The Private-Jet Set Chartering your own plane for a vacation might not cost as much as you think.
(FORTUNE Small Business) – Michael McIntyre likes to travel in style. The president and CEO of Gentry Group, an insurance company in Dallas, recently flew via private jet with his wife and three other couples to Venice for a nine-day vacation. Total cost of the flight? A cool $132,000. But McIntyre also charters private jets for vacations that are closer to home--his family of five has made several trips to Disney World, Napa Valley, and Cancún. Renting his company's Cessna Citation III to go to Orlando costs him $7,000 to $10,000 for a four-day weekend, compared with about $5,000 for first class on a commercial airline. "It's a nice way to travel," he says, "and it's a major convenience for Mom and Dad."
You don't need access to a company jet--or even a costly, many-strings-attached fractional-ownership deal--to take advantage of that convenience. Measured by the number of flight hours, private jet charters are growing 15% to 20% a year, according to the National Air Transportation Association. Thanks to the growing hassles of post-9/11 commercial flights, well-heeled vacationers are increasingly chartering private jets for individual trips. James Butler, CEO of Shaircraft Solutions, an advisory service for private-jet travelers based in Bethesda, Md., estimates that half of his company's business now comes from people traveling for pleasure.
Beyond the obvious perks, price is a factor too, and chartering a private jet may cost less than you think. "If you're used to paying a first-class airfare, you won't be shocked," says Clif Stroud, director of communications at NATA. That's especially true if your party is large--a jet that seats nine, such as McIntyre's Citation III, costs the same to fly, about $1,750 per hour, whether it's empty or full. Private jets also make more sense if you're flying to a remote locale. While commercial airlines go to fewer than 500 U.S. airports, charter operators serve more than 5,000.
A good place to start looking is Air Charter Guide, a 20-year-old company whose website, aircharterguide.com, offers a quick-quote function for pricing trips. (Think of it as an Orbitz for the private-jet set.) Regional carriers may offer slightly better rates, but they're limited in fleet size. The three nationwide operators--Jet Aviation, with 150 planes; TAG Aviation, with a fleet of 125; and Executive Jet Management, with 95--are more likely to get you the jet you want, when you want it. All three usually guarantee availability with just five hours' notice. Pricing varies, but most operators charge an inflight hourly fee based on the jet you choose. Tack on a 7.5% federal excise tax, plus any airport surcharges.
For vacation travelers, the biggest expense is often the "deadhead," a term that refers to the return flight a jet makes without passengers. If you're planning a weekend jaunt to Bermuda, chances are you'd simply pay a fee to keep the crew on the island with you (usually $200 to $300 per person per night). But longer trips require the plane to return to its home base in the interim, and that deadhead trip is on your dime unless another customer wants to make your trip in reverse. Your chances of avoiding deadhead costs are better with a larger operator and a common destination. Regardless, Air Charter Guide chairman Jim Betlyon recommends asking your charter operator to help you avoid deadhead fees.
Before booking, make sure you confirm that your charter company is "Part 135 certified" by the FAA. That means it meets all the requirements to fly passengers. "They're fairly stringent and require some investment in personnel and equipment," says Stroud. "If the companies aren't Part 135 certified, it's illegal for them to be operating, and you shouldn't be flying with them, period." A quick call to your regional FAA office (online at faa.gov/newsroom/contact.cfm) will give you the answer.
One last caveat about private-jet charters: They're habit forming. As Shaircraft's Butler says, "Once people fly this way, it's really hard to go back to the Delta counter."