Fly Like A Fat Cat With more options and lower costs, the exclusive realm of private jet travel could almost become, dare we say, common.
By Brad Wetzler

(Business 2.0) – Clutching a boarding pass in one hand and a shrink-wrapped tuna sandwich in the other, you tolerate airport security and sprints to the gate because, well, what else are you going to do? Hop on a megabucks Learjet?

As a matter of fact, yes. Nowadays you don't have to be a Bill Gates, or even a Mark Cuban, to fly the way they do. Jet-share programs, which split the use and upkeep of a private jet among several parties, are becoming more affordable each year, and hence more popular. According to the most recent figures available from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, in 2002 there was a 20 percent increase in the number of firms owning at least a share in a private plane. And several new companies let you split time on a personal jet without putting a dime into its purchase.

That's not to suggest such upscale rentals are now cheaper than flying first-class. But there is another compelling economic reason for considering jet-share: Travel time is money. A recent study conducted by J.D. Power & Associates reports that traveling by private plane can save a frequent flier a month of time annually. A month. "The higher up you are in the company," says Mike Riegel, publisher of industry newsletter Fractional Insider, "the more impact you have on the P&L--and the less sense it makes to sit around in airports."

Fractional jet ownership remains the costliest option, but it makes the most sense if your brass expects to spend at least 100 hours annually in the air. Through companies like NetJets, FlexJets, Flight Options, and CitationShares, you purchase part of a jet and the responsibilities that go with it. NetJets, for instance, will sell you one of eight shares of a $5.3 million, six-passenger Cessna Citation V Ultra for $596,250; the standard five-year deal also includes a $10,350 monthly maintenance obligation, plus $1,600 for every hour that you fly. But the sobering outlay gets you that 100 hours of travel with top-notch service. As little as four hours after requesting a plane, you and five associates can be airborne. When it comes to landings, the small craft can conveniently touch down at 5,000 domestic airports, 10 times the number available to commercial barges. NetJets and Flight Options are the top picks by virtue of their huge fleets; you have less chance of being bumped down to something inferior.

For companies whose top dogs spend 50 to 100 hours flying per year, a more realistic option might be a rental program, or jet membership. Marquis Jet and newcomers Sentient Private Jet Membership and Delta AirElite each offer private flights without gargantuan down payments and maintenance charges. Just buy about $100,000 to $500,000 in flight credit and you can reserve a same-day trip with a phone call. Each outfit has its advantages, and prices vary widely. With the newest planes and the largest fleet, Marquis commands a premium; its Citation V Ultras cost $4,400 an hour. Sentient offers the same planes for about $2,750 an hour, but you have to sweat details like ground transportation.

Still not sold? Try a private flight by bidding at Charterauction.com. One lucky customer recently snagged 13 seats on a roomy Gulfstream III flying cross-country for only $1,600 a head--less than it would've cost to fly first-class. While there's no word on whether the winner found the investment worthwhile, we're betting that, now that he's had a whiff of the good life, he's none too keen on getting back in line behind you and your tuna on rye. --BRAD WETZLER