Wheels Up and Delta Air Lines are not alone. Flexjet was started by American Airlines; NetJets, United Airlines, and Pan Am reveal links between private jets and airlines date back nearly 60 years.
Did you know American Airlines was behind the launch of Flexjet? Or without Pan Am, the Dassault Falcon program may never have taken flight. Did you know Pan Am also operated Teterboro Airport, currently the busiest private jet airport in the world? And yes, United Airlines once had an order for dozens of private jets.
But there is a long history of airlines and private aviation comingling.
For the Atlanta-based airline, one answer could be that it has been involved in private aviation since 1999.
That’s when Delta gained Comair Jet Express as part of its purchase of regional airline partner Comair.
Clearly, Delta believes there is synergy in offering both scheduled airline flights and private jet charters and memberships and wants to keep a toe in the water.
You probably also read that Delta Air Lines CFO Dan Janki is becoming Chairman of Wheels Up.
But did you know another domestic airline executive already serves as chair of a private aviation flight provider?
|Airline||Current||Private Aviation link|
|American Airlines||No||AMR Combs, Bombardier, Flexjet|
|ANA||Yes||ANA Business Jet|
|British Airways||No||Textron Citation Air|
|Delta Air Lines||Yes||Comair, Delta AirElite, Delta Private Jets, Segrave Aviation, Wheels Up|
|Emirates||Yes||Emirates Executive Jet|
|Hainan Airlines||Yes||Deer Jet|
|Japan Air Lines||Yes||JAL Business Aviation, Dassault Aviation|
|Korean Air||Yes||Korean Air Business Jet, Flexjet|
|Lufthansa||No||Lufthansa Private Jet, NetJets|
|Pan Am||No||Pan American Business Jets, Dassault Aviation, Falcon Jet Corp., Teterboro Airport|
|Qatar Airways||Yes||Qatar Executive, Flexjet, JetSuite, JSX|
|Saudia||Yes||Saudia Private Aviation|
|United Airlines||Yes||Avolar, JSX|
|Virgin Group||No||Virgin Charter|
We look at the relationship between airlines and private jets with a rundown of more than a dozen airlines and their (in some cases multiple) attempts to extend their reach into the business aviation segment.
By 1963, Pan American World Airways had opened the world for business and tourism with its Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 jets.
They had replaced slower propeller airplanes.
The 747 was still a few years off when Pan Am looked to tap into the business jet market.
In 1963, it started a nearly two-decades-long relationship with Dassault Aviation under a new division, Pan American Business Jets.
John Rosanvallon, retired CEO of Dassault Aviation who joined the partnership in 1974, relays how it started.
He says, “(Pan Am Founder and then CEO) Juan Trippe was seeing the beginning of business aviation and was considering to start a division of Pan Am. He asked Charles Lindberg (who was on the Pan Am Board) to look around the industry, and it happened he was in Bordeaux and witnessed the first flight of what became the Falcon 20. He sent a telegram to Trippe that they had found their bird.”
According to The New York Times, Dassault modified its Mystere 20. Pan Am rebranded it as the Fan Jet Falcon with an order for 40 and options for 120 more.
Pan Am would also act as a sales agent. The eight-seat jet was being marketed for $995,000, including pilot training.
That would be $9.86 million in today’s dollars.
A brochure promoting the airplane quotes Napoleon as saying, “I may lose battles, but no one will ever see me lose minutes.”
Rosanvallon says in 1972, Pan Am and Dassault formed a 50-50 partnership under Falcon Jet Corporation.
While Pan Am dabbled with a few charter flights, the venture with Dassault was for whole aircraft sales and support.
In 1981, facing big losses after buying National Airlines, Pan Am divested of its InterContinental Hotels chain.
It also sold its half of Falcon Jet Corporation to Dassault.
While Trippe is widely credited for boosting the 707 and 747 with his early orders, the aviation legend played a critical role in business aviation, as it turns out.
Rosanvallon notes, “I doubt the Falcon program would have taken off without Pan Am’s commitment. It was essential.”
However, it wasn’t just up in the air where Pan Am played a role in business aviation.
According to Teterboro Online, “Teterboro Airport was operated by Port Authority of New York and New Jersey between 1949 and 1969. It was leased to Pan Am World Airways on January 1, 1970, under a 30-year lease agreement with the Port Authority. On September 1, 1989, Johnson Controls World Services, Inc. was assigned the lease to operate Teterboro Airport for the duration of the 30-year lease agreement.”
American Airlines parent, The AMR Corporation, bought FBO and MRO Combs Gates in 1989 (it already had several FBOs). It sold the group to Signature Flight Support parent BBA Group PLC for $170 million in 1998.
During its decade in business aviation, AMR linked up with Bombardier to launch Flexjet in 1995.
A spokesperson for Flexjet (now part of Directional) says that its relationship with American led to the private jet company’s original red, white, and blue livery (image below).
FlightGlobal reported, “The venture will be headed by Robert Gillespie, president of Bombardier’s new Business JetSolutions division, and AMR Combs veteran Dale Niederhauser, head of the Business JetSolutions flight operations company. Gillespie will concentrate on marketing and sales, while Niederhauser will run day-to-day operations. The joint venture is headquartered at the AMR Combs site at Love Field in Dallas, Texas. The partners will not reveal their partnership stakes.”
It added, “Bombardier’s main contribution to the company is aircraft. Initially, ownership shares will be available in 10 new and four used aircraft. New aircraft include four Learjet 31As, four Learjet 60s, and two Canadair Challengers. In addition, New York-based Jet Support Systems, which launched the Share System fractional-ownership scheme in 1994, has sold two 31As and two 60s to the joint venture.”
Bombardier’s annual report shows from 1997 to 1998, the fleet doubled from 21 to 41 aircraft. Customers increased from 100 to 206 customers.
However, in 1998, AMR also exited its partnership with Bombardier.
Aviation Week reported, “AMR Combs’ share in the FlexJet fractional ownership program will be acquired by Bombardier. Despite the change in management, Flexjet’s infrastructure, pilots and other personnel, training and maintenance, and customer service will remain the same…The Flexjet program…contains 40 Learjet 31As, 60s, and Challenger 604s in operation for more than 175 owners.”
At the time of the sale, AMR Chairman and CEO Don Carty said, “We are not selling them because they are unsuccessful, but because their activities are not part of our strategic focus on the airline group and the Sabre group.”
According to the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation, Deer Jet was founded in 1995 after HNA Aviation Group (parent of Hainan Airlines) divided FSC Deer Air into Beijing Capital Airlines and Deer Jet.
CAPA reports in addition to offering charter flights, the group operates eight FBOs.
It says HNA expanded its private jet business into three groups: Deer Jet Beijing, Deer Jet Shanghai, and Hong Kong Jet.
A 2014 profile by Corporate Jet Investor notes Deer Jet as the first Chinese operator to join the National Business Aviation Association.
At that time, it had over 80 aircraft ranging from Hawker light jets to Boeing Business Jets.
Deer Jet’s website currently shows a fleet, including the Dassault Falcon 7X, plus Gulfstream G450 and G550.
Delta entered private aviation with its 1999 purchase of Comair, a regional airline feeder partner.
It brought along a business jet operation since 1984 known as Comair Jet Express and an FBO.
In 2001, it was renamed Delta AirElite.
An announcement during the period noted, “Delta AirElite offers customers the ability to earn SkyMiles and immediate Medallion qualification up to Diamond status, further integrating Delta’s commercial and private jet product offering to high-value customers.”
In 2010, after purchasing Segrave Aviation, the division was renamed Delta Private Jets.
In 2019, Delta agreed to sell Delta Private Jets to Wheels Up. That gave it a 28% interest in the soon-to-be-publicly traded flight provider.
At the time, DPJ was the fourth-largest Part 135 operator.
After the deal closed in January 2020, Delta faced the Covid shutdown. Wheels Up hit revenue targets but racked up increasingly large losses. In 2022, a net loss of $550 million on $1.55 billion in revenue.
With Wheels Up facing bankruptcy in August 2023, Delta led a group of investors with $500 million in exchange for a 95% stake in the company.
The deal is expected to close in the coming weeks, with Delta CFO Dan Janki becoming Chairman of Wheels Up.
According to the airline’s annual report, Avolar was founded by United Airlines in the Spring of 2001 with an investment of up to $250 million.
It had plans to compete against NetJets in the fractional ownership segment and offer on-demand charter flights.
It never took flight, but it must have generated a lot of excitement at the OEMs.
In its brief existence, it ordered 12 Gulfstream IV-SPs and Vs on firm order, plus 23 on option.
Flight Global reports a signed contract with Dassault for 46 Falcon 2000s firm and 76 options for Falcon 2000s, 2000EXs, and 900EXs.
It placed an order with options from Bombardier for up to 57 Learjets valued at $632 million.
It then added up to 25 Beechjet light private jets for $150 million.
It also wanted to operate a dozen Airbus Corporate Jets for corporate shuttles.
In an early report from the Chicago Tribune, CEO Stuart Oran said, “Our program has generated considerably more interest and inquiries than anticipated–and has done so earlier in the process than expected.”
Berkshire Chairman Warren Buffett dismissed UAL’s plans to enter the business, saying his NetJets division had a virtually insurmountable lead.
After 9-11, as the airline tallied record losses, United said it had found an outside investor to take over its obligations beyond the original investment.
In April 2002, with a new CEO, United announced it was shutting down Avolar before taking delivery of its first aircraft.
Jack Creighton told the Associated Press that the company had looked at numerous scenarios.
“Unfortunately, none of them proved financially viable in the current airline operating environment created by the downturn in the economy and exacerbated by the September 11 terrorist attacks,” he said.
The AP added, “The Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based carrier also had run into stiff opposition to the venture from its unions, which were angered by the costly investment at a time when United said it couldn’t afford to give them the contract raises they sought.”
However, United dipped back into private aviation, at least the jet-sharing, by-the-seat type.
In 2022, it struck a deal with JSX, enabling its MileagePlus members to earn miles on JSX flights.
After launching Lufthansa Private Jet with NetJets in 2005, the two companies split in 2007.
At the time, Lufthansa said it would build its own fleet with Cessna Citation light jets.
While the service initially envisioned connecting passengers to Lufthansa’s scheduled intercontinental flights, about 70% of passengers were flying point-to-point.
After building a fleet of Citation CJ1+s, CJ3s, XLSs, and Hawker 800s in 2011, Lufthansa decided to close the subsidiary Swiss Private Aviation. It returned to NetJets Europe as its supplier.
In 2012, Lufthansa said it was expanding its NetJets partnership to both sides of the Atlantic, offering private jet connections via its 21 North American destinations.
In 2022, Lufthansa quietly closed Lufthansa Private Jet.
At the time, a spokesperson told Private Jet Card Comparisons, “Economically, the segment was too small. It was a niche for Lufthansa.”
Sir Richard Branson’s attempt to enter the private jet charter market lasted only two years.
Virgin Charter was a U.S.-based broker.
It was positioned as a digital marketplace. However, reports say the technology didn’t function properly.
The company was then hit by the Great Recession.
Korean Business Jet is a wholly owned subsidiary of Korean Air, founded in 2007.
It operates a Boeing Business Jet, Global Express XRS, and Gulfstream G650ER.
For a brief period, it also had a VIP Boeing 787.
In addition to its own private jets, in 2010, Korean Air launched a brief partnership with Flexjet.
According to a press release, “Flexjet fractional owners will receive incentives to purchase first class tickets on Korean Air when traveling between the Americas and East Asia and a series of benefits, including elite status for a full year. This generous benefit provides a variety of privileges and exclusive travel services, including access to Prestige Class Lounges, dedicated check-in at Korean Air International Flight First Class, and an all-around luxury concierge service throughout select airports. Korean Air has 10 gateways in the United States and two in Canada. Korean Air passengers obtain guaranteed access to more than 5,000 U.S. airports with as little as 24-hours’ notice on a fleet of high-performance Bombardier business jets operated by JetSolutions.”
Qatar Airways was founded by Qatar Executive in 2009.
In 2012, it entered into a since-ended marketing partnership with then Bombardier-owned Flexjet.
The press release reads, “As part of the marketing alliance, Flexjet fractional owners receive Gold member status in Qatar Airways Privilege Club for a full year following the purchase of a single long-haul first – or business-class ticket. Membership perks include access to exclusive lounge facilities, priority check-in, and meet and greet services for guests arriving at or departing from Doha.”
The agreement also promoted charters on Flexjet for Qatar passengers and access to Qatar Executive’s fleet for Flexjet clients.
Qatar Airways was also an investor (2018) in JetSuite and JSX (along with JetBlue), the latter of which has rapidly expanded its by-the-seat flight offerings.
At one point, Qatar also planned to lease G500s to JetSuite. That ended when the charter operator grounded its fleet and went bankrupt at the beginning of Covid.
In July 2020, Qatar Executive launched a global jet card program. The card offers fixed hourly rates and guaranteed availability starting at 50 hours of flight time.
The private jet division appears to be a key part of the group’s strategy. However, it does not break out financial results.
Saudia Private Aviation was launched by Saudia, Saudi Arabian Airlines in 2009, offering on-demand charter and aircraft management.
Its initial fleet featured six Hawker 400XPs and four Dassault Falcon 7Xs. However, Aviation International News reports the Falcons have been sold.
In 2022, Fahad Al Jarboa, CEO of SPA, told a conference a shortage of charter aircraft in the region means 94% of its flight requests can’t be fulfilled.
According to AIN, Saudia Private recently received an Embraer Praetor 500 with the possibility of a second.
Al Jarboa added that he would like to expand his fleet via management agreements for Boeing Business Jets.
PrivateConnect was a partnership with Textron’s Citation Air announced by British Airways that never got beyond a 2010 press release.
Business Traveller reported the partnership would “allow passengers to make use of private jet services while avoiding the long-term commitment and up-front fees normally associated with private jet hire.”
The hourly cost for a six-seat Citation CJ3 started at US$6,464, including fuel, federal excise, and transportation if transferring between BA and CitationAir.
The announcement also stipulated, “To be eligible for the service, passengers must be a member of BA’s Executive Club, have flown with the carrier in the last twelve months, or be employed by a company which holds a corporate account with the airline.”
In 2014, Air France launched a partnership with Citation Mustang operator Wijet.
It promised connections between the airline and the private jet charter provider in 45 minutes.
According to Aviation International News, “Standard pricing is €4,000 ($4,500) per flight hour. Positioning flights are free of charge. The price of a flight hour can be cut to €2,400 ($2,700) for a round trip over a two-day period.”
Air France Project Manager Antoine Hottelart told AIN, “Fifty percent of the passengers on this new service are choosing Air France instead of the competition because we are offering a business jet connection at CDG.
He added about half of its La Première first class passengers were already business aviation users. The proportion of those using the Air France-Wijet connections was nearly 80 percent.
Air France stuck with Wijet until it fully shuttered in 2019 despite going into receivership and moving from operator to broker.
In 2016, JetBlue made a minority investment in charter operator JetSuite and by-the-seat JSX, which went by JetSuiteX back then.
At the time, the release noted, “Members of TrueBlue, JetBlue’s customer loyalty program, are already able to earn TrueBlue Points on all JetSuiteX flights. Additionally, as part of JetBlue’s plan to expand its customer base on the West Coast and provide access to new geographies, the two companies plan to explore opportunities for further cooperation for the benefit of their customers, including new benefits for Mosaic customers in JetBlue’s TrueBlue loyalty program.”
In 2018, JetBlue joined with Qatar Airways to make a second investment in JSX.
JetSuite, as noted above (in the Qatar Airways section), was reorganized via Chapter 11 in 2020.
JetBlue’s Chief of Strategy Tracy Lawlor is JSX Board Chair.
According to JetBlue’s website, flyers earn 250 TrueBlue points for All-In fares and 150 TrueBlue points for Hop On fares.
Emirates Executive was founded by Emirates Airlines in 2017 with a single Airbus Corporate Jet A319ACJ configured for up to 19 passengers, including sleeping for 10 in its popular First Class Suites.
There is also a meeting and dining room/living area and a shower to freshen up.
In 2023, Emirates expanded its reach into the private jet charter market by adding Embraer Phenom 100 very light jets to its for-hire fleet.
Emirates has long used the VLJs for pilot training.
All Nippon Airways launched ANA Business Jet in July 2018 as a partnership between ANA Holdings (51%) and Sojitz Corp. (49%), a conglomerate representing Bombardier and Boeing Business Jet in Japan.
The new unit launched with a 200,000,000-yen investment (about $1.4 million).
Customers earn 10,000 ANA Miles for domestic and 20,000 miles for international charter flights.
You can also redeem 100,000 miles for “charter services.”
ANA Business Jet doesn’t own or operate private jets but acts as a broker using approved partners, including an agreement to utilize Honda Aircraft’s HondaJet for domestic charters.
In 2019, Japan Air Lines launched JAL Business Aviation as a joint venture with Marubeni, a Japanese conglomerate.
JAL Mileage Bank Members earn miles according to the type of charter flight, the destination, and the number of passengers.
In a chart dated Oct. 2021, a single passenger would earn 5,000 miles for a domestic flight, 10,000 for regional international flights, and 20,000 for longer charter flights.
If there were two passengers, they would split the miles.
In July 2023, it was announced JAL Business Aviation would offer charter flights on a HondaJet fleet operated by Japan Biz Aviation, Inc.
It also has had a couple of dances with Dassault Aviation.
In 2007, JAL entered into a partnership with the OEM giving passengers access to nine Dassault private jets, including two Falcon 7X long-range planes for passengers transiting via the French capital.
Passengers arriving or departing Japan Airlines at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle (CDG) Airport would be taken to nearby Le Bourget Airport, where they can transfer to a private jet to complete their journey, according to a 2017 press release.
The service was expected to be popular for travelers going to resort and tourism destinations in France, Italy, and the Mediterranean.
Japan Air Lines also used the Falcon 20 for pilot training flights back in the 1970s and 1980s, according to Rosanvallon.
A brochure from the period shows JAL first leased a pair of Falcons from Pan Am and then ordered a trio of Dassault jets delivered in 1973 and 1974.
A fourth Falcon arrived in 1982, and the private jets were all sold off by 1989.
In 1975, the program was moved from Teterboro Airport due to congestion to Napa, California.
The brochure notes, “JAL does not have pilots trained in its country because the Japanese military discourages its officers from leaving, and civilian pilot training is three times more expensive than the U.S.”
Business jets have also played – and still play a role in pilot training.
During the 1960s, TWA was featured in ads for the Lockheed Dash 8 JetStar, the same private jet flown by Elvis Presley.
However, the airline used it for pilot training instead of tying up its 707s and 727s.
Emirates, as noted, used the Phenom 100s for pilot training, and Rosanvallon tells us that Air France and Japan Air Lines also had Falcons used for pilot training.
Then there’s Air Canada, which founded AC Jetz in 2001 with a pair of 737s in a 2-by-2 all-first-class configuration.
Northwest Airlines operated several 727s on a similar basis.
They were used mainly for sports teams and live performance group charters in both cases.
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