Ride-Sharing With the Rich

How fractional jet owners get out of flying coach

A Dassault Falcon 2000, a Maybach luxury auto, and freshly swept stairs: NetJets set up this publicity shot in Switzerland, but for fractional jet owners, such fantasy is the reality. (Markus Herzig)
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The rich and famous can tell you: As with yachts, horse farms, and prenuptial agreements, a private jet can be a huge money drain. So why not split those costs with others who wouldn’t be caught dead waiting in airport security lines? Such is the appeal of fractional jet ownership.

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Over the past 25 years, a small number of companies have sprung up to meet the needs of the jet-sharing set, mixing air transportation with inflight dining and lavish passenger compartments to rival the swankiest hotel. The most prominent of these ventures, with more than 6,300 employees globally, is NetJets.

Each day without relent, teams of NetJets dispatchers, meteorologists, reservationists, and other specialists at the company’s sprawling operations center in Columbus, Ohio, marry the movements of NetJets’ more than 600 U.S.-based aircraft, 2,500 pilots, and 270 flight attendants (found only on larger airplanes) to the unpredictable travel needs of the company’s well-heeled customers. The final product is a domestic flight schedule that unforeseen vagaries, from mechanical malfunctions to snowstorms to the occasional volcanic eruption, will likely reduce to little more than junk before the sun sets the next day.

"An insane ballet that requires constant attention to detail" is how Lynn Wombacher, NetJets’ manager of emergency communications, describes the daily process.

It’s no way to run an airline. But then, NetJets, which in fleet size is the nation’s fourth largest domestic air carrier—behind Delta (722 aircraft), United (710), and American (618)—is no ordinary airline. Ordinary airlines operate flight schedules that change little from one day to the next. Like Avantair, CitationAir, Flexjet, Flight Options, and other competitors, NetJets functions in effect as an airline on demand, where no two days are the same. Trying to meet that demand, company officials assert, is one of aviation’s most logistically complex endeavors.

"If you talk to people in the airline industry, it’s funny to hear them describe their challenges," says Bill Noe, who worked his way up from a $26,800-a-year first officer in 1993 to become president and chief operating officer of NetJets North America. "I always go, ‘But wait a minute, you know exactly when you’re leaving, right?’ ‘Oh yeah.’ ‘You know exactly where you’re going, right?’ ‘Oh yeah.’ ‘And how’s that difficult?’ "

In the early days, the company tracked aircraft on metal boards imprinted with a 24-hour grid and magnetic bars representing aircraft. Today’s NetJets planners employ a proprietary, in-house-designed, Windows-based program called IntelliJet II, which took several years to create and is maintained by NetJets’ more than 200 information technology employees.

IntelliJet II constantly factors in virtually every conceivable variable—from weather and aircraft weight to runway lengths to sunrise and sunset restrictions—for all airports. If, for example, IntelliJet sees that a scheduled landing at a small airport in Kentucky will take place in the rain, and the aircraft assigned to the trip requires a longer runway than what is available to land safely in slippery conditions, the software will automatically downsize to a smaller airplane that can handle shorter runways and alert the change in aircraft to the NetJets dispatcher assigned to the flight. Or if a flight is going to land earlier than anticipated, IntelliJet II helps ensure that the client’s limousine shows up at the destination airport earlier by notifying owner services representatives of the discrepancy in arrival of aircraft and limo. With its omniscient grasp of the unfolding picture, the software requests action from its human users only when necessary. "Without a system so advanced, it would be virtually impossible to coordinate and manage every aspect of every flight," says Doug Henneberry, NetJets’ senior vice president for scheduling.

But no software, regardless of sophistication, could ever account for the curveballs the company’s employees commonly field from NetJets’ fractional owners and Marquis Jet Card holders, who buy the use of NetJets aircraft in 25-hour blocks.

" ‘I think I might want to leave at eight but it could be 10,’ " says Noe, describing the kind of calls NetJets sometimes receives from its customers. " ‘I may have four people but it could be eight. I may have a dog but I may not. I could forget to tell you one of those things and just show up. And oh, by the way, I don’t want to go from Palm Beach to New York. I want to go Palm Beach to Moscow.’ "

About David Freed

Contributing editor David Freed is a pilot, novelist, and former Los Angeles Times reporter.

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