If you’re looking for the best flight deals, probably the last thing you’d think of doing is taking a private jet. But consider this: roughly 30 percent of all private jets in the air are flying empty. This gives charter companies an opportunity to sell their inventory of “empty legs” to try to recoup some of the costs of flying an empty aircraft, and it gives you a chance to fly like a Fortune 100 CEO.
There are two scenarios that create empty legs (also called “deadhead” flights). In one, a plane sitting in New York has a charter starting in Las Vegas so it has to fly to the pickup point without passengers.
In the other, a client books a one-way charter so the plane has to come back to its home hangar empty.
Starting in late 2007 with the financial crisis, there’s been an industry shift among the rich and powerful—whether they be fortune 500 companies, celebrities, or even heads of state—away from owning jets outright to hiring private aircraft as needed.
“Unless you charter over 200 hours a year it simply doesn’t make financial sense to own an aircraft due to high fixed costs,” said Sergey Petrossov, CEO and founder of jet booking service JetSmarter, via email.
“For many of these private flyers, the benefits of flying privately were too valuable to give up but owning an aircraft became impractical or impossible during this time,” adds Petrossov.
This trend spawned the creation of more private charter companies, air taxis, and fractional jet ownership programs (which work like time shares). And as a result, it created a new market for empty leg offerings and also opened up private jet travel to the non-super elite.
Empty Leg Brokers
Companies like JetSmarter stepped in to bridge the gap between would-be flyers and the many operators with planes to fill.
The flights range from domestic short hops to jaunts down to the Caribbean. The fares aren’t always cheap, but they are a bargain. They are significantly lower than a standard chartered jet, and give you all the benefits of private flight, like personal service, avoiding the ordeal of crowded airports and security lineups, and being able to show up 15 minutes before your takeoff, plus they’re almost always pet friendly.
There are many companies that do private jet bookings, a few of which specialize in brokering empty legs as well.
JetSmarter is the most mobile-savvy one of them at the moment. Its app shows you all the information you need to browse, book, and pay on your smartphone. It also has an attractive membership program: an $8,499 annual fee (up from $6,000 when they launched in 2013), gives you unlimited access to empty leg flights at no extra cost.
As of writing, there are 26 empty leg flights being offered by JetSmarter over the next four days. They range from an 8-seater flying from Teterboro, New Jersey to Bedford, Massachusetts for $1,700, to a 4-seater en route from Geneva to Nice at $1,500 (all prices for non-members are subject to 7.5 percent tax).
Those are prices for the entire plane, not just a single seat. So if you have a small group, the prices are extremely economical, which is the point of the company—its mission, said Petrossov, is “to democratize private air travel for the masses.”
Other companies offer similar services but they’re much less transparent about pricing.
Privatefly for example, lists flights through to the end of the year, which is convenient, but in most cases you need to call for a price; for the ones with listed prices, there’s a warning they’re subject to change. But they do offer sizable discounts. For example, a Paris to Budapest trip on a 6-seater is going for $2,500, with the original price listed at $16,800—which is an 85 percent savings.
El Jet and EmptyLegMarket, are two other options. The El Jet lists featured empty leg flights for the coming week on its site—currently there are about 30—but again, you have to call for prices. The EmptyLegMarket mostly focuses on Europe and the Middle East. The prices are estimates, but it shows an upcoming flight from London to Berlin on a “very light jet” (seating 4–8) for 800 euros ($870).
Booking jets at economy prices sounds wonderful, but there are a few drawbacks. The system works best for whim travel, but not when you have a specific schedule to keep since the chances of finding an exact match for route and date are slim. But for people who travel a lot, it’s definitely worth checking if there’s a match.
JetSmarter currently fills 10 to 15 percent of the 2,500 empty leg flights available each month for that reason. Petrossov said he is hoping to expand that inventory to 10,000 per month by the year’s end to increase the chances flyers can find return flights.
If you can’t find an empty leg back, you can always book a return on a commercial flight. The other option is to stay on a few days longer in case the right empty leg pops up.
Of course the other risk to traveling this way is that once you fly by private jet, there might be no turning back.