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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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.

NetJets officials and air crew members, who all sign agreements prohibiting them from publicly naming names, point out that most of their fractional owners are successful corporate types, not recognizable entertainers and athletes. They are, as a rule, down-to-earth people who savor their anonymity and require little pampering. That doesn’t mean they lack certain expectations.

Before takeoff to San Diego, Hart discovered to her dismay that the "fabulous" crab claws her passengers had ordered had not been cracked. "So I took full responsibility, just knowing that no owner is going to want to sit there and battle with these claws," says Hart, who demanded the caterers do the cracking. (They did.)

Given the money the average fractional owner shells out for his or her piece of a private jet, pre-cracked crab claws are a perfectly reasonable expectation. A Hawker 400XP, an airplane that seats up to seven passengers and that NetJets markets as "the ideal entry-level business jet," will run a Marquis card holder $115,900 for 25 flight hours (television personality Kelly Ripa holds a Marquis card). Buying a 1/16 share in one of NetJets’ larger airplanes, a nine-passenger Gulfstream G200, guarantees the fractional owner 50 hours of flying time annually, and costs approximately $600,000, depending on the age of the airplane (newer aircraft cost more). In addition to these one-time payments, owners pay fees to help offset operating expenses: pilot salaries, fuel, insurance, hangaring, aircraft maintenance, catering, landing fees, and so on. Those charges run owners $20,000 a month or more.

About David Freed

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

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