JetFlite International woos customers with pictures of its fleet of private planes and the promise, "Let us pamper you." But part-owner Arik Kislin still flies commercial.
"It's a lot less luxurious," the self-made multimillionaire tells CNBC. "You have to deal with all the nuances of the airport." But it's "an economical decision," especially when he's on his own and when he's "going across the pond."
"There's a lot more options to fly commercial. There's a lot more flights going to business cities," he says, and that availability of flights is convenient. "If I wanted to go to London, I'd probably have 20-plus flights to choose from."
For those reasons, he says, "it's just easier" to fly commercial.
But that doesn't mean he finds it pleasant. The hassle of going through airports make those transit hubs his least favorite part of flying. He's also put off by the crews on some airlines; he finds them unfriendly, as "service just generally isn't as strong." The treatment of passengers that used to be standard 30 years ago "just doesn't exist anymore," at least not the U.S., he says, though it can still be found on certain Middle Eastern and Asian airlines.
Unionized crews, which are found on American Airlines, United and many other domestic airlines, he believes, have less of an incentive to perform: "When you're less worried about your job, you're less eager to do your job."
When he can, Kislin flies an airline like Emirates, which is one of his favorites. "They have quite a first class, [one] that's very, very comfortable. They do have that intricacy of service: that mentality, that culture," he says. "They do a great job."
And although it's very different, he also singles out at least one budget airline for praise: "I think JetBlue does a good job."
Most domestic airlines, however, don't measure up. "We've gone sideways with Delta, American, United," he says. "I just don't believe the service is there anymore."
He's not alone in feeling that way. Customers, especially those who, unlike Kislin, cannot afford to fly first class, complain vocally about their treatment on airplanes. Some high-profile incidents even make the news. Still, according to the 2017 Airline Quality Rating (AQR), the situation may be improving slightly: In the U.S., "the consumer complaint rate across the industry declined to 1.52 per 100,000 passengers in 2016 from 1.90 per 100,000 passengers in 2015."
The AQR's top five U.S. airlines of 2017 are Alaska, Delta, Virgin America, JetBlue and Hawaiian Airlines. Of those, three, or more than half, have unionized crews.
Kislin's company does about $25 million a year in revenue and he is now, in his words, "not quite a billionaire." But he didn't come from money. He immigrated from the Ukraine when he was three years old and credits his rise to "a lot of hard work, risk, passion, luck."
Flying first class for the first time made him feel like he had made it.
Reflecting on that experience, he quotes the line from the 1996 film "Jerry Maguire," in which the hard-working single mom, Dorothy (Renee Zellweger), is rueful about flying economy with her son. She tells him, "First class is what's wrong. It used to be a better meal. Now it's a better life." Getting to the front of the plane made Kislin feel that he had finally secured that better life.
"I pictured the smile on my mother's face," he says. "Her little boy got there."