Private jet company Vista Global to acquire JetSmarter, once touted as the Uber of private jets

Key Points
  • Vista Global agrees to acquire JetSmarter, betting that the value of the private jet service's technology will outweigh the controversy and lawsuits still dogging the company.
  • Terms and price aren't disclosed.
Sergey Petrossov, founder of JetSmarter

Private jet company Vista Global agreed to acquire JetSmarter, betting that the value of JetSmarter's technology will outweigh the controversy and lawsuits still dogging the company.

Terms and price weren't disclosed. The deal, once approved, will be an equity swap, with JetSmarter investors receiving equity in Vista Global. Vista said it plans to integrate JetSmarter's digital booking technology, which allows customers to easily book a private jet through an app, into its VistaJet, Vista Lease and XOJET private jet brands.

"Vista Global's reach and infrastructure will take JetSmarter to the global stage to fully realize its potential," said Vista's chairman and founder, Thomas Flohr.

But the deal will also saddle Vista with JetSmarter's legal battles and controversies. JetSmarter faces over a dozen federal lawsuits claiming JetSmarter is a "fraud" and "unlawful bait-and-switch." A CNBC investigation found the company sold multiyear memberships for more than $97,000 promising free private jet flights, but later started charging members for their flights. The investigation also revealed concerns over JetSmarter's security procedures and passengers who tried to bring drugs and large amounts of cash on board.

On a JetSmarter flight last September, with small children on board, a passenger threatened to kill other passengers and threatened to decapitate anyone who tried to stop him. The flight made an emergency landing and the passenger was arrested and charged with making terroristic threats. People familiar with the matter told CNBC that the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are both asking questions about JetSmarter.

Vista declined any interviews and didn't comment on any problems at JetSmarter. It's unclear whether Clearlake Capital, the leading investor in JetSmarter, agreed to indemnify Vista against certain legal or member claims against the private jet service.

Vista, based in Dubai, is one of a number of private jet companies raising capital to buy out competitors and lead consolidation in the private jet industry. With $200 million in funding from Rhone Capital, Flohr acquired private jet charter company XOJET last year. JetSmarter has been one of XOJET's biggest customers over the years, since JetSmarter doesn't own its own planes but acts as a digital booking service for seats and charter flights.

The deal marks a surprising end to 30-year-old JetSmarter founder Sergey Petrossov's vision of taking the company public and creating the Uber of private jets. The company, founded in 2012 and based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, grew to more than 8,000 members, with celebrity endorsers such as Kim Kardashian and investors such as Jay-Z and the Saudi royal family. Initially it sold memberships for $7,500 and promised members unlimited private jet flights. By 2016, it claimed a valuation of $1.5 billion, becoming the first "flying unicorn."

But after losing millions of dollars a month, the company was quickly burning through its investment. In 2018, after raising the price of its memberships, the company suddenly changed its membership terms and began charging members for flights. The changes resulted in a flurry of lawsuits and complaints.

JetSmarter this month agreed to a settlement with members of a class-action arbitration in Florida that includes a $3 million settlement fund and an offer of free memberships and flight credits for members. In its settlement, JetSmarter stated that it "strongly denies these allegations and believes the facts will show that at all times it complied with the membership agreement and all applicable laws."

Vista said that after the deal, JetSmarter customers will benefit from the "reach, resources, operational expertise of Vista Global group." Lawyers involved in the arbitration settlement said the Vista acquisition will not change the terms of the agreement.

In previous statements, JetSmarter said it "adamantly rejects any allegations of fraud or 'bait-and-switch' tactics" and that it is "more positive about the health of our business than ever." It has acknowledged "a number of members are unhappy with certain changes," but said the "vast majority of our core customers understand the necessity of these decisions to ensure the long-term viability of JetSmarter."

Petrossov couldn't be reached for comment and was not mentioned or quoted in the Vista Global press release.

CNBC Investigation: Inside the world of a private jet company