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Upgrade your flying experience

Naomi Havlen

“Fractional” is a big word around Aspen.

This town has more than its fair share of multimillion-dollar mansions, but for the past few years developers have capitalized on the popularity of co-owning a posh pad in Aspen. Fractionally owned units seem to be popping up on every corner for visitors who want their own place to stay without the expense or headaches of outright ownership.Commercial airline passengers may not know it, but the fractional concept applies to private-jet travel as well. It’s one of several private-jet options available to the well-heeled Aspen traveler.Aspen Base Operations President Cliff Runge sees private jets fly in and out of the Aspen Airport every day. He thinks fractional jet ownership is “the best deal in the world” for flying regularly between most cities, but not necessarily for Aspen.Fractional companies, he said, are at a disadvantage because they cannot train their large staffs of pilots in the specific approach procedures for mountain airports. As a result, when the weather is unstable, fractional jets aiming for Aspen often divert to Grand Junction.

“If you are only traveling between Aspen and some other location, a better solution is owning your own jet, so you can have your pilot qualify for the special approaches,” Runge said. “There are also charter companies that are active in and out of this airport all the time who are very good in these mountain airports.”Runge knows a number of people with Aspen connections who are pleased with their choice to own part of a private jet rather than an entire jet, but said they fly many other places each year and must not mind landing in Grand Junction in inclement weather.Mike Goode, vice president of sales for NetJets, doesn’t dispute this, but said it has more to do with the company’s safety standards than pilot training. NetJets pioneered the fractional jet ownership concept in 1986, and has a fleet of 530 planes, just behind commercial airlines like American and United.”There are some approaches we won’t do because of safety reasons,” he said. “We run with a margin of safety that we won’t compromise, which is why we’ve never had an injury on any flight we’ve flown since 1986. We’ll keep it that way.”

Playing the weather safely can inconvenience jet owners, Goode admitted, but NetJets customers appreciate the company’s safety record. Private pilots who regularly fly in and out of Aspen are experienced enough to use different approaches.

Just about every Aspenite has glanced at the Aspen Airport tarmac from Highway 82 during holiday weekends and seen rows of private jets parked wing to wing. Most of them won’t ever fly that way, however.Many locals begin their out-of-town trips by arriving at the airport at least an hour early, standing in lines at check-in and security, then waiting to be herded onto a plane for takeoff. But there’s another set of Aspenites who drive to the airport, shake hands with their personal pilot, sit down in a leather seat and take off for their destination – all in less time than it takes commercial airline travelers to find the restroom at Denver International.In this time of airline bankruptcy and security screenings, private aviation’s popularity is multiplying, as are various options for flying alone.On the “low” end of the scale is the option to charter a plane. It’ll be your own aircraft for your flight, and that’s what you pay for. The high end of the scale is owning your own jet, where you know your pilot’s first name and your plane stays wherever you prefer until your next flight. Fractional ownership was developed because of the headaches of owning your own jet, not the least of which is the cost. A number of national companies specialize in selling fractions of jets, which they say translates to a fraction of the cost but all of the convenience.George-Ann Rosenberg, who works for fractional jet ownership company Flexjet, says owning part of a jet is the perfect in-between option.”Part of the reason why fractional ownership has become so popular is that charter operators weren’t providing people with consistent, I-know-what-I’m-getting-every-time-I-fly experience,” she said. “Fractional came along, creating an option for people who wanted to use business jets but didn’t want to spent $5 million or more on a plane.”

Aspen is by far the most popular mountain resort destination for Flexjet’s fractional owners, she said.But Runge breaks it down like this: The more time you spend flying, the smarter it is to own your own jet.”Between 50 and 100 hours, you should charter a plane or join a fractional ownership. In between 100 and 200 hours you might look into a partnership with someone else for a jet, or buy a heavier share of a fractional ownership,” he said. “Anywhere above that, and as you break 300 hours, the economics of owning your own jet make sense.”

A new and growing option is the membership program, in which customers prepay for flying time on a debit card and fly when they choose, without having to co-own a plane. At NetJets this service is known as the Marquis Jet Card, starting at $109,000 for 25 hours. These programs offer guaranteed access to jets with four hours of advance notice and no blackout dates – you prepay for your flights and you don’t have to co-own a jet.In fact, Goode says, Marquis is a separate company that gets its planes from NetJets by becoming a fractional owner, and then resells the service to consumers who don’t want that kind of commitment.”They operate under charter regulations, which means they’re allowed to sell time in the air in 25-hour blocks [unlike fractional companies, which have a minimum of 50 hours at a time],” Goode said. “Basically it’s a lease.”For example, you’d have to spend a minimum of two years with NetJets if you became a fractional owner, Goode said. On the other hand, you pay more for the convenience of having a sort of time-in-the-air debit card.

There are plenty of other companies running the same sort of time-in-the-air option. At Bombardier SkyJet, 25 hours of flight time will run you $72,000, and you have to give notice 12 hours in advance for your flight. With Blue Star Jets’ Sky Card program you can put anywhere from $50,000 to $1 million on a debit card and use it to hop a helicopter from New York to the Hamptons, or charter a jet to Aspen.”It’s a different model that’s worked well for us because it gives consumers more freedom and flexibility,” said Blue Star Jets’ spokesman Matthew Van Damm. “They’re not locked into anything. Because of that, our business has increased 350 percent from 2003 to 2004.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com


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