Fractional ownership of aircraft
Fractional Jets is a common term for fractional ownership of aircraft. The first such program was launched in 1986 by NetJets. Other providers include business jet operators Flexjet and Flight Options. Fractional aviation is also available in non-jet aircraft, PlaneSense's Pilatus PC-12 fleet, or combined fleet of jets and turboprops such as Executive AirShare's Embraer Phenom 100/300s and King Air 90/350 s or AirSprint's Cessna Citation Excels and turboprop Pilatus PC-12s or Autumn Air's use of Cessna Citation Is, IIs & Vs and Beechcraft King Air 90s & 200s.
With fractional jets, customers (referred to as "owners") buy a “share” of a plane, rather than an entire plane. The price is pro-rated from the market price of a full aircraft. Owners then have guaranteed access (for 50–400 hours annually or a certain number of days of the year, depending on share size) to that plane, or a similar plane in the operators fleet, with as little as four hours’ notice. Fractional owners pay a monthly maintenance fee and an “occupied” hourly operating fee. Usually the latter is charged only when an owner or guest is on board, not when the plane is flying to a pick up point, or returning to base after completing a mission.
Owners have access to the full fleet of planes and may upgrade or downgrade for specific flights. At the end of the contract the owner can sell their share either back to the company or to another owner waiting for a position, most companies charge a re-marketing fee to do this.
The development of fractional ownership plans accelerated the adoption and broadened the reach of private aviation. Previously, the only way to consistently enjoy private aviation was to buy a jet, which then spent a substantial portion of its life in a hangar, collecting dust and maintenance bills. In 1986, Richard Santulli launched what is now NetJets. By offering a timeshare model with guaranteed availability, he lowered the cost and increased the utilization, creating a new path to ownership for thousands. Suddenly, the benefits of plane ownership could be attained with less than the full cost – or commitment – of full ownership.
In the fractional model, customers purchase (or lease) a fraction of an aircraft, alongside numerous, anonymous others. Depending on the company, the plane may be split into 16ths or even 32nds of a fractional share. These fractions translate to a number of hours per year, with a full 100% share typically equating to 800 annual hours of usage. Most shares are sold at the 1/16 (50 hours) or 1/8 (100 hours) level.
Although the plane is shared, owners are guaranteed access from any airport with just 4–48 hours notice, depending on the provider and plan. This is referred to as the “call-out” period. Providers can offer such short call-out periods by having a fleet of similar aircraft, which are inter-changed amongst the owners. In other words the owner may only rarely fly on their own aircraft.
In addition to purchase costs, owners pay a monthly management fee to cover the cost of maintenance, upgrades, hangaring, pilot salaries and training. When using the plane, owners are also billed for the actual hours in flight, typically with 12 minutes tacked on for taxiing. The final cost component is fuel, which is often a surcharge above the hourly fee to account for price volatility.
An owner's share allotment is depleted for actual hours of “occupied flight,” plus taxiing, with a 1-2 hour minimum. Notably, owners are not charged for any non-occupied flight time that may be required by the logistics of travel: getting the plane to a departure point, and returning to its base after the flight. This is called variously “deadhead,” “positioning,” “ferry,” and “empty leg.”
In addition to the "owned" plane, customers gain access to other planes in the fleet. When desired, they may switch to larger or smaller planes on a set “interchange” formula. Access to a smaller plane is typically guaranteed, but larger plane guarantees may be conditional on the size of one's share—typically 1/8 or greater. There may also be limits to the percentage of an owner's total annual hours that can be flown with exchanged hours.
All shares are priced pro-rata, with no discounts for larger shares. In other words, a 1/8 share is twice as expensive as a 1/16 share, and half the price of a 1/4 share. The size of a share may dictate which additional benefits and rights the owner enjoys. Below is a list of possible benefits of larger shares.
- “Short leg” waivers – most plans require that each flight be a minimum of one hour. A waiver allows customers to be charged only for the actual flight time of a shorter trip.
- Availability guarantees – the strength of many guarantees increase with share size, for instance, shorter call-out periods and guaranteed access to larger planes.
- Overfly rules – some companies allow owners to access hours from future years if they’ve already flown their annual allowance.
- Ferry waivers – When flying outside of a provider’s “primary service area,” owners lose certain guarantees and often have to cover the “deadhead” cost of moving the plane around. Some plans define secondary service areas, such as the Caribbean, where these expenses may be waived.
- Peak/Busy period access – Most companies declare popular holidays and heavy travel dates as peak or busy periods. These dates, see the highest demand, and can push the company’s logistics and business model to the limit. Accordingly, companies may reduce service levels by lengthening call-out periods, relaxing certain guarantees, and applying additional restrictions. These changes tend to be more stringent on owners with smaller shares or card members with smaller commitments.
In the USA, fractional owners and operators are subject to the rules of the Federal Aviation Authority. Specifically the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAR Part 91, Subpart K.
The Formal Agreement
Private air travel advisors can be of particular help with navigating and negotiating the so-called "boilerplate" fractional contract. In an article for Halogen Jets, "“Fractional Jet Primer: Navigating the Contracts”", CEO of Shaircraft Solutions, James Butler, discusses the most vital components of a fractional contract:
Binder/Deposit Agreement — If your provider is awaiting delivery of your aircraft, this is the document through which you put up a deposit to hold your share.
Purchase Agreement — This is the document through which you purchase your share from the provider.
Master Dry Lease Exchange Agreement — This is the document that governs the relationship among all fractional owners in the program.
Management Agreement — This is the document that governs the core issues of your investment; it tells you when you can fly, how many hours you can fly and what costs you’ll incur when you fly.
On the last point, owners rarely end up flying the specific aircraft in which they hold shared title. More likely, they will travel on other identical planes in the company’s fleet. This is a natural consequence of the fractional model: since many owners “pull” on the same plane, it’s likely that "their" plane is either in use by another owner, or that another plane is positioned in a more convenient location for deployment.
This fleet flexibility is one of the key benefits of fractional ownership over full ownership. Owners are never stranded when their plane is in the shop for maintenance, and owners enjoy the luxury of upgrading or downgrading to other fleet aircraft for special trip requirements.
Fractional agreement terms are typically five years, after which owners sell their share back to the company for the then-current fair market value, less a “remarketing fee”, typically around 7%. The fee may be waived for renewals. You may also lease your share in a variety of configurations, depending on your tax and financial profile.
The “fair market value” calculation is a key consideration, and can dominate the overall cost-benefit analysis of the fractional ownership format. Many fractional owners were burned by the volatile market and geopolitical conditions of the early 2000s and the recession in the late 2000s. All contracts should outline an appeals process if the owner disputes the end-of-contract valuation. In a contribution to Business Jet Traveler's "Inside Fractionals" column, Shaircraft CEO, James Butler, offers advice to owners challenging providers' low share valuations: "“Sometimes Fair Market Value Isn't So Fair"",
Reasons to Fly Privately
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