How Flying Semi-Private Could Save Your Sanity (Without Breaking the Bank)
Semi-private flights offer a more affordable alternative to private jet travel, with better service and fewer passengers than commercial carriers. Could this be the perfect way to fly?
This past July, like many Americans, my husband and I, together with our two small children, finally set out for our first flight since the start of the pandemic, traveling from San Francisco to Raleigh, North Carolina, to visit family we hadn’t seen in nearly two years. We were nervous and excited all at once, but there was one wild card that had us particularly on edge: flying with an unpredictable two-year-old.
We had already experienced some warning signs in the more-crowded-than-we-were-comfortable-with SFO airport and at the boarding gate when her mask-wearing skills started (quite literally) slipping. Despite having vigorously trained her during playground and other outings to wear her mask, by the time we reached cruising altitude, said two-year-old had shunned the mask almost entirely. Futhermore, she threw such an epic 20-minute tantrum (maskless screaming is not exactly COVID-appropriate behavior) upon landing for our newly added layover in Chicago that numerous passengers checked in on me during disembarkation to make sure I was OK. As a result, I spent the entire second leg of the journey fully regretting our decision to fly. It was too soon, I told myself, considering the pandemic and our kids’ ages. What were we thinking?
Flying commercial has had its fair share of potential setbacks since long before COVID came along—traveling with young kids is eternally fraught with challenges, and there have always been weather-induced cancellations and delays, customer service issues, aircraft problems, and more. But when you combine the regular pitfalls of air travel with all the pandemic-amplified ones (public health concerns, crowds, mass flight cancellations, and air rage, to name a few), it can create a perfect storm of heightened stress, anxiety, and aggravation. For me, the challenge of trying to manage small kids alongside COVID hurdles and protocols was enough to make me feel like throwing up my hands and screaming, “I give up!”—and I did. We pushed pause on flying after that.
What it’s like to fly semi-private
In November, I decided to dip my toe back into air travel—but a very, very different kind of air travel. I have been wanting to try the semi-private air travel service JSX for years. With the pandemic having intensified my craving for a calmer and less crowded flying experience, I decided to go on a short, one-hour flight from Northern California down to Orange County, California, with my five-year-old son.
Compared to our commercial air travel journey over the summer, the experience was night and day—and not just because we left the toddler at home. It was, dare I say, even downright peaceful and relaxing. We valet parked our car at the seperate JSX terminal, which is near but not in the main Oakland International Airport. After a quick check-in (which also serves as a security and I.D. check) with no one ahead of us, we dropped off our checked bags and walked straight through the security scanners without removing a thing (part of the carrier’s unique, TSA-approved security process). We then waited in a simple but pleasant lounge area that was outfitted with a smattering of sleek couches, coffee tables, communal work tables, and armchairs with access to complimentary coffee and tea. There were about two dozen fellow passengers all masked up, sitting quietly, reading or working. There were no constant loud announcements over the P.A. system, and no lines or crowds of any kind. It was so quiet. So civilized.
The 30-passenger plane (in a two-one seat configuration) didn’t have seatback screens or entertainment (much to my son’s dismay), but the short flight did include gourmet snacks and drinks (sparkling rosé wine and brownie bites among them). Once we landed, we grabbed our luggage right outside the aircraft and were on our way.
Our return flight from Orange County was just as seamless. Again, check-in was a breeze, the small lounge area was quiet and uncrowded, and we boarded and disembarked without incident. (For the return trip, I made sure to download some TV shows for my son so that he had something in addition to books and coloring to pass the time.)
It was, honestly, kind of a game changer, especially considering that some JSX flights are similar in price or just slightly more than the same flights on commercial carriers. (One-way flights from Oakland to Burbank, California, start at $119.) Interested? Here’s everything you need to know about flying semi-private, including the pros, cons, and some of the companies that offer this unique air travel experience.
What is semi-private air travel?
Private jets are sleek, smaller aircraft that offer ultimate privacy and exclusivity in the skies—for a steep price. Private jets typically range from smaller 4-person aircraft to slightly larger 20-passenger planes; it costs between $1,300 and $3,000 per flying hour to charter a 4-to-6-passenger private jet and goes up from there.
But there is actually something between that extreme level of air travel luxury and flying with the masses on 100- to 300-passenger commercial aircraft. Enter: the semi-private jet experience.
Semi-private air travel is typically offered on smaller 15- to 30-person planes (or even helicopters) flying domestic routes—though some fly international routes as well. Airlines that offer this service typically sell individual seats on these smaller aircraft that can be booked online, just as you would book with a major carrier.
How much does semi-private air travel cost?
Because passengers are not chartering the entire aircraft the way you would when booking a private jet, pricing ranges from something that would be comparable to commercial air travel (JSX flights, for instance start at $119 each way for interstate flights, and go up to $750 each way for longer flights from New York to Florida) to something more in line with business or first-class pricing (Aero flights from Los Angeles to Los Cabos start at $1,950 one-way).
Can kids and pets fly semi-private?
In short, yes. I was a little apprehensive about traveling with my five-year-old son on JSX when I realized he was the only child on our outgoing flight—and I couldn’t help but think how self-conscious I would feel if our toddler had been with us. (On our return flight, there were two babies onboard.) Kids under two can typically travel as a lap child, and those over two years of age will need their own seat.
As for pets, check with each carrier for their specific pet policy, but typically small or medium-size pets are allowed to travel in the cabin free of charge.
Companies that offer semi-private flights
Formerly JetSuiteX, JSX launched in 2016. Current JSX routes connect several California hubs, including Burbank, Concord, Los Angeles, Monterey, Orange County, Oakland, and San Diego. The airline also flies to Reno-Tahoe, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas, Austin, and Houston and more recently added Miami and Westchester County in New York to its roster.
JSX is by far one of the most affordable options for semi-private travel with one-way fares starting as low as $119 on 30-seat planes, which includes up to two checked bags as well as snacks and drinks onboard. Kids (including infants) and pets are welcome to fly.
The carrier recommends arriving 30 minutes before your flight is scheduled to take off. The waiting lounges, which are typically in their own terminal apart from the main airport, are Wi-Fi equipped and have coffee, tea, water, and restrooms available for passengers (if you want something more substantial to eat, you’ll need to bring your own food or eat before or after travel).
JSX predominantly flies the Embraer E135 aircraft, a shorter version of the more common Embraer E145 aircraft operated by many U.S. regional airlines. The planes are outfitted with cushy leather seats and tray tables, but no seatback screens—so bring your own device(s) and/or reading material.
Launched in 2020, the semi-private, luxury airline Aero offers a slightly more elevated product than JSX, at more elevated prices. One-way flights from Los Angeles to Las Vegas start at $950, one-way flights from San Francisco to Aspen start at $1,900, one-way flights from L.A. to Los Cabos start at $1,900, and one-way flights from London to Milan start at $1,625. Prices include one checked luggage and one carry-on, drinks and snacks onboard. Kids (including infants) and small pets are welcome onboard.
Aero flies to and from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Los Cabos (Mexico), Las Vegas, Jackson Hole in Wyoming, and Aspen and Vail in Colorado. It also flies between some European hubs, including London, Milan, Nice in France, and Geneva, Switzerland.
Flights take place on custom-designed black jets complete with leather seats that accommodate up to 16 passengers. Like JSX, Aero flies out of private terminals, so passengers can arrive about 30 minutes before their flight. Aero offers customers a concierge service to help with special requests such as booking a car service to and from the airport and requesting specific food or beverages.
Semi-private travel is not a new concept, at least not according to the 20-year-old Tradewind Aviation. The Oxford, Connecticut-based company operates on-demand and scheduled flights throughout the U.S. and Caribbean.
Scheduled service includes flights to and from Westchester County in New York, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, and Stowe, Vermont in the Northeast.Tradewind also flies between the Carribbean destinations of Anguilla, Antigua, San Juan, St. Thomas and St. Barths.
Flights run anywhere from $200 to hop between Caribbean islands to an opening rate of $750 to fly to Stowe or Nantucket from Westchester. The aircraft fly out of private air terminals and flights include onboard refreshments.
As of January 1, 2022, Tradewind said it has committed to purchasing carbon offsets for all of its flights.
Surf Air is a jet membership service that incudes both scheduled semi-private flights (such as JSX flights) and on-demand jet service. The on-demand flights can be booked to and from hundreds of hubs all across the United States. Memberships range from $199 per month to access the inventory then pay per flight, to $3,000 per month to unlock an unlimited flight plan.
Blade, a helicopter and semi-private flight service, predominantly operates flights to and from New York City with destinations that include Palm Beach, Florida; East Hampton; Aspen; Los Angeles; Las Vegas; and Nantucket. It also offers helicopter service from Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport and Newark International Airport. One-way flights to the Hamptons from New York City start at $700, flights to Palm Beach start at $1,975, and flights to Aspen are priced at $5,850.
The benefits of flying semi-private
No crowds or long security lines. There are few things more disheartening than arriving at the airport—even with plenty of time before your flight—only to see a line of people snaking through security. (Add to that the extra health and safety concerns about crowds brought on by the pandemic.) With a limited number of routes on smaller aircraft, the crowds and lines are basically non-existent when flying semi-private.
No need to arrive at the airport two hours early. As a lifetime member of #teamearly when it comes airport arrival, this was difficult for me to take to heart. But you actually can show up 30 minutes before your flight, as per the carrier’s recommendation, because the security process is so much quicker—and there are fewer people and lines to contend with. I still showed up 1.5 hours before my outgoing flight on JSX and quickly realized that was ridiculously early, especially seeing as the independent terminals JSX operates out of do not have any shops or restaurants.
Great customer service. With fewer fliers and a higher price point, semi-private airlines offer higher-touch service. From a seamless check-in process to valet parking and concierge services, the customer approach is more personalized, attentive, and well above what you would expect on many commercial flights.
The (potential) drawbacks of flying semi-private
The cost. While there are actually some pretty great deals to be found in the semi-private flight space, the flights will typically cost more than the commercial counterpart. However, there is a lot to be said for what these flights can save you in terms of time and frustration. Also, be sure to do all the math regarding any additional fees you might pay on a commercial flight (e.g., for baggage) to see how a semi-private flight stacks up.
No shops or restaurants. Since the flights take off and land at independent terminals, you won’t have access to the shops and restaurants you find in the main terminals. The lounge might offer some drinks or snacks, but that’s it. So be prepared with your own provisions and your own way to pass the time (reading, working, scrolling, etc.).
Limited flight schedule. Probably the biggest drawback is the limited availability of these services. These flights typically serve very specific leisure travel destinations. For many travelers, they might not be an option because they simply don’t fly to or from where you need to go.
Parking. This can actually be a pro or con depending on the airport or terminal you are flying into or out of. In some cases, if the semi-private carrier is flying out of a smaller, less crowded airport or terminal, parking might be easy compared to a larger airport. But, for instance, JSX only offers valet parking at some of its terminals, which means that parking can get very expensive. In those cases you might be better off taking a car service.
Flying semi-private during COVID-19
Semi-private carriers are subject to the same federal health and safety requirements as national carriers. That means that, as per the latest U.S. Centers for Disease Control mandate, all staff and passengers age two and older must wear a face mask in the airport and onboard the flight.
Just as commercial airlines have done, semi-private airlines have implemented COVID-19 health and sanitation measures, such as enhanced cleaning. There is also the inherent public health benefit of flying with fewer fellow passengers than on commercial flights. Change and cancellation policies vary depending on the semi-private airline. For instance, JSX charges a $50 change fee for its lowest tier “hop on” fares, but does not for its “all in” fares. Aero allows changes and cancellations for no fee up to 48 hours prior to departure (a fare difference will apply).
Semi-private jet travel is not exempt from government travel restrictions. Those flying internationally need to take into consideration the specific vaccine or testing requirements for entering their destination or for their return to the United States. The International Air Transport Association has created an interactive world map that offers travelers updated COVID-19 entry regulations by country. This can serve as a handy guide for semi-private fliers.