Brett Wilson usually flies commercial when he travels for pleasure. But when the airlines can’t accommodate his schedule, Mr. Wilson – co-founder of the Calgary-based investment bank FirstEnergy Capital Corp. and a former Dragon’s Den investor – hops on a private jet he co-owns through a program that lets members buy shares or fractions of a plane.
“I’d say that 90 per cent of my personal travel is on commercial flights and the rest is on private aircraft,” says Mr. Wilson, who bought his fractional jet shares through AirSprint Inc. in Calgary. “When the convenience factor is just off the scale – like when there’s no other way to get to Nashville direct, or when I’m coming back from Kelowna at midnight – it makes sense to go private.”
Mr. Wilson has been a private jet owner since 2003, when he bought his first plane outright before switching to fractional ownership about six years ago. This puts him within the tiny circle of wealthy Canadians who boast their own wings.
According to a wealth report released last year by London-based real estate consultant Knight Frank LLP, there are 534 privately owned jets in Canada, which ranks fourth in the world for private ownership behind the United States, with more than 12,700, and Mexico, with 950, and Brazil, with 786.
“Times are good, financially speaking, and flying commercially continues to be less and less reliable,” says Doug Gollan, a Miami-based, private-aviation industry veteran and owner of Private Jet Card Comparisons, an online service that helps subscribers comparison-shop for the best prepaid private jet cards – prepaid cards that can be loaded with a number of flight hours or a dollar amount that can be used to buy a seat on a private flight. “For people who can afford it, private jets are the way to go.”
The benefits of flying private range from serious time savings – thanks to the absence of security lines and the ability to fly direct to destinations that would normally require a regional connection – to greatly elevated travel experiences, with no seatmates fighting over elbow room or pushing their knees into the back of your seat.
But even for high-net-worth individuals, the decision to own a private jet isn’t as simple as buying a Rolex or the latest Mulberry bag.
“It’s a $20-million to $70-million commitment upfront, and that doesn’t include the cost of flying and maintaining the aircraft,” says Mr. Gollan. “After the financial crisis of 2008, people have become a bit apprehensive about what the economy might be like two to three years from now and are cautious about making that kind of financial commitment.”
This doesn’t mean wealthy people are backing away from private jets. In its latest private wealth report, Knight Frank notes that while sales of new private jets have stayed flat in recent years, private flight activity has gone up. In the United States and Europe, there were more than 2.5 million departures last year – an increase of almost 5 per cent from 2016.
Of these, only about half were on jets wholly owned by an individual or business.
“People are becoming more conscious of the fact that there are options other than whole ownership,” says James Elian, chief executive officer at AirSprint, whose fractional program gives owners access to multiple planes to suit their travel schedule. “Why spend $18-million or so to buy your own plane when you can spend maybe $575,000 to a million dollars to buy part of an asset?”
Beyond whole and fractional ownership, private flight options for the jet set include jet card or membership programs – where members prepay for a certain number of flying hours – and on-demand chartering. The latter often comes with membership tiers that provide extra benefits such as priority booking and longer grace periods for a plane to wait on the tarmac if a member is late to the airport.
So who’s buying entire planes, fractions of a plane or charter flights?
A recent report by Wealth-X, a London- and New York-based research firm that specializes in data on high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth individuals, describes whole jet owners as “the wealthiest of the wealthy” with an average net worth of almost $2-billion. Many buy a jet through one of their companies and use it for business and personal travel.
Wealth-X says more than half of these elite fliers – who are typically older, male and married – also use jet card membership programs in addition to flying their own jets. They’re still in ultra-exclusive territory; other jet card members who don’t own private jets boast an average net worth of more than $1.4-billion.
By comparison, private charter jet users tend to be the least wealthy of the wealthy, with an average net worth of just over $87-million, says Wealth-X. These charter fliers are also younger and count many women among their ranks.
With more options today in private aviation, high-net-worth travellers are increasingly mixing whole or fractional ownership with jet cards and charters, says Michael Chase, president at M.D. Chase & Associates, an aircraft market research firm in Dallas.
For those who aren’t sure whether to buy whole, buy a fraction, prepay or charter, Mr. Chase offers these rules of thumb: If you’re flying about 25 hours a year, choose charter. Between 25 to 100 hours, think jet card. Up to 200 hours a year, consider fractional ownership. For more than 200 hours, it’s time to go shopping for your own plane.
“These are just guidelines, of course,” says Mr. Chase. “Private owners usually fly between 400 to 500 hours on average, and what some have done is buy a plane for their own use and then hire it out as a charter when they’re not using it.”
Mr. Elian at AirSprint says he’s seeing a growing number of private jet owners moving to fractional ownership. One reason for this may be that as they have gotten older and moved toward retirement, they’re tapering down their flying time.
While a majority of AirSprint owners are older than 40, the young and wealthy are also coming on board, says Mr. Elian. “The younger generation is more accepting of the sharing economy, which is pretty much what fractional ownership is,” he says.
For Mr. Wilson, switching from owning an entire plane to fractional simply made sense. His AirSprint shares entitle him to about 100 hours of flying time a year on an Embraer Legacy 450, a fast plane with a posh interior. He says it’s been especially valuable for him to be able to book a flight on any Legacy 450 in the AirSprint fleet.
“I found that fractional meets my needs better than outright ownership,” he says. “There’s so much flexibility in terms of point-to-point flights and having access to a fleet of aircraft in North America is pretty amazing.”