Not long ago, the notion of flying on a private plane meant earning a seven-figure income and chartering a Gulfstream V or an equally elite aircraft. But thanks to a growing number of players shaking up the noncommercial sector of the aviation industry over the past few years, travelers have more ways than ever to enjoy the perks of private flights without the historically prohibitive price tag.
Driven by crowdsourcing technology and the Uber-like on-demand model, operators offering semiprivate charters, membership-based services, and smaller carriers that utilize regional airports have helped democratize a mode of travel once reserved for the jet-setting crowd. Instead of having a connection to an individual or a business that owns a private plane, or shelling out for a broker to hook you up with one, these companies allow you to book your flight online just like you would for a commercial one—and trust you’re paying a fair price.
They are all catering to a common customer: passengers weary of endless commercial-airline fees, long security lines, packed airports, and overbooked planes. Indeed, it’s hard to understate the sweet glory of arriving at a small regional or private airport about 30 minutes before takeoff, breezing through a metal detector in seconds, being welcomed aboard with at most a few dozen—instead of a few hundred—others, with nary a single TSA pat-down or seat back slammed into your face. For the premium baked into ticket prices, most of these operators offer other perks, too, including seat assignments, refreshments, and free baggage transport (JSX, a Dallas-based operator with a network of short-haul routes across Texas and the West, charges nothing for guests’ surfboards, skis, snowboards, and golf clubs).
Another advantage of this type of air travel? Utilizing the vast network of regional airports across the U.S. that enable easier access to remote areas, which commercial routes are less likely to service or which may have been cut during the pandemic. “There are only a few hundred major airports in the country, whereas there are a few thousand public-use airports that are accessible via private charter,” says William Herp, CEO of Linear Air, an on-demand operator based in Massachusetts. “We’ve had a lot of customers flying to places that are hours away from the nearest airline airport in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and all across the United States and Canada, to get to their vacation or activity sooner than if they flew to an airline airport and drove hours and hours.”
You can certainly expect to pay more for this kind of experience, yet how much more varies. For smaller operators with established routes, prices can be comparable to a premium-economy-class ticket (though sometimes significantly more). On-demand charter models might charge more than double that of commercial business class. However, passengers seem more amenable than ever to paying higher prices for a better (and potentially safer) experience. During the pandemic, many of these operators reported a sizable uptick in bookings from travelers seeking more socially distanced alternatives to commercial airlines, as well as easy access to outdoor destinations.
But knowing where to start can be overwhelming for the uninitiated. There are a wide range of options on the market, and they’re not all legit. (The now defunct JetSmarter, a membership-based player that touted itself as the Uber of private flying, was forced by a court in 2019 to pay $3 million to members for failing to deliver promised services.)
We’ve broken down different options in the space that will likely appeal to outdoor-minded people. Though there are several other options, including operators that cater to high-net-worth clientele, with models based on memberships, prepaid jet cards, and fractional ownership, the following categories—on-demand charters and public charters—are best suited for recreational travelers for their price points and the adventure destinations they serve. A word of warning: once you get a taste for this kind of travel, you may never want to wheel that rollaboard suitcase onto a commercial airliner again.
Traditionally, travelers looking to book a private charter had to go through charter brokers, who negotiate the price with aircraft owners or management companies. However, as Linear Air’s Herp notes, many customers don’t know how to assess the quotes they’re given. “That process has a lot of friction and potential confusion and hesitation built into it,” he says.
Companies like Linear Air and a host of other competitors, including FlyJets, JetASAP, Surf Air, and Victor, have changed the game with online “marketplaces” that allow users to search privately owned planes based on group size, destination, and travel dates (with flight options available for immediate booking), much in the same way that companies like Airbnb allow customers to rent owners’ properties. For private charters, generally the larger the group (15 to 16 passengers is the most common maximum-seating capacity), the more cost-efficient your trip, since you’re splitting the cost of the plane among more people. The total price can run from the low five digits all the way up to $50,000 or more, depending on the route, group size, dates, and aircraft type (generally, jets are pricier than single-engine turboprops).
However, there are pitfalls to watch out for. Some companies that market themselves as on demand still rely on a traditional brokerage model, meaning consumers remain at the mercy of any humans behind the scenes negotiating the transaction, which might result in hidden costs. Many require at least an email registration to search flights. In addition, cancellations aren’t uncommon, as operators will shift their aircraft to more profitable routes, or owners may decide they want their plane for the same dates you’ve booked.
You can still score deals, though, especially with empty-leg discounts (“empties” in industry parlance), which happen when an operator tries to fill an aircraft while repositioning it to its home base or elsewhere. Such deals can save you 50 percent or more and make for an enticing last-minute getaway splurge: A recent email from FlyJets advertised a $1,213 single-seat fare on a Gulfstream from Westhampton, New York, to Miami. And a recent search with Linear Air’s one-way deals turned up a nine-person charter from Three Forks, Montana, to San Jose, California, for $10,221.
Another broad category in this space are companies that own or lease a fleet of private planes and sell tickets directly to the public, operating much like a small, regional airline. Here are three of our favorites:
The startup Aero was created in 2019 with backing from Uber cofounder Garrett Camp. Its CEO, Uma Subramanian, says the company has also experienced an unexpected tailwind as a result of the pandemic. Aero recently announced $20 million in funding and provides limited jet service from Los Angeles to ritzy vacation spots including Napa, California; Aspen, Colorado; and Sun Valley, Idaho. Aero also operates European routes including those to and from London; Nice, France; Mykonos, Greece; and Ibiza, Spain.
Prices are steep, starting at $1,000 one-way from L.A. to Napa, and $1,600 for all other U.S. summer routes. But it’s hard to beat the first-class feel in private airports and on board, with concierges who serve cocktails and snacks; swanky, hand-stitched leather seats designed in a one-by-one configuration (no clambering over anyone to use the restroom); and a maximum of 16 passengers per Embraer jet. “We want the experience to feel like your vacation is starting right now, totally hassle-free,” says Subramanian.
In addition, Subramanian notes, ticket prices remain consistent for the season, and routes are set. In other words, your flight won’t be canceled if the aircraft is rerouted for a more profitable booking. “We surprisingly have had very little pushback on price,” Subramanian said. “Our customers are really experientially driven. They’re people that really value their time.”
JSX (formerly JetSuiteX) initially catered to business travelers between the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, when it began service in 2016. These days the Dallas-based operator, which brands itself as a “hop-on” air service, is hitting its stride with the leisure set, too: by August, JSX will service 24 U.S. markets, a figure that’s doubled since January 2020.
CEO Alex Wilcox told Outside that most of its new routes were driven by “massive, massive demand” for recreation-centric destinations. Additions include Lajitas, Texas, near Big Bend National Park; Reno–Lake Tahoe, Nevada; San Diego and Monterey-Carmel, California; and Destin, a popular Florida Panhandle beach town. “We’re absolutely seeing a surge in outdoor travel,” he says. “Fresh air is the number one thing people are looking for after a year of lockdown and Zoom.”
One-way flights on JSX start at $99 but generally run a couple hundred dollars, comparable (and sometimes cheaper) in some markets to commercial fares, and passengers travel on spiffy, 30-seat Embraer 135’s and 145’s. In addition to its liberal baggage policies, pets up to 35 pounds fly free (provided they can comfortably fit in a carrier under the seat), and snacks and drinks (alcoholic ones, too) are also gratis.
Wilcox says that JSX is “hyper focused on transitioning to lower-emission or non-emissions technologies” as soon as possible. “We are talking confidentially to a number of all-electric and hybrid-electric aircraft manufacturers,” he says. “We want to be the launch customer for that technology.”
After suspending operations during the pandemic, this regional carrier will resume twice-weekly direct flights on July 1 between Taos, New Mexico, and two cities each in Texas and California: Austin and Dallas, and Carlsbad/San Diego and Hawthorne (in the Los Angeles area). One-way flights start at $210, and the maximum number of passengers is 30 per plane.
Service first launched in 2018 out of a partnership between Taos Ski Valley and a group of area municipalities, and passenger perks include no baggage fees, shuttle service into town, and ski-gear rentals in the winter. “We’re hearing from a lot of people about how excited they are to travel again, and reservations are booking well,” a spokesperson told Outside via email. Another draw for eco-conscious travelers? Taos Air offsets 100 percent of its carbon impact with credits that support carbon-storage efforts.
Lead Photo: Cessna Corp/Newsmakers/Getty