Sharing a private jet ride may seem counterintuitive during a pandemic, but of the handful of companies involved in single-seat charter sales, most say their business has increased since the Covid-19 outbreak. Yet a schism remains between the young pilots targeted by these new business models and the customers of more established private jets.
Wheels Up, which launched in 2013, pioneered the single-seat charter concept by offering shared flights on its original fleet of King Air 350i turboprops, before expanding the program to business jets taller. Its Shared Flight program involves Core members looking to fill empty seats by posting upcoming flights on its app; depending on the number of travelers hitchhiking, this could result in savings of 50% or more.
Wheels Up President Vinayak Hegde says the shared membership activity has maintained its popularity. “It’s not like we’re just booking a spot,” he says. “Two parties have to agree on the terms of the partnership, so they are in control.”
Meanwhile, XO is reporting year-over-year gains of nearly 80% in its single-seat shared charter program. “We’ve had the program since the company began,” says Lynn Fischer, XO’s chief marketing officer, “and it continues to grow.” XO is selling empty seats on 50 weekly charters from New York to South Florida, and interest is growing on New York-Naples, Florida, and Los Angeles-to-Aspen routes.
Charterers may advertise an empty seat or individuals may join “crowd-funded” flights. Management of the two programs: ambitious pilots between 18 and 44 years old. “We communicated how accessible private aviation is,” says Fischer. “We want to fully occupy these flights rather than fly them half empty.”
Dallas-based JSX has organized its core business around selling individual seats, originally for as little as $129 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The company began scheduled flights between fixed-base operators in California, Las Vegas and Phoenix using converted 30-seat CRJs, positioning it as a more luxurious alternative to commercial flights. It was an instant hit among ambitious types, says JSX director Ben Kaufman. “The clientele was heavily skewed toward those under 35,” Kaufman says. “We got a lot of publicity through social media, with people taking selfies on the plane.”
But as JSX has grown – it now serves destinations in California, Nevada, Texas, Florida, and New York – its dynamic pricing model has dramatically increased rates; that $129 LA-Vegas ticket is now often closer to $500, which has changed the customer base. “We have seen our clients aged 35 to 55 [years old] increase to 60% during the pandemic,” says Kaufman.
More traditional aviation customers, including plane owners and jet 25-hour card members, have moved in the opposite direction, according to Jamie Walker, president and CEO of Jet Linx. “We launched our OpenSeat Exchange in 2019, at the request of cardholders who wanted a seat on their plane,” he explains. Initially, the exchange went as planned. “But as soon as the pandemic hit, activity slowed down,” adds Walker, noting that now “very few members are releasing those seats.” This is partly because Jet Linx members are a different demographic than the ambitious aviators attracted to single-seat programs. “If they committed at 25 p.m. [of private-jet travel] per year, they can afford not to sell the seats,” he explains. But he expects activity to pick up as Covid eases. Which begs the question: how “private” are private jet trips if they include a group of strangers?