Private jet service in Aspen hits turbulence
December 30, 2008
ASPEN ” The tarmac at Pitkin County Airport during the Christmas and New Year’s season is notorious for overflowing private jets, which have become an often-publicized symbol of the resort’s opulence.
The iconic image is one that represents Aspen at its seasonal height as a resort town for the wealthy.
But that picture may be fading now that economists have confirmed the nation is in the middle of a recession.
Some observers speculate that there will be a shift toward more “jet-share” aircraft, as opposed to jets that are owned and operated by one corporation or individual.
“It is a challenging time for the private-jet industry,” said Kevin Vaughan, chief marketing officer for Sentient Flight Group, a jet charter service that doesn’t own a fleet but arranges for flights using aircraft owned by other companies.
And while the use of private jets has dropped slightly in recent months, Vaughan said Aspen remains an important market.
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“Yes, there are fewer charter flights being flown today across the market,” he said. “Like everyone else marketing to high-net-worth clients … we’ve seen year-over-year declines for the past three months.”
Flight volumes nationwide in 2008 have been “somewhat less than they were in 2007,” Vaughan added.
But “there are markets, Aspen being one, where we’re continuing to make investments,” he said. “It is one of our top 10 destinations. We actually just hired someone to be our on-the-ground representative based in Aspen.”
Vaughan said Sentient, which started a decade ago, works with about 150 jet charter companies around the U.S. and operates what it calls the “Sentient Jet Membership Program.” Customers that prefer private jets rather than commercial airlines become members of Sentient and set up an account that is similar to a debit card.
The accounts are set up “in increments of $100,000 to $250,000,” said Paul Kerkulis, Sentient’s Aspen representative. Then, for example, if a client wants to leave on a jet plane and fly from New York to Aspen and back again, Sentient will arrange for the flight and pay the costs out of the account.
Sentient is one of several jet travel services that operate at the Pitkin County Airport. The others include Marquis Jet, a fractional jet-ownership service that works with the NetJet; Meregrass Air Charter, which has headquarters in Texas and owns its own fleet of aircraft; and Jet Choice, historically a membership program that is entering the traditional charter business.
Each of the three is aggressively marketing to the Aspen traveler.
Sentient is a sponsoring partner with the Aspen Skiing Co., setting up hospitality tents at local events and offering “membership” privileges to guests at the Skico-owned Little Nell Hotel, among other efforts.
Marquis Jet, Meregrass Air Charter and Jet Choice all have been running advertisements in the local news media in an attempt to lure passengers into their planes.
At least one of Aspen’s charter services, Meregrass Air Charter, didn’t do much business in the early weeks of the season.
“We have not gotten any business, but we’ve gotten several phone calls,” said Steve Smith, president of Meregrass about his Aspen charters.
He said he had not gotten into the Aspen market seriously until the JetRide charter service went out of business earlier this year, and he started getting calls from friends suggesting he move in to fill the void.
And even those jets that were scheduled to fly in and out of Aspen over the past week have had tough times because of the inclement weather. One day last week, the airport in Grand Junction reported 50 or more private jets diverted from Aspen because of heavy snowfall.
In general, though, Smith said “there’s a lot of charter activity into and out of Aspen … the time share companies fly in there all the time.”
Another service, Jet Choice, recently expanded its offerings from a strictly membership program to also providing standard charter services.
According to Bill Landis, who once worked for the old Aspen Aviation charter service (which became JetRide and then went bankrupt earlier in 2008), Jet Choice recently acquired a California jet charter service called ACM Aviation. ACM has been signed on as the official charter service of Atlantic Aviation, the fixed-base operator at the Pitkin County Airport.
“So, when people call up for a chartered jet, ACM is the one they [Atlantic Aviation] will send them to,” Landis said.
While the representatives all shared a concern that jet travel has declined with the current economic hard times, they agreed that Aspen is a market where private jet service can thrive despite the recession.
Vaughan and Kerkulis said they hope private-jet users will be turning to jet-share and membership programs as a less expensive option than owning and maintaining a jet, as well as paying for a crew.
“I’m getting a feeling that that’s where the conversation is evolving around,” Kerkulis said. “People are downsizing. Owning your own plane is the most expensive option.”