Skip to main content
By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Private jet travel is booming. No, you still can’t afford it.

For a significant fare, ditch commercial air for a world without security lines, mass cancellations or unruly passengers

(Lisk Feng/Illustration for The Washington Post)

Warren Buffett and I inhabit very different worlds. He is super rich; I am not. However, with the ongoing meltdown of commercial air, I think I have a better understanding of the famously frugal billionaire who changed the name of his private plane from “Indefensible” to “Indispensable.”

Commercial aviation has experienced a rough couple of years with mass cancellations, interminable delays, widespread staff shortages and violent outbursts by unruly passengers. More disruptions are expected this holiday season and into next year.

One possible antidote is the relative calm of flying private, a sector that has boomed during the pandemic.

“Once you’ve flown private, you won’t go back to commercial,” said Maurie Cohen, a professor of sustainable studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “You don’t have to deal with the petty inconveniences. The perks of first and business class don’t compare.”

According to tracking data in Argus International’s TRAQPak, private plane travel in North America increased by 17 percent in the first half of this year, compared with 2019. WingX, a research and consulting firm, noted that private jets constitute a quarter of U.S. flights.

“It’s not just the Taylor Swifts and Kylie Jenners of the world. This is the normal way to travel for many people.”
— Maurie Cohen, a professor of sustainable studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology

“I can’t see this as plateauing. It’s not going to go away,” Cohen said. “It’s not just the Taylor Swifts and Kylie Jenners of the world. This is the normal way to travel for many people.”

As a longtime citizen of coach class, I am more than ready for an alternative. But, I must uncouthly ask, at what price? Charter plane fares can cost at least 10 times more than a first-class ticket, which, for many travelers, is a splurge in itself.

Before the pandemic, private aviation occupied a stratosphere out of most travelers’ reach. During the global health crisis, however, it seemed to enter the realm of possibility for travelers who could afford the privilege.

Celebrities use private jets excessively. It’s a climate nightmare.

The wide spectrum of options, such as purchasing a jet for millions or flying on a semiprivate plane for hundreds, opens up this category of travel to more people. Stratos jet services even had a Black Friday special that shaved a grand off its $14,500 annual membership.

“Private travel has become more accessible,” said Justin Crabbe, founder and chief executive of Jettly, a Toronto-based private jet charter business. “We have a database of operators we can book like Expedia.”

The ease of booking is one thing; having your credit card company freeze your account is another.

“Is it going to be affordable to the masses?” asked George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. “I don’t think it’s ever going to be affordable.”

The advantages of flying private

Private air differs from commercial from the ground up.

Passengers depart from smaller executive or private airports that do not fall under the purview of the Transportation Security Administration. Instead of scanning machines and pat-downs, the company will conduct a background check and may ask the guest for a photo ID upon arrival. Travelers can show up 15 to 20 minutes before boarding, or earlier if they wish to partake in the free hot beverages and other posh amenities in the airport lounge.

Like all flying objects, private planes are affected by inclement weather. Delays can happen, but not on the scale of commercial flights, which contend with a host of other challenges beyond force majeure, or acts of God.

“It is more efficient and reliable,” Hobica said. “You’re more likely to get [to your destination].”

Other advantages: no restrictions on the number of bags or amount of liquids, although the company may limit the weight, depending on the size of the plane. Flights are nonstop, unless the pilot needs to refuel. Cellphones do not need to be switched to airplane mode, so you can chat up the groundlings below.

You can even put the dog, who may be resting uncrated at your feet, on the phone to say hello.

“I’ve only thought of flying private when I wanted to bring my dog,” said Hobica, who a few breaths earlier had described private aviation as “immoral,” because of the financial and environmental wastefulness.

Kylie Jenner gets roasted for flaunting private jet in climate crisis

You can debate the value of money, but there’s no denying the harmful effect that private planes have on the environment, especially when they are used like the family station wagon.

Case in point: In July, Celebrity Jets, a Twitter account that uses flight-tracking data to follow famous private fliers, called out Floyd Mayweather for his 10-minute flight from Henderson, Nev., to Las Vegas. The professional boxer’s Gulfstream guzzled about 568 pounds of fuel and emitted about a ton of carbon dioxide.

By comparison, an average passenger vehicle releases 4.6 metric tons per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The cliquish culture of private aviation is no friend to the climate, either. The passenger list is typically small and intimate. Empty seats will remain empty, because you’re not running a high-altitude bus, after all.

How to arrange a private flight

Buy your own jet. At the top of the chain of privilege and convenience is buying a plane, which can cost millions for the aircraft alone.

For example, the going rate for Swift’s jet of choice, the Dassault Falcon 7X, is about $54 million for a 2022 model, or less for a used model. Additional expenditures include the crew, fuel, hangar, insurance and maintenance. SherpaReport, which covers the private aviation industry, calculates the financial outlay at about $6,400 per hour for the Falcon.

In return, the owner has total control, including the flight schedule and the color palette.

“It’s your jet. If you want to paint it pink or blue, you can,” said David Gitman, president of Monarch Air Group, a charter provider. “It gives you the height of flexibility and customization.”

Split a plane like a timeshare. However, planes have expensive needs and demands.

If you’re not ready to take the plunge, you can wade into private aviation with fractional ownership. The arrangement resembles a timeshare: You purchase a portion of a plane and are allotted a set number of flight hours per year.

Fractional owners pay at least six figures for their slice of the plane, plus a monthly maintenance fee, an hourly flying rate and a hodgepodge of other charges, such as fuel. Two of the biggest fractional ownership companies are Flexjet and NetJets, which Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway presciently purchased in 1998.

“It’s a three- to five-year commitment,” said Kevin O’Leary, president of Jet Advisors, which advises private jet owners, “and you pay a penalty to get out of it.”

We tried the new seaplane flight from D.C. to New York

Use prepaid jet cards. Travelers not ready for an expensive toy should consider a jet card, which resembles a debit card filled with prepaid flying time. The cards are typically valid for a year, and the hourly price is locked in. “It’s a guaranteed rate, like a Forever stamp,” O’Leary said.

Magellan Jets, for instance, sells cards with 25-hour blocks. The hourly rate varies by plane type, such as about $8,000 for an Embraer Phenom 300, a six-seat light aircraft, or $14,500 for a Gulfstream G450/550, a heavy jet that can carry a dozen people. Gas is not included. (Many of these companies also offer memberships, which are similar to the cards but with more benefits.)

Charter a plane. The best option for leisure travelers who might fly private once or twice a year (or a lifetime) is to charter a plane.

“It is one of the least expensive ways to go,” O’Leary said.

The process is as simple and straightforward as booking a trip with a travel agent: Share your travel plans with the broker or agent, who will contact the company’s network of private plane operators. Before you can even reach your accountant to make sure you can afford this splurge, you will have several quotes in your inbox.

For a discount of up to 75 percent, you can try to reserve an empty leg — a plane that is repositioning or heading back to home base without any passengers. However, the savings come with a modicum of risk: Passengers often won’t know until the last minute whether a plane with their itinerary is departing on their desired day and at their preferred time.

“You can get lucky once in a while,” said O’Leary, who does not recommend this alternative if you have to be somewhere at a set time, such as a wedding or cruise.

Fly semiprivate. Finally, companies with semiprivate service, such as Tailwind Air, Surf Air and JSX, add a pinch of commercial air to the otherwise elite experience. Passengers reap the benefits of private terminals, but the other faces onboard will not be part of their personal entourage.

“It fills a niche between commercial and private jets,” said Alex Wilcox, co-founder and chief executive of JSX, which serves more than 20 destinations.

Semiprivate is the gateway to private, though you could probably linger in this category for a while. On JSX, for example, round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Las Vegas start at $358.

“Some of the semiprivate planes are cheap compared to first-class on short distance,” Hobica said.

When a $4,600 ticket seems cheap

For me to determine whether I could fly private, I had get into the right mind-set. No more fretting about the price or using budget airlines as my litmus test. I had to think like a first-class flier about to embark on the biggest upgrade of her life.

“I would dispense with this idea of cost. It is inconsequential,” Cohen said, after the 10th time of hearing me voice my concerns about the price tag. “Luxury, time and status are more important.”

Frontier debuts all-you-can-fly pass for $599 — with caveats

I kicked off my quest with Stratos Jet Charters. I first checked for an empty leg from Washington to Boston, but none showed up. So I called the company and spoke with a delightful agent named Alex, who told me I should charter a plane — an entire aircraft all to myself. Because I no longer cared about money, I provided him with my details.

Not long after our conversation, I received three quotes. The least expensive option was the Vision Jet for about $19,000 round trip. But Alex warned me that the one-pilot, single-engine plane with an airframe parachute system — a parachute that cradles the whole plane — did not fully meet the company’s safety standards.

An online search unnerved me even more: A Cirrus Vision SF50 crashed in Florida in September and in Colombia the following month. In the former incident, the lightweight material deployed, a first for the SF50 in a real-life emergency; thankfully, all three passengers survived.

Alex recommended the HondaJet for $22,984 (cash), $23,328 (crypto) or $23,903 (credit card). For an additional $247, I could offset my carbon emissions.

Before deciding, I sought out a second opinion with Surf Air. I found a range of results, including a $4,600 one-way flight on a Cirrus SR22 that, in light of my new attitude, was cheap.

Before my alter ego could book it, my voice of reason escaped from the panic room and urged me to look online. I found a first-class flight on Delta for $387 round trip.

Sure, I’d have to deal with security lines and possible delays. But with this fare, I could sit comfortably among the other commercial elite knowing that I didn’t bankrupt myself for convenience or cachet.

Loading...