The term "memberships" gets used a lot when referring to private aviation companies and the products that they offer. This article looks at the variety of different products that are referred to as "memberships" and will give you some clarity, so that you can understand whether a membership is right for you.

Fractional Memberships

As the name suggests, a fractional membership means that you purchase a fraction of an aircraft. The more common name for this product is fractional ownership but we've seen fractional membership start to be used more frequently. The biggest company in this space is NetJets and other large US based providers include Flexjet and PlaneSense. When you join, you are buying an interest in a specific aircraft in the fleet. A fractional membership provides you with ownership but frees you from the hassle of ongoing maintenance and adds extra flexibility by giving you access to an entire fleet. Planes can be ready in as little as four hours.

Fractional membership is suitable for people who fly more than 50 hours per year and who want the advantages of owning an asset. Fractional ownership is the same as any capital equipment acquisition from both legal and tax standpoints.

Typical Commitment: Minimum 24-60 months; 50+ flying hours per year.

Lease Memberships

If you fly 50 or more hours a year and want flexibility but not the upfront financial outlay of ownership, an alternative to the fractional membership is a lease membership. The big fractional providers offer leasing options as do many smaller operators. These products may simply be referred to as leases or lease options.

Like the fractional membership, a lease membership provides you with the share of a specific aircraft but the ability to fly any aircraft in the fleet, according to your needs. The only difference is that you are leasing, as opposed to buying, that share, and therefore the financial and tax treatments are different.

Typical Commitment: 24-60 months; 50+ flying hours per year.

Jet Card Memberships

Jet cards come in two broad types, either a fixed number of hours or a fixed amount of money on deposit. In both types, the key thing you're buying is a locked in hourly rate for different size aircraft. When they were first introduced these products were simply called jet cards, but more recently we've also seen them referred to as jet card memberships and as jet memberships. The most common type of jet card is a 25-hour one, although you can buy as few as 5 hours or as many as 60 hours. Jet card memberships offer the ability to schedule flights at 12-24 hours' notice, and provide a fixed prepaid hourly rate, which is usually locked in for a 12-24 month period.

The large fractional providers offer jet cards, as do large charter companies such as Magellan Jets, Sentient, and Air Partner. At the time of purchase, you choose the size and type of aircraft that suits your needs. Sometimes there is the flexibility to change to different size aircraft for different missions. 

Typical Commitment: 12-24 months; 25 hours flying.

Charter Memberships

If you fly infrequently, a charter membership may be the best option since it does not require a large sum up-front, nor does it require the ongoing, long-term financial commitment that comes with buying or leasing a share of an aircraft. With a charter membership, such as that offered by Wheels Up, you purchase a membership (about $20,000) and pay annual dues (under $10,000). You can then purchase flight time on the company's fleet of aircraft (eg about $5,000/hour on a King Air 350i), as and when you need it. This type of charter membership is a relatively new concept and is an alternative to just one off charters.

Typical Commitment: Minimum 12 months; pay as you fly.

Single Seat Memberships

Lastly, there is the type of single seat membership that is offered by Surf Air and similar companies. Something of a hybrid between commercial and charter aircraft models, this offers many of the benefits of private air travel – avoiding crowds, last minute booking, penalty-free booking changes, luxury aircraft – without the financial expense. It also lacks much of the flexibility of private air travel, since the flights travel specific routes at specific scheduled times. However, if you travel regularly within a designated area, typically the commuter belts of California or the Hamptons – NYC – Boston triangle, this can be an enormous money and time saver when compared to usual commuter travel. The cost is lower than any of the other types of membership, taking the form of a monthly fee (around $2,000), which can usually be cancelled at any time. For that monthly fee, you can fly once or half a dozen times, as your needs dictate.

Typical Commitment: Month to month; unlimited flying.

As you can see, there are many types of private aviation "memberships" and it is important to find the right one for you. Among the many factors to bear in mind are:

  • Frequency and distance of your flights
  • Cost, both upfront and ongoing.
  • Flexibility in terms of scheduling.
  • Routes – constantly changing or within one small area?
  • Long-term commitment.

So the next time you hear or see jet membership or private aviation membership, be sure to dig a little deeper and understand what sort of product it really is. Look at the factors above and compare the programs carefully, so that you find the one that really matches your needs. Then you can enjoy your time in the skies and reach your destination with ease.