Out of Office

Warren Buffett's preferred method of travel just got a whole lot easier

Key Points
  • Even the notoriously frugal Oracle of Omaha is a convert to private jet travel.
  • Private jet rental, fractional ownership and sharing schemes are becoming increasing popular with corporate travelers and the wealthy but frugal.
  • Flight brokers such as Jettly make private jet ownership a little less wasteful by helping owners put otherwise idle aircraft to use.
A file photo of a NetJets plane
Victor J. Blue | Bloomberg | Getty Images

You've got the black card, the fastest Bugatti on the road and the Hermès bag. But when even first class gets just a bit too crass, the sky is literally the limit.

After criticizing companies for splurging on private jets, Warren Buffett himself bought a Bombardier Challenger some two decades ago, initially — and ironically — christening it The Indefensible. Turns out, private travel so appealed to him he not only renamed his Bombardier The Indispensable, he went ahead and bought jet operator NetJets in 1998.

But while owning a jet — or a jet company — might be the peak of luxury living, it's not for everyone, even among the elite. In fact, industry experts say the allure of private jet travel lies not in the opulence, prestige or even the experience but in the time saved.

"The common theme is people who put a significant value on their time and their peace of mind," said Patrick Gallagher, executive vice president of sales and marketing at private jet operator NetJets. Clients may need to traverse relatively short distances as quickly as possible, and private planes are sometimes the only way of connecting to thousands of hard-to-reach local and private airports across the country.

Traditionalists might opt for the standards and convenience that NetJets provides. "We look at ourselves as an alternative to owning a jet," said Gallagher. NetJets gives clients "fractional ownership": A client purchases a fraction of a jet that is shared among other owners, where it is made ready on request for use. During busy times, NetJets taps into other aircraft and claims to guarantee an equal or better jet than the one a client owns. The service also lets clients switch between other jets if needed, prorating usage charges accordingly.

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But those who own a jet in its entirety face another problem: Wholly owned jets spend most of their time in the hangar gathering dust — and losing value.

Private-jet charter marketplace Jettly is hoping to make private flying a little more accessible by tackling that problem head-on. Its service connects clients seeking private travel with aircraft owners who have unused or underutilized jets.

"Jettly doesn't own," said CEO Justin Crabbe. The company describes itself as an e-broker similar to Uber: Owners can share their jets with travelers in exchange for fees, with the transaction handled by Jettly. Traditionally, "brokers are working out of basements and trying to do things helter-skelter," said Crabbe. "We're digitizing the space and creating a space that will allow the air operator to start receiving air requests."

Jettly offers cut rates by filling "deadheads" — empty, passenger-less flights. By filling those flights, the aircraft owner can recover the cost of the deadhead and the client can reach his destination. The company is aiming for business travelers who want a step up from first class on commercial airlines and hopes to bring private travel "down to a level where people will fly it around the country."

Private jets can even be cost-effective for organizations. First-class tickets are easily three or four times the price of economy-class tickets, according to data from Hopper, and airfare prediction app. For companies shuttling five or six executives, the cost of tickets can easily match or exceed the cost of a direct charter on a private jet, said Crabbe. And private jets can reduce airport hassle and take advantage of smaller airfields closer to the ultimate destination.

Still, competition for the private dollar can sometimes be intense. Clients oftentimes have demands that match the extravagance; jets may need to be ready to fly within an hour's notice and accommodate everything from fragile and bulky photographer's equipment to pets.

NetJets once flew a plane with no human passengers aboard, said Gallagher. The "cargo" was, in fact, 17 dogs.

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