’s fair to say cash continues to enter the business.
The only point is that Deferred Revenue to Cash may not tell the entire story.
Clearly, there are risks in signing up with a card program.
The question is, compared to what?
Whether you should join a jet card program very much depends on your flying profile.
Cards are more convenient than booking on-demand charters.
There are better cancelation and recovery terms.
Cards are less commitment than owning your own jet or fractional ownership.
The Jet It closure will highlight the complications of getting your money back when you own a fractional share of an aircraft.
More on that soon.
It’s no picnic either way.
Specific to VistaJet, most subscribers looking for intercontinental flights where its Program or VJ25 are a fit will find there could be between three and no other guaranteed availability, fixed-rate alternatives.
There is currently only one other U.S. program with guaranteed availability for a Challenger 300/350 – a super-midsize with a standup cabin – that has a 24-hour callout with 60-minute minimums and less than 50 peak days.
If that sounds very specific, it is.
Then again, some people fly from Van Nuys to Teterboro on Tuesday, then from Teterboro to Nantucket on Friday, unless they need to change their plans and go to Washington D.C. Friday morning,, which they won’t be sure about until Thursday.
With Wheels Up, show me another twin-engine, on-fleet turboprop program with a 48-hour callout and cancelation.
At a $200,000 deposit, there are only 20 peak days, and you still get guaranteed availability on high-demand dates, just a 20% surcharge.
If you want to fly longer flights, including coast-to-coast, and don’t mind being in a Citation X, there are only a couple of programs that compete with Wheels Up on price.
Wheels Up is also one of a limited number of programs that guarantees WiFi on light jets.
I’m only highlighting VistaJet and Wheels Up since they are under fire, and the question is, why would somebody buy from them?
The interesting point is that most programs have unique aspects of their offering, so for flyers who have specific needs, there are different sets of providers that make sense.
Flohr’s group doesn’t have a fixed-rate, guaranteed availability light jet program, and their midsize program is not competitive.
Wheels Up is not a good fit if you fly to the Caribbean or Mexico or if you need large cabin jets.
They are no longer a smart option if you live in the Pacific Northwest or large swaths of the country between the Mississippi River and Colorado.
Its midsize program only guarantees seven seats, so if you need eight passengers, there are Phenom 300 and other midsize options with eight-seat guarantees that are better suited.
Private flyers lose money every day on cancelation fees and requotes that come with on-demand charters.
They – or their support staff – also lose time going back and forth to book flights via the ease of booking with a guaranteed availability, fixed-rate product.
No doubt, anyone who loses money in an insolvency is going to be upset.
Of the over 80 providers offering a variety of jet card, membership, and subscription programs, 19 offer an escrow account option.
While that sounds good, I understand that not all escrow accounts are the same. Some don’t necessarily need your signature to move funds.
However, one provider that offers an escrow account option tells me less than 1% of its jet card customers use it.
And in the AeroVanti lawsuit, it turns out escrow accounts can allegedly be gamed, although I’m not sure it’s applicable to what we are discussing here.
Some card providers keep your money in a segregated account.
While that may be a good practice, if things get tight, the provider can dip into those monies without your knowledge.
Like banks, these programs fail from time to time.
The money in your mattress option is chartering flight-by-flight.
Putting losses in perspective – rationalizing – is probably worth a few lines.
The Median Net Worth of U.S. Households is $121,700.
The target for jet card buyers is a net worth of over $10 million, and it’s likely the Wheels Up member who funds an account have a net worth of around $20 million.
VistaJet has said its Ultra-UHNW Program members typically have over $100 million net worth.
For example, where a VistaJet member has $475,000 in exposure for the next quarter’s flights, that is 0.475% of their net worth.
For a regular Joe, that would be like losing $578. In relative terms, it’s about the same as a pair of the cheapest Taylor Swift concert tickets.
At the end of Q1, Wheels Up had $975,735 in Deferred Revenue.
I estimate around 8,000 of their 12,285 active members have Fund Accounts.
That’s about $122,000 per member. It implies about 0.61% of their net worth.
Why do some operators and brokers eschew jet cards and memberships with guarantees?
Operators don’t want to want to go off-fleet when their jets are tied up with other flights.
There are over 600 Part 135 operators with jets in the U.S., yet only around 60 have more than 10 on their charter certificates.
When I attended a Schedulers & Dispatchers Conference earlier this year, an instructor advised newbies, before entering a serious relationship, to make sure their potential partner is okay with them taking their tablet on dinner dates and to the movies
Operators may feel they can generate more revenue by selling flights one-off or fulfilling flights for card sellers who, when they call, they know to need an aircraft.
For brokers, it’s a risk and a point of stress.
Brokers may feel that providing guarantees forces them to work with operators they would prefer to avoid.
Fulfilling flight requests for cards is a high-stress segment of an already high-stress business where people live with earbuds permanently implanted so they can talk while texting.
When I attended a Schedulers & Dispatchers Conference earlier this year, an instructor advised newbies, before entering a serious relationship, to make sure their potential partner is okay with them taking their tablet on dinner dates and to the movies.
Some brokers, like high-end travel advisors, prefer to work with clients who want a high-touch service because they have specific requirements that card programs don’t easily meet.
They view card programs as a box of chocolates, and that’s mostly true.
Many card programs only specify a category – light, midsize, or super-midsize jets, instead of specific types, although there are specific jet type options.
Other brokers don’t want to risk mispricing the market, so they lose money when you call.
In other words, nothing prevents an operator or broker from having their own card program. It’s a business decision.
About half of the providers in the Private Jet Card Comparisons database have less than 50 employees.
Interestingly, 70% of subscribers say they are open to working with boutique providers.
On the flip side, only 11 of the 30 largest U.S. operators based on charter/fractional flight hours currently are selling fixed/capped rate, guaranteed availability jet cards.
Six more offer fixed/capped rates but without availability guarantees.
A bit of disclosure.
The same person who tells me he provided the Vista bond offering document to the FT and others challenged me to write about Vista and the jet card industry.
The person initially approached me in 2021, pitching me Vista would imminently collapse.
More recently, we reconnected.
The person told me in addition to providing the Vista bond offering data to multiple media outlets, he was trying to place a story that jet cards are a Ponzi scheme.
We had multiple interesting, sometimes contentious, but overall friendly debates.
Obviously, I disagree.
Jet cards are neither based on fraud nor a promise to give you a return on investment.
Jet cards are simply a way to reduce the friction of chartering a private jet without having to make a major commitment.
And yes, companies fail; sometimes, it’s fraud; other times, it’s executives making mistakes.
I spent tens of hours looking at the Vista bond offering and speaking to folks who have some financial acumen.
Determining the financial stability of Vista was out of my league, so I told the person I looked forward to reading about it in the FT or one of the other outlets he said were working on the story.
I do feel capable of explaining the jet card market – I think.
At the end of the day, this article was an answer to the source’s challenge.
It’s healthy to look beyond the brochures with images of dad at the kids’ soccer game and cute little dogs snuggling on a leather armchair.
I often tell subscribers don’t use their kids’ college funds to buy jet cards.
In the FT article, they quote an operator as saying the rich are “surprisingly cost-conscious.”
The operator related that charter clients often take unfinished bottles of wine for flights where they are paying $10,000 per hour.
The lesson, I think, is private aviation is expensive, and there always seems to be some type of tradeoff.
I mention this because when we talk about jet cards, specific providers, and their relevance, my question is compared to what?
NetJets is currently sold out until next year for deliveries of fractional aircraft.
I have a number of subscribers who are using cards from other providers to bridge the gap until their NetJets aircraft arrives, as their current lease and card solutions are restrictive.
My view is jet cards are the industry’s best invention since Richard Santulli created fractional ownership.
It’s a product that serves both the industry and consumers quite well, filling that space between on-demand charter and ownership – fractional or whole aircraft.
It was actually a series of articles on jet cards I wrote for Forbes that inspired me to create this website.
I hope both Wheels Up and Vista continue, as they each fill needs in the market where there are limited similar options.
Perhaps this article sheds some light on the card, membership, and subscription private flight products, how they work, as well as the risk, rewards, and alternatives, and the costs and risks of those options as well.