Ride-Sharing With the Rich
How fractional jet owners get out of flying coach.
- By David Freed
- Air & Space magazine, August 2011
(Page 3 of 5)
Other canine flights have not gone so smoothly. In 2008, NetJets flight attendant Lisa Wilson filed suit against entertainer Jennifer Lopez and her husband, singer Marc Anthony. Wilson wanted $5 million for an injury she said she sustained on a Gulfstream jet bound from New York to Los Angeles when she tried to pass a fork to Anthony and Lopez’s German shepherd guard dog lunged at her. As Wilson jerked away, she twisted her back, which she said prevented her from continuing to work as a flight attendant. The case eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Yet for all the tales of self-indulgence on the part of fractional owners, there are instances in which owners have used their jets for admirable purposes, company officials are quick to note. Consider NetJets fractional owner Michael Heisley. In 2010, Heisley, who owns the Memphis Grizzlies basketball team, learned that his physician, who lives in California, needed a kidney transplant. After a donor kidney was located in New York, Heisley had the organ airlifted to Los Angeles on a Cessna Citation X—the fastest aircraft type in the NetJets’ fleet. The doctor was in surgery within hours, and made a full recovery.
NetJets will position aircraft in certain high-demand areas to help shorten pickup times: Teterboro, New Jersey (convenient for Manhattanites), West Palm Beach, Florida, in winter, Aspen, Colorado, in ski season, and wherever the Super Bowl is being played. But, unlike most of the airlines, the company has no operational hubs beyond the one in Columbus. Nor, unlike the airlines, does it maintain centralized crew bases, so NetJets pilots and flight attendants can live virtually anywhere in the U.S. The company’s travel services section buys commercial airline tickets to fly them to the private jet they are assigned that day. Indeed, NetJets purchases more than 35,000 hotel rooms each month and more than 130,000 airline tickets every year to get its flight and cabin crews where they need to be.
To fly for NetJets is to work a set schedule: typically one week on and one week off. Accordingly, air crew members can plan their off-duty time far in advance. While they are on the job, however, the same predictability is all but nonexistent. The evening before they are scheduled to fly, NetJets pilots and flight attendants, like characters on an episode of "Mission: Impossible," receive a message on their company-issued BlackBerrys telling them where to meet their aircraft and the particulars of whom they’ll be transporting. By morning, the plan may well have changed completely. For the next week, NetJets crew members will often have no idea where they’re flying next until literally minutes before takeoff. They pack appropriately.
"I always have a pair of flip-flops and a coat," says flight attendant Diana Hart, who used to fly for Continental. "You can be in the Bahamas one day and Canada the next."
The lack of routine—flying where they’ve never flown before—is an inescapable part of the job. Those who are not "Gumby-flexible," as one NetJets captain who flies Gulfstreams put it, don’t last long.
"The not knowing is half of what excites most of us to be here," says Matthew Eckert, the Hawker 400XP pilot. "It’s not the same Cleveland to Newark, back to Cleveland, back to Newark every day."
The variety of airports and countries a NetJets pilot may fly into on any given week is not the only aspect of the job that bears little resemblance to working for the major airlines. NetJets pilots routinely load and off-load luggage. And between pick-ups, they also clean passenger compartments until they’re spotless. The goal is to make the jet look, feel, and smell factory-fresh for every passenger. Eckert has resorted to leaving out coffee grounds overnight to soak up the smell of cigarettes (fractional owners are allowed to smoke on board). And when pet hair clings to his jet’s suede ceiling, he uses duct tape to remove it.
The company maintains supply lockers at 29 airports across the country, from which air crews, between flights, can replenish onboard provisions, everything from Oreos to fine wines. And if the lockers aren’t stocked with a client’s requested food and beverages, the crews will do their utmost to get the desired items via a nationwide network of about 150 contracted caterers. Surprise: It’s not always lobster thermidor and Dom Perignon. Sometimes it’s hash brown casserole. Biscuits and gravy. Frozen Snickers bars. "I’ve seen us drive 120 miles to get a specific bag of chips an owner wanted," says Henneberry.