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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Each NetJets airplane, regardless of make or model, sports the same basic exterior color scheme: white with an elegant trio of slate, raspberry, and charcoal gray stripes. Interiors are nearly identical. Same supple leather seating. Same glossy wood appointments.

"It’s all designed to convey the impression to the owners that the aircraft they are flying on is, in fact, theirs," says Wombacher. Of course fractional owners can’t personalize an aircraft’s interior the way an individual jet owner could. And owning an entire aircraft allows you to go pretty much wherever you want, but with a fractional ownership, the company might well deny your request as too risky (if you ask to fly to a country in the midst of an uprising, for example). And if a fractional owner gets into a tiff with the flight crew or a cabin attendant, he can’t fire them.

NetJets’ operations center, a modernistic office and hangar complex, overlooks Runway 10-Left at Ohio’s Port Columbus International Airport. Inside the operations center is the hub of NetJets’ efforts, its flight center, which sounds more pulse-pounding than it is. It’s a cavernous, 16,500-square-foot room with a towering ceiling rimmed by massive television monitors showing CNN and the Weather Channel, and abuzz with workers on telephone headsets, tapping away at computer keyboards. It is here that NetJets’ clients call in toll-free 24 hours a day on their own uniquely assigned 800 numbers to speak with their own personally designated teams of service representatives who arrange their flights. NetJets also offers flights in Europe, via an operations center in Lisbon, Portugal. The U.S. and Europe divisions of NetJets provide service to more than 7,000 clients.

NetJets guarantees fractional owners that an aircraft will be available four to 10 hours after they call in to request a flight. Customer service representatives bend over backward to satisfy any special need an owner has. "We don’t say no—ever," says Doug Henneberry.

NetJets has more than 20 owner services teams, each available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Clients deal with the same team on every flight, and each team keeps highly detailed dossiers on each owner. How do they like to be addressed: Mr.? Ms.? Mrs.? Your Excellency? Vegan diet, kosher, low-salt, no-salt? Do they welcome interaction with the flight crew or prefer a "silent service"? NetJets tracks their birthdays and anniversaries to ensure that crews have a bottle of champagne handy. Pilots and flight attendants also learn to keep a close eye on the news of the day, to know when to offer congratulations if their passenger has won the World Series or condolences if they’ve gotten skunked at the Academy Awards.

And if you’re a fractional jet owner, there’s no need to fret about the type or number of carry-ons. If you can squeeze it inside the cabin, it can be secured, and it does not affect weight and balance, on it goes.

Senior vice president Mary E. Flynn, who heads owner services for NetJets’ U.S. operations, remembers an owner asking to bring an exercise bike on board "to get their cardio done" during a six-hour flight. "I try to keep our owners happy," says Flynn, but in that case, she had to say no. (There was no way to keep the bike from moving about the cabin during flight.)

Flying a dog across the country, however, is much easier than shipping him commercially if you own part of a jet. Matthew Eckert, who flies Hawker 400XPs for NetJets, recalls jetting an eight-week-old Great Dane puppy from Saratoga Springs, New York, to Cody, Wyoming. The pooch was his only passenger. "[The company] even went as far as catering a cheese-and-steak tray for the puppy," says Eckert.

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.

About David Freed

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

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