When first class just isn’t enough | AspenTimes.com

When first class just isn’t enough

Naomi Havlen
Steve Ells, left, and Mark Crumpacker of San Francisco enjoy a pre-flight drink as their dog Bailey relaxes on an AEXJet. The spacious cabin offers leather seats, fold-out tables with computer access and TV screens at each seat with a variety of DVDs from which to choose. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.

For the past year a small group of people with local ties has been taking advantage of Aspen Executive Air, a private aviation company operating out of the Pitkin County airport.The company, now called AEXJet, is starting to spread the word about its upscale charter service and has expansion plans for 2005. AEXJet is essentially a regional charter service that focuses on people with links to Aspen.The company’s president, Ron Stone, has his own unique set of local connections. A decade ago, he launched Aspen Mountain Air, a regional affiliate to American Airlines that flew in and out of Sardy Field from 1994 to 1998. He also helped innovate ideas for Mesaba Air, the regional carrier affiliated with Northwest Airlines that continues to carry Aspen passengers directly to Minneapolis and back.Stone did the same for Mesa Air via America West and Air Wisconsin via United Express. He realized that getting in and out of the Rocky Mountains presents a challenge for airline passengers.

But over the years Stone got used to the unpredictable weather and mountainous terrain. He realized that Aspen had a large group of telecommuters who live here but work elsewhere and a thriving upscale leisure market. He also noticed that there was a virtual vacuum of specialized, business jet charter companies in this area.As a result, Stone and a number of local investors created a company that would focus on Aspen by training pilots rigorously for the ins and outs of Sardy Field. But the company also shuttles customers between seven of the biggest markets for Aspen – places where clients most frequently want to go, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and southern Florida. AEXJet flies customers between these locations and Aspen, but will also travel between the big cities.”Since Sept. 11, commercial airlines have had significant problems, and private aviation is literally taking off,” said Amanda North, AEXJet marketing coordinator. “In Aspen in particular they’re seeing an excess of 100 flights per day in the peak season.”The fleet AEXJet employs includes three classes, from large cabins to small and seating anywhere between six and 15 people. On-board amenities include a concierge who can book last-minute hotel reservations and almost any activity over the Internet, a partnership with the wine industry to provide exclusive vintages and a special catering service.The company also has upscale ground transportation and a welcome service – the slogan, according to North, is “going beyond.”

In the past year 25 people along with their family or business partners have become clients of the service through word of mouth. In 2005, the company hopes to double the size of its fleet and market itself more publicly.”We designed this system to provide the benefits of ownership – safety and reliability,” Stone said. “But you don’t have to buy an airplane. Most people don’t want to buy one. You just tell us where you’re going, when you’re going and who will be on board, and that’s it.”There is, naturally, the matter of cost. Renting an entire jet to take you and your family and friends where you want to go is not an inexpensive proposition. Stone maintained that AEXJet fares are competitive with other charter services and could be even more inexpensive since the company keeps five to six aircraft in each market.The company is also working on a plan to eventually sell single seats on its jets to people traveling by themselves – ideally such tickets would be comparable to first-class tickets on commercial airlines. But of course, Stone noted, commercial airlines would never offer the kind of personalized service that AEXJet does.The company is headquartered at 320 W. Main St. in Aspen and its website is http://www.aexjet.com.

Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com