Ride-sharing social media apps such as Uber and Lyft have helped to revolutionize the taxi industry, offering passengers a greater range of options for getting around town. By 2015, Uber was a household name and publications from USA Today to The Robb Report started to speculate about who might be a comparable giant in the private aviation market.
The “Uber of Private Jets” label has been applied to long-established companies, as well as to many of the newer start-ups. At one stage, the title was thrown haphazardly at any private aviation company that had a mobile reservation app for making bookings. Now, as mentioned in a recent article, all the large private jet companies offer booking apps, allowing travelers to make and change reservations, order in-flight extras, and do all sorts of other tasks. So what does it mean to be “the Uber of private jets”? And can any company truly claim the title? This article looks at some of the various aviation companies who have been given the title to see what they offer.
One of the first companies to be billed as “the Uber of private jets” was in fact backed by the ride-share app’s co-founder Garrett Camp. It launched in late 2012, aiming to help charter jet services fill their empty seats. They promised a streamlined experience for first-class and business travelers, allowing passengers to avoid the hassles of a commercial flight for the cost of little more than a regular first-class ticket. Despite an array of famous name investors and a high-profile roll out, BlackJet grounded its services suddenly in May 2016, citing funding as a major obstacle.
Like BlackJet, Beacon was hailed by USA Today as one of the up-and-coming Uber-style flight apps in 2015. And, like its competitor, the company closed without notice in the spring of 2016, almost before it got off the ground. Beacon founders cited a lack of sufficient funding. The founding team were also involved in starting SurfAir (see below), which has had much more success, and were trying to develop the SurfAir plane sharing model in the North East USA.
One of the earlier apps on the market, PrivateFly promised to have travelers in the air in next to no time, with a record time of getting someone on a plane within 43 minutes of making their booking. Now celebrating ten years in the business, PrivateFly announces on their blog: We’re Not (Just) the Uber of Private Jets. The company emphasizes that it does not operate on a subscription model, nor is it a seat-sharing service. Flyers pay for the use of the entire aircraft, whether they wish to travel solo or with friends. PrivateFly also emphasizes that they are more than “just an app” and have a customer service VIP team only a phonecall away. (Editorial update: PrivateFly was acquired by Directional Aviation in September 2018. Directional also owns Flexjet, Sentient and other aviation brands.)
When Victor launched in 2011, the company made no secret of who they aimed to emulate; they billed their app as “the Uber of Private Jets.” The reputation of the ride-share app may have been tarnished in recent years but Victor now stands firmly on its own reputation for providing a luxury aviation experience with a streamlined booking system. Membership is free and after a quick sign-up process, members can make bookings online, seeing instant pricing and choosing the class of plane to suit their needs. Concierge service ensures that needs on the tarmac and in the air can be fully catered to, whether you want to dine on sushi from your favorite New York restaurant or be accompanied in flight by your nine dogs!
JumpJet has no desire to be “the Uber of private jets.” In fact, they state no aviation company can make that claim. Instead, they described themselves upon launch as “the AirBnB” of the industry, offering a peer to peer service which allows private flyers who have already booked a charter to offer available seats to others. Membership plans vary according to the frequency and flexibility of usage, and members pay based on the distance of their journey. But the company has been launched and relaunched several times since 2007 and is not operating at the time of writing.
With financial backing and public endorsements from a number of celebrities, JetSmarter started in 2012 offering empty leg flights. It is one of the better capitalized aviation start-ups, having raised over $100m. In 2015, finding that empty legs alone would not provide the type of success they were looking for, the company underwent a period of reorganization and growth. Shuttle and charter services were added. While these were more expensive and so membership costs increased, the rise in price and service allowed JetSmarter to develop a following, particularly in the shared luxury flight niche. Even so, it has continued to change its offerings and memberships. JetSmarter has also made claims to be “the World’s Largest Private Aviation and Lifestyle Community.” (Editorial update: JetSmarter was acquired by Vista Global in 2019)
USA Today may have listed SurfAir as “the Uber of air travel” but a 2017 article may have been more accurate in referring to it as “the Netflix of air travel.” As with the streaming service, members pay a monthly fee which allows them to take an unlimited number of flights. Unlike many of the other services on the market where users can book a flight at the time and location of their choice, SurfAir schedules flights between specific destinations in California and Texas. Members can then book seats on any of the scheduled charters.
One of the most senior aviation companies in the field, SkyJet began offering online bookings back in 1997. More recently, they made a mobile app available. Their pay-as-you-go private charter service has jets available worldwide whether you want to make a quick hop to the next state or cross the Atlantic. (SkyJet was subsequently merged into PrivateFly - see above)
Although ignored by many of the mainstream media articles, Boston-based Sentient Jets was named “the Uber of Private Jets” by faculty at Harvard Business School in 2016. Professor Anat Keinan wrote that Sentient “had invented the Uber of private jets before Uber even existed.” When formed in 1999, the company differed from its competitors by renting jets from various charter companies rather than having its own fleet, and by essentially inventing the jet card. This gave clients the benefits of ownership without the cost.
Uber had its own thoughts in this area very early in its existence. Back in 2008, when it was still called UberCab, the company put together a pitch deck for investors. On page 4 of that presentation it talked about creating a fast and efficient on-demand car service, with luxury automobiles, that would be the "NetJets of car services."
As attractive as the concept of an “Uber for private jets” may be, the reality is that it is unlikely to happen. This is in large part due to the heavy regulation of the aviation industry. FAA and safety restrictions mean that aircraft ownership does not automatically allow you to take paying passengers, whereas almost anyone with a car can become a driver for a ride-share service. In fact the FAA has closed down notice board type services that tried to connect pilots with people willing to share a ride. Most charter aircraft operators are certified under Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) and these requirements are quite restrictive. Instead of relying on catchy nicknames that compare a company to Uber, AirBnB or Netflix, we recommend studying the services provided, including charter, jet cards and fractional ownership, and then making a decision based on your specific travel needs.
There are plenty of well established companies in the private aviation space. But, private air travel is not cheap, so don’t be taken in with a catchy marketing phrase, a low price and a new business model. As always, if the price seems too good to be true, you need to be really sure you’ve done your due diligence.