Bryan Burns and his employees spring into action when a private jet lands at Wyoming's Jackson Hole Airport. A luxury car speeds onto the tarmac to greet the passengers, while crews unload skis and luggage into the waiting vehicle. Within minutes, the travelers are en route to the slopes.
"We're like a concierge service," says Burns, general manager of Jackson Hole Aviation, which provides ground service to private jet companies. "They call and say, 'We're arriving Friday at 2 p.m. and we need two rental cars, rooms at the Four Seasons, champagne and hangar space.' We take care of the details."
With service like that, it's easy to see why private jet travel is soaring in the mountains. In Jackson, noncommercial landings have grown 10 percent annually for five seasons. The same is true at many ski destinations. "It's an upward trend every year," says Ovid Seifers, director of Eagle County Airport, near Vail, Colo., where 70 percent of flights are now private.
The surge in private flights is primarily fueled by two trends: frustration with the increasing delays of commercial flights and a proliferation of new ways to fly private without actually owning a plane. Private-jet travelers also bypass security screenings—and long lines. "You're not taking off your shoes and belt," says Kevin O'Leary, president of Colorado-based Jet Advisors, which helps clients buy shares of fractional-ownership jets.
While private jet travel is undeniably the domain of the affluent traveler, discount charter websites, fractional ownership of aircraft, online flight auctions, membership programs and companies that sell flight time by the hour have led to a gradual democratization of private air travel. Rising fuel prices, however, could reverse that trend. Just as people are driving less due to higher gasoline costs, private fliers are being more selective in their travel. Jet fuel prices have already nearly doubled in 2008, according to Seifers.
Sentient Flight Group, a Massachusetts-based firm and the official jet service for the Aspen Skiing Co., offers a membership program. Members pay a minimum deposit of $100,000, which is drawn down using a debit-like "jet card" to pay hourly rates that start around $2,750. "Skiing is one of the top interests of our clientele," says Kirsten LaMotte, Sentient's director of partnerships.
Cleveland, Ohio-based Flight Options likewise offers a $100,000 Jet Pass membership. Off-peak prices start at $3,665 per hour for a six-seat Hawker 400XP, and rise to $8,595 per off-peak hour for a 13-seat Embraer Legacy 600. "The Legacy is popular with ski groups because the large baggage compartment holds a lot of skis and gear," says Flight Options spokesman Dennis Baker.
Similar to the strategy behind timeshare condos, fractional-ownership programs allow multiple owners to split the cost of overhead. A 1/16th share (typically the smallest sold) costs from less than a half-million dollars for a small jet to $1.5 million for a large one, plus monthly fees of about $5,800 and hourly rates that start around $1,350.
is a charter service that offers online flight auctions, which work like a luxury version of
. Charter services are ideal for fliers who would like to indulge themselves for a special occasion but can't afford a full commitment to private flying. Customers post their itineraries, then roughly 200 jet companies bid for the business. For a Christmas ski trip last season, a
customer chartered a six-passenger jet round-trip from Philadelphia to Montrose, outside of Telluride, Colo., for $32,196. "Private jets will always be more expensive than commercial airlines," says
sales director Anthoony Tivnan. "But if a group of people book a jet and split the cost six or seven ways, it becomes a more realistic option for a special trip or splurge."
Most customers are executives, many of whom enjoy the snow. Aspen and Vail are among Sentient's top 10 destinations. Jackson, Telluride, Salt Lake City and Sun Valley are also popular. "You see a surge in bookings to these destinations in winter," LaMotte says. "If there is a big dump on a Friday, we'll get calls."
Not everyone is happy with all this jet-setting. "We encourage people to take commercial flights," says Jim Elwood, director of Aspen's airport. "Private jets have a greater impact on the community, from noise to air quality and emissions."
In the era of climate change, private jets are the Hummers of the skyways. Because they frequently fly half-empty, while commercial planes are usually 85 percent full, private jets emit up to 40 times more carbon dioxide per passenger than commercial aircraft. "We won't get people out of their jets, but I suggest they voluntarily pay a fee to offset emissions," says Richard Heede of Climate Mitigation Services, which is working with Aspen to reduce its carbon footprint.
Private jet travelers are encouraged to buy carbon offsets that help finance renewable energy projects. Aspen has created an eco-calculator for private fliers (
). Carbon offsets for a trip from New York to Aspen on a small jet cost $262. Purchasing offsets for the same trip on a larger jet, such as the Legacy 600, cost $478.
When it comes to luxury, the sky's the limit. Large jets tend to be the most opulent, featuring couches, fresh flowers and leather seats that fold out into beds. Others have tables set with fine china and crystal stemware. Concierge services cater to every whim, stocking planes with a favorite wine or liquor. Meals run from filet mignon to deli sandwiches. Toys are supplied for kids, and dinner reservations can be booked for arrival.
Asked about budget options for private flying, Jet Advisors' O'Leary was taken aback. "Budget? This will never compare to commercial flying on pricing." But, adds Burns in Jackson Hole, "Everyone should fly private at least once. It's like the difference between the bus and a limousine."
For the occasional private flyer, there are a number of websites that book charter jet travel, such as
. The next step up is to join a membership program, with deposits typically in the $100,000 range. Hourly rates are drawn from a debit-like travel card; try
.Frequent jet-setters now often buy fractional ownership in aircraft or "jet shares"; try