Slightly more than half of global business-jet deliveries are made in the United States, with the next biggest proportion, about 17 percent, in Europe, where the industry has been battered by the economic downturn.
“We take a global view, with our large operations in the U.S. and also in Europe, and expanding operations in China,” said Jordan Hansell, chief executive of NetJets. “We’re looking at more than just the U.S. aviation market, which is holding its own.”
NetJets, Flight Options and a third big player, FlexJet, a unit of Bombardier, dominate the fractional-ownership market, which NetJets popularized starting in 1986. Rather than buying an entire airplane, fractional owners purchase a share, starting at one-sixteenth or one-eighth, of a certain model. Share ownership ensures a customer the availability of that model of plane on short notice for a specified number of hours a year.
A one-eighth share typically equals 100 flying hours a year. Besides buying a share of the plane prorated on its overall price, customers pay an hourly fee when flying and a monthly maintenance fee. The companies offer other options, including so-called jet cards sold in hourly blocks, usually in increments of 25 hours, but without the same rights as ownership.
Even at this less expensive end of the business, flying privately is not cheap. A 25-hour Flight Options card for a speedy, seven-passenger Hawker 400XP light jet, for example, costs $110,000, plus fuel and taxes. Jet cards are typically used by people who fly fewer than 50 hours a year.
“It’s very hard to justify all the costs,” Mr. Dowley acknowledged, “but I’m in the service business and in the private equity business, where you have multiple clients and multiple issues.”
“The commercial schedule is just so grossly inefficient,” he said, that augmenting it with private jets makes economic sense.
Over all, the cheapest per-seat method of private flying is charter aviation, in which travel is usually sold on a per-flight, on-demand basis. (XOJet, a leader in the on-demand charter business, said recently that its flight hours in the first half of 2012 were up 55 percent from the same period in 2011.)
The most expensive private-jet option, of course, is outright ownership of a plane. This end of the market remains the most severely affected since the recession, both by basic economics and by the populist criticism that developed against the high-flying rich.
Mr. Ricci estimated that while the fractional-share market was finally growing again, it had shrunk from about 450,000 hours a year just before the recession to about 350,000 hours now.
“If you’re operating a business, it doesn’t take long for your employees to realize you’re still flying in the corporate jet,” he said. “That’s maybe not the example you want to set. We still have customers that will do business flying commercially, and they’ll have either a card or a small fractional share that they use for their personal travel, and they’ll ask not to have that go through their office. They still try to keep that low profile.”