Aviation

Private aviation is poised to reach its biggest audience yet. But will customers buy?

Use of private jets could rise as advances in technology and mobile applications lead more people to fly on them, a recent survey suggests.

In an August survey of 115 business aviation professionals commissioned by Revolution.aero, 67 percent of respondents said technology and app advances will make it cheaper and easier to book individual seats on private jets.

And 51 percent of respondents said those advances will also allow for chartering private jet “dead legs” — in which a jet is flying from one point to another without any passengers.

“In this data and technology revolution, there is so much more that can be done to enable owners of business aircraft to make their assets more accessible to potential customers, further enhancing the income . . . they earn from them,” said Alasdair Whyte, co-founder of Revolution.aero. “This coupled with the greater flexibility in how business aircraft can be chartered will open up business jet travel for many more people.”

On the surface, the Revolution.aero survey results might also suggest that with more people exposed to and flying on private jets, it could be beneficial to manufacturers of those jets such as Wichita’s Textron Aviation and Bombardier.

They’d see the advantages of not having to arrive at the airport two hours early to catch a flight, not to mention avoiding long security lines and baggage fees.

But industry leaders and analysts don’t think expanded access to private jets will translate to substantially more orders for the Cessna, Beechcraft and Learjet planes that are built by more than 10,000 people in Wichita.

That’s because a new generation of private fliers has a different take on jet ownership.

“The new buzzword is the sharing economy,” said Brian Foley, a New Jersey-based independent business aviation consultant.

The next generation of fliers — i.e., millennials — wants to experience flying on a private jet but not buy one, Foley said.

“That generation really has no or not much interest in ownership,” he said. “They’d much rather have the access to private flying, and they’re willing to pay a premium to hop in and go.”

Kenny Dichter, co-founder and CEO of private aviation membership company Wheels Up, agrees, though he has a different name for the “sharing economy.”

“I am the firmest believer in the world we are in the membership economy,” he said. “People don’t want to own what they don’t need to own, and the airplane business is no different.”

Wheels Up offers its nearly 5,000 members who pay an $8,500 annual membership fee around-the-clock access to a fleet of 90 Wichita-built King Air turboprops and Cessna Citation jets via a mobile app.

The sharing economy might also explain why the market has expanded for jet cards, which allow people to prepay for private jet flights using debit-like cards for a fixed hourly rate and guaranteed availability of aircraft.

“It’s another vehicle to allow you access to private aviation without having to buy an airplane,” Foley said.

Doug Gollan, founder and editor of the Private Jet Card Comparisons website, said the number of jet card providers has doubled since the 2008 recession. His website tracks the offerings and compares 48 providers of 250 jet card programs.

That bodes well for charter operators, owners of private jets who are willing to make their aircraft available for charter, and developers of apps that improve access to those aircraft and flights.

But it probably doesn’t for manufacturers wanting to sell new airplanes.

“These new business models don’t extend the market for business jets, but they increase the utilization of the existing fleet,” Foley said.

Gollan added he doesn’t think the notion of private aviation for the masses will expand the private aircraft market anytime soon.

“If I were in Wichita, I wouldn’t be betting on . . . the democratization of private air travel,” he said.

Still, Foley said Wichita’s private jet manufacturers should see a notable uptick in orders for at least a couple of years. Foley said the introduction of new aircraft models — including Bombardier’s Global 7500 and Textron’s Cessna Citation Longitude — into the market in the next couple of years will stimulate orders for new jets.

“Historically when you have new products coming out it gets the market excited,” he said. “Beyond that, hopefully the global economy’s emerging markets will improve a little bit.”

Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark
Jerry Siebenmark has covered business and aviation in Wichita for 20 years, the latter of which is closest to his heart. Prior to becoming a journalist in 1998 he was a hospital-based emergency medical technician. He’s a graduate of Wichita State University and a U.S. Air Force veteran.
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