Uber for Private Jets: Can you really book the world’s most exclusive form of transport like you can a regular taxi?

 
Scarlet Winterberg

The on-demand economy has given us the Uber of food delivery, the Uber of dating and now... the Uber of private jets. But picking up someone’s dry-cleaning is one thing – can you really book the world’s most exclusive form of transport the same way you can book a taxi?

After filling in a few personal details on the JetSmarter app, I flick to the aircraft charter symbol, select my departure (London City) and arrival airport (New York JFK), the soonest available date (the next day), the time (10am), and up comes a list of jets, complete with glossy photos, the number of seats on board and the price. I like the look of the Challenger 604, which costs $101,100, split between nine people. That’s $11,233 each. A Citation Mustang, meanwhile, will take four people to Zurich tomorrow lunchtime for $7,900. I click “purchase” and it asks me to scan my credit card. All I have to do now is turn up with my passport.

Just as Uber democratised travelling by taxi by making it affordable for almost everyone, companies such as Florida-based JetSmarter are endeavouring to do the same. Or at least widen the net of potential punters (until a few years ago, the $40bn global private jet industry was fed by just 150,000 people). Founded in 2012 by Sergey Petrossov, JetSmarter not only allows for the private charter of whole planes to anywhere in the world, but the booking of empty seats (“Jet Deals”) on fixed routes (branded “Jet Shuttles”). It’s much the same as making a reservation with Easyjet.

“In the private aviation industry, many are familiar with jet cards or fractional jet ownership, where a light to mid-sized jet card can cost one anywhere from $130,000 to $150,000 a year for 25 hours’ worth of flying,” says Petrossov. “[But] we have essentially lowered the entry point for private aviation dramatically, allowing many people with a lower net worth to fly privately when they never could before.”

Who’s a typical customer? “Anyone from CEOs, entrepreneurs and real estate brokers to celebrities and models. The app caters to the frequent business or leisure flier, looking for easy, hassle free, convenient travel,” he says. Compared with boarding a commercial airline, private aviation claims to save an average of two hours, thanks to minimal queues at security and check-in times of as little as 15 minutes. The fact that JetSmarter has received financial backing from Jay Z adds to its cool factor, too.

In March, JetSmarter (which now has more than one million downloads) launched its “Simple” membership – for $5,000 a year, travellers can book a certain number of seats for no extra cost on scheduled flights between a range of European cities. They can also get “free” seats on last-minute “empty legs”. (Private jets are traditionally chartered one-way, so they return to their home base without any passengers.)

This is where the financial savings really come in – with Jet Deals advertised tomorrow, I can fly from Vienna to Brussels on a Citation CJ3 for $270 a seat. Plus I get my first two seats for free. However, the experience won’t be “private”, as such, as you’ll be sharing the cabin with a group of strangers, just like Uber Pool.

Other companies have dabbled in bringing private jets to the masses with less success. Four years after being set up by Uber co-founder Garrett Camp, Blackjet was grounded in May 2016. “All-you-can-fly” jet start-up Beacon went bust after just one year, again in 2016. Both companies were going down the membership route, and neither took flight. (Beacon charged $2,000 a month for unlimited flights between Boston’s Logan airport and Westchester County airport outside of New York City.) There has also briefly been Airpooler, Freshjets (whose founder was charged with felony theft last summer), and yes, even Ubair.

Mass travel between 100 to 1,000 miles will all be private air travel in the future, and large airline-style commercial aviation will be a thing of the past in 20 years

Like JetSmarter, there are a handful of companies that have managed to ride out the turbulence. Surfair has been dubbed the “Netflix of air travel”, charging a monthly fee of £2,500 for unlimited flights. After launching in California in 2013, it recently began flying to five destinations in Europe – London, Cannes, Geneva, Zurich and Paris. Bookings via its app can be done in just 30 seconds.

London-founded jet hire company Victor (flyvictor.com) says it has “put the widest choice of jets, routes and prices at your fingertips so you can be ready to fly within three hours”. It offers direct access to more than 7,000 aircraft and displays price estimates based on “current aircraft availability”. Victor’s app allows you to request and compare quotes for the routes you want, or search for empty legs, before booking.

Stratajet, another British company, also offers private jets for sole-use charter, taking a small commission on each flight booked through the system, with exact prices rather than quotes advertised and there are no subscription fees. Founded in 2011, it has 1,250 planes, 10,000 members, and connects to 44 countries in Europe. Last year it also expanded into the US.

Jonny Nicol, founder and CEO, says: “Stratajet’s most interesting stat is the fact that 32 per cent of its customers are first-time private jet fliers. This is in contrast to the industry norm of less than one per cent. This is because the app generates accurate flight costs on the operators’ behalf, with no manual input from the operators. What’s more, just under 50 per cent of Stratajet’s customers are 34 years old or younger.”

He adds: “This was traditionally the hardest demographic to target due to the elitist nature of private jet travel but as our platform is easy to engage with, an increasingly tech-savvy younger audience is enjoying the benefits of private aviation. In fact, this younger demographic is growing quicker than any other age group.” With the average booking costing £6,000, these aren’t your average millennials.

Nicol is optimistic about the direction the market is moving: “As of late 2016 and early 2017, the industry has enjoyed its first uptick in some time in terms of the number of charter flights being booked. Until then, private aviation had been struggling to recover from the recession. A great deal of emphasis had been placed on making aircraft more and more luxurious and this resulted in an elitist stigma, which was holding private jets back.”

Petrossov agrees: “My outlook for the private jet industry is that mass travel between 100 to 1,000 miles will all be private air travel in the future, and large airline-style commercial aviation will be a thing of the past in 20 years. I also believe that operational costs will significantly decrease due to hybrid electric aircraft, and will be priced at a level accessible to the masses.”

It’s already happening. A new airline called Waves is tipped for take-off in July, with flights from Jersey and Guernsey to the UK for as little as £55. Passengers will have the option of having the 14-seat plane to themselves, or allowing the carrier to sell the other seats to the public, which will be cheaper. Maybe these “Ubers of the sky” really are in it for the long-haul.

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