Even if you don’t own your own plane, a number of ride-sharing private jet startups want to help you fly in style, with flights that are about 50 percent more than the cost of a first-class ticket.
Conrad Black, the former newspaper magnate and member of the British House of Lords, was once asked how he enjoyed the Concorde, the supersonic jet that traversed the Atlantic Ocean between New York and London in less than four hours.
“I never take public transportation,” he reportedly said.
The allure of private jets is undeniable—so much so that aspiring influencers can rent a grounded private jet to take selfies with. Whereas private aviation was once the domain of the ultra-rich (like Black), today it’s slightly more accessible. Over the past decade, several private aviation startups have begun to sell seats on private flights between destinations such as New York and Miami. The fares are in the low four figures, compared to the low to mid five figures it costs to charter an entire jet. And yes, you can book the flights with an app.
“As an industry, we are experiencing the democratization of private aviation,” says Stephanie Chung, president of private jet company JetSuite. She cites the shift away from whole aircraft ownership toward shared and membership models as one of the reasons why private jets have become more accessible. The company, which is backed by Qatar Airlines, includes Zappos founder Tony Hsieh as a board member; JetBlue founder David Neeleman was previously on the board. Among other aircraft, JetSuite flies the Embraer Phenom 100, a sleek and fast business jet built in the United States.
“The private jet experience has become more practical by allowing people to pay for just the flight hours they need,” Chung says.
One prime example is the New York to Miami route, one of the most lucrative private jet routes in the country, according to Robert Wiesenthal, CEO of Blade. “There’s a large white space between a first-class ticket on a scheduled airline and a $22,000 private jet charter between New York and Miami,” says Wiesenthal. Blade is best known for helicopter flights between Manhattan and JFK (and points east such as the Hamptons and Nantucket.) A Blade Bounce helicopter flight between Manhattan and JFK airport runs around $700, but can be split among six friends (or shared with other travelers) using the Blade app.
For example, JetSmarter offers flights from New York to Miami aboard a Bombardier CRJ200 with 16 seats. On a recent search within two weeks of the flight, there was only one seat left for a Thursday morning flight. But for the next day, eight of 16 seats were left, priced between $2,000 and $3,000 for a one-way ticket. In contrast, a search for similar dates and destinations with Delta Airlines yielded first class fares between $1,500 and $1,800 one way—which comes with the added hassle of dealing with the airport terminal, arriving early for security lines, and traveling with riffraff like me. (Private jets operate out of general aviation terminals, where passengers can walk up to their terminal some 20 minutes before departure.) For some, avoiding those everyday travel hassles is worth the 50 percent higher cost. It’s not entirely private, however, as you’ll be sharing the flight with 15 or so other jet-setters.
Not everyone in the industry is a fan of this shared model. “It is less than optimum,” Blade CEO Wiesenthal says. “The ergonomics of a private jet are designed for people who know each other—either families or coworkers. Seats facing each other, seats where you are seated at table jammed between a passenger and the fuselage, benches where you have to sit sideways—private jets are not meant for sharing with people you don’t know,” he says.
Wiesenthal notes that his company’s Blade One jet is more akin to first-class seating—you do not need to interact with your fellow passengers, each seat has its own window, and there is one flight attendant for every four passengers. Blade One flies Thursday, Fridays, Sundays, and Mondays between Westchester and Miami, complete with helicopter transfer from one of four bases in Manhattan. Recent posted round-trip fares were $5,500 per person.
As an added bonus, Wiesenthal says that if you buy two round-trip tickets, you’ll enjoy two free nights at the Faena Hotel on South Beach, the five-star hotel known for its massive Damien Hirst sculpture of a golden mammoth skeleton. He’s looking into further expanding the routes: “Blade One between Los Angeles and Cabo could be a possibility,” he says.
“For flights in California, where JetSuiteX operates, and for business travelers in particular, JetSuiteX will be much nicer than what you get with Southwest, for example,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry expert and founder of Atmosphere Research Group. “You might even get to park for free at the general aviation terminal. What’s not to like?”
Convenience aside, these flights are primed for the selfie set.
“No lines, no wait, and no worries if you didn’t finish that bottle of wine last night or you have a whole bag of groceries that can’t fit in your bag—all aboard!” actress Sonya Balmores wrote in an Instagram post extolling the virtues of semi-private jetting.
In the battle to be the “Uber” of private aviation, one company has a leg up, albeit possibly in name only: Uberjets. Unrelated to the ride-sharing company, Uberjets offers an app to help find and book charter aircraft between multiple destinations. Like many aviation tech startups, it doesn’t own or operate a fleet of aircraft but is an intermediary.
The Uberjets app also allows users to find so-called empty-leg deals. In such cases, a private jet has dropped passengers on a one-way leg and would otherwise return to its home base empty. Instead, the jet-set can benefit from flying the return leg home at a discount. But it involves chartering an entire jet, so it’s pricey: An empty-leg flight from California to New York could cost $20,000. A recent search with the Uberjets app yielded a one-way leg at around $8,500 between New York and Fort Lauderdale for a private jet seating six.
And, of course, Uber, the ride-sharing platform, wants a piece of the private jet pie, too. Uber is working on intra-city transport with vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, called Uber Elevate. The ride-sharing giant intends to launch suburb-to-city air transport by 2023, according to its website. A spokesperson for the company said there are no plans to operate Uber Elevate between cities—but perhaps it’s only a matter of time before Uber gets into the air travel business.