Holiday travel is a fading memory. And for most, how joyous was it?
Crowded parking lots, long security lines, cramped seats, cold- and flu-ridden passengers and lost luggage. Remember?
But at more than 5,000 public airports in the country, including Sarasota Bradenton International, there is a whole other world of travel, a world most of us will never have the privilege to enter. It's the high-dollar, high-maintenance world of general aviation-a mundane term that doesn't even begin to capture the essence of private jet flight. While most people pile up frequent-flier points to beg for an upgrade to first class, that's the only class for these folks.
And when you consider security concerns, time saved and the abundant disposable income in Southwest Florida, it's a niche that is burgeoning. Private takeoffs and landings already outnumber commercial flights in Sarasota by almost four to one, and they're increasing. From January through October 2005, private flights were up more than 13 percent over the same period the previous year. Private terminal operators Dolphin Aviation and Jones Aviation lease about 43 acres from SRQ for their operations, and a third, Rectrix Aerodrome Centers, is starting construction on a state-of-the-art terminal and "hangarminiums" on its 19 acres to serve business and recreational fliers with charter flights and luxury concierge services.
"We saw the amount of growth, the quality of life, the income level and aviation level," says Richard Cawley, Rectrix president and CEO, whose company recently opened a terminal in Hyannis, Mass., and has plans to open five to seven more around the country. "This is a very active area for general aviation, and the infrastructure and management of the airport have been superb."
Sarasota businessman and private plane owner Mark Famiglio says SRQ's private jet traffic began to build after Sept. 11, 2001. "In the last couple of years, the airlines have gotten so congested and time consuming that it really makes sense to fly noncommercial, if you do it judiciously," he says.
Local executives in the industry agree there are practical reasons to shun commercial airlines, which fly to only about 546 airports nationwide. The biggest reason might be that the odds of getting close to your final destination are slim, especially outside of the largest financial and business hubs. Just compare the time it would take a team of executives on a one-day business trip to get to Marquette, Mich., from Sarasota: An 8 a.m. flight means arrival at the airport at least by 7 a.m., a 90-minute flight to Atlanta, and then stops in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, an hour getting luggage and a rental car, then a drive to the final destination. The total trip time is more than nine hours.
With a private jet, you arrive at SRQ when you're ready to leave, take a two-and-a-half hour flight directly to Marquette and hop into a waiting sedan. The flight home gets the entire team back to Sarasota for dinner, while the commercial fliers are stuck in a hotel until they can make the return trip the next morning.
Among the three forms of private aviation-individual ownership, charter service and fractional ownership-there can be up to 100 planes parked at the SRQ facilities. Surprisingly, it's not just corporate execs jetting between Sarasota and New York or Chicago. Dolphin Aviation CEO Ron Ciaravella estimates that 60 percent of his clients are on pleasure trips.
"They do it because they can," he says.
A visit to the Dolphin Aviation lobby confirms this. Uniformed employees staff the computers and radios, in contact with pilots. Porters deliver baggage to waiting planes, and a snack stand serves coffee, soft drinks and muffins. But milling about with all the business suits are guests in velour warm-up suits or denim. In essence, the lobby is a mini airport terminal on the sprawling SRQ grounds. All the services at the main terminal are duplicated here, and then some. Ciaravella describes it as a "marina for the airways."
Over at Jones Aviation, general manager Ed Lindsay says his staff provides the full range of services for aircraft and their passengers, everything from fuel, cleaning and lavatory service to booking rental cars, hotels for the crews and in-flight catering orders. "It's a bit of a concierge service," Lindsay says.
As private aviation is evolving, Lindsay says most people misunderstand what's involved. Although a drive near the property reveals dozens of small planes sitting on the tarmac, that's not what it's about any longer. "Most people, when you say 'general aviation,' they think about one of these single-engine Cessnas," Lindsay says. Private planes now typically seat six to 10 passengers and, like Rectrix's nine-seater Bombardier Challenger 604, offer plush, cream-colored leather seats, gold trim and rich wood accents, looking more like Cadillacs of the air than crop dusters.
Regardless of how an aircraft is owned-privately, fractionally or through a charter service-SRQ operators say clients' trips generally are coordinated the same way. A phone call to the service provider sets the itinerary, along with any special requests. Do you need full meals or just snacks? Any particular beverages? Do you want a rental car at your destination, or is a limo better? Once the order is filled, the passengers simply show up at the airport at flight time, give or take a several minutes or more. No missed flights here.
"In the corporate world, it's primarily about time savings," Lindsay says. "And part of it is because of the way airlines treat people these days. Traveling is not fun; the seats are uncomfortable, and the security screening is very time consuming."
SRQ leases 152 airplane hangars to individual aircraft owners. Those are the squat buildings visible from Tallevast Road, on the north side of the airport. While most of these hangars house smaller planes, mostly for recreational flying or short trips, privately owned aircraft are a significant portion of the business. At last count, SRQ was home base for 298 private aircraft. People with private jets, such as Famiglio, rent their own space at the airport. Famiglio says he typically flies a couple of times a week, but he's guarded about the number and types of aircraft he has, saying only that he does have a Learjet 55 for personal use.
"One reason people fly their own planes is for privacy," Famiglio says. "You don't want people to know which planes are whose, whether it's celebrities or businesspeople [involved] in complex transactions."
In fact, trying to get a glimpse into one of these private jets is like trying to hitch a ride on Air Force One. Airport officials say celebrities of local and national prominence pass through their doors daily, everyone from baseball star Miguel Tejada to the rock stars of Aerosmith to author Stephen King, but they would just as soon no one know they're around. It's understandable as well that company executives on vacation would rather their employees not know they have their families flying from Sarasota in a luxurious, $40 million Gulfstream V that requires $1.5 million in annual operating costs. Especially not while those employees are busy queuing up to remove their shoes at the security line before squeezing into their coach seats on AirTran.
Considering that prices for private aircraft can range from $3.5 million up to $60 million, only the most active fliers or those with the deepest pockets can enter the ownership realm. Add maintenance costs, crew and storage, and the price tag is heftier still.
If ownership is the prohibitively expensive choice, good old charters are the most economical. Jones Aviation runs its own charter service, setting prices based on fuel costs, distance and aircraft size. For instance, flying a group of five people to the Bahamas would probably cost about $1,500, plus $50 an hour. If the group wants to send the plane home and return another day, the cost would be double.
A system similar to time-share condominiums provides a third option, cheaper than ownership but more expensive than the average charter. Fractional ownership, as it's called, accounts for about 30 percent of the traffic at Dolphin Aviation, according to Ciaravella. With fractionals, individuals buy a portion of a jet and pay other fees. They can use the aircraft, or one like it, without the hassle of full ownership but with much more flexibility than a charter.
NetJets, a Berkshire Hathaway company that pioneered fractional jet ownership in the 1980s, has a fleet of 600 aircraft and promises owners a plane within four hours of the request, regardless of location. NetJets has partnered with Marquis Jet to sell fractions of fractions. Marquis Jet sells, essentially, a prepaid flight card in 25-hour increments. You pick your plane, buy your time, and you can act like you "own" a jet for 25 hours a year. According to executives at Marquis Jet, their typical customer has a net worth of $30 million, liquid assets of $10 million and annual income of $2 million.
Marquis Jet representative Bryan Hodges says most clients use their 25 hours in the first eight months of purchase. Although it's much more expensive than chartering a flight, Hodges believes service is more reliable and safe.
Price for a little black Marquis Jet card? Between $110,000 and $340,000 for 25 hours of flight time. Included with the purchase are in-flight telephone use, food, beverages and the flight crew. NetJets does all the work of preparing the aircraft through local fixed-base operators, such as Jones Aviation.
If the money spent on advertising directed at private air travel customers is any indication, the economics are staggering. The luxury-lifestyle magazine Robb Report (which, along with this magazine, is part of the family of publications owned by CurtCo Media) devoted an entire issue this year to private travel, including a buyers' guide for planes priced from $5 million to $26 million. And other fractional ownership and membership card programs have cropped up, including fractional company Flight Options, which operates out of Dolphin Aviation. Even Delta Air Lines has gotten into the game with Delta AirElite, a fleet membership program that sells flight time in increments of 25, 50 or 100 hours. They even have partnered with a developer in the Bahamas that is offering a 25-hour jet card with the purchase of a villa in a new island development.
It's clear that private jet travel saves huge amounts of time and aggravation. For corporations, that time saved is invaluable. But local officials say for every busy executive making a deal while flying, there's someone else in the air who just wants to get to his vacation hideaway a little more quickly and in a lot more luxury.
"There is no correlation between flying privately and dollar savings," admits Dolphin Aviation CEO Ron Ciaravella. "It's boutique travel, and you pay for that service."
A glossary of aviation terms.
CHARTER JET SERVICE: On-demand air travel service, usually on a corporate or turbo-prop jet with crew, that operates on flexible, client-driven schedules.
FBO (FIXED-BASE OPERATOR): A service center at an airport that may be a private enterprise or may be a department of the municipality that the airport serves. Services include fueling, aircraft rental, parking and hangar storage, flight training, baggage handling, lavatory services and assistance with travel plans such as car rentals and hotel reservations.
FRACTIONAL OWNERSHIP: Individuals or organizations purchase a percentage of an aircraft and receive a guaranteed number of hours of use. The cost of owning and maintaining the aircraft are dispersed among the several owners.
GENERAL AVIATION: All aircraft not flown by the airlines or the military.
(Sources: Journal of Air Transportation World Wide and Wikipedia.)
General aviation at SRQ and beyond.
The ratio of private takeoffs and landings to commercial takeoffs and landings at SRQ: 4 to 1
FBOs at SRQ: 3 (Dolphin, Jones and Rectrix)
Hangars leased to private owners at SRQ: 152
No. of private aircraft at SRQ: 298
SRQ annual revenues generated by general aviation: $976,000 (includes land rental, hangar rental and fuel fees)
Cost of private plane: $3 million to $60 million
Cost of flight on a luxury nine-seat Rectrix Bombardier Challenger: $4,700 per hour
Price of prepaid jet card with 25 hours of flight time: $110,000 to $340,000
Typical customer at Marquis jets: Net worth of $30 million, liquid assets of $10 million and annual income of $2 million
Hangar rental at SRQ: approximately $4,000 a month
Overnight hangar rental: $200 to $1,000 a night, depending on the size of the plane
No. of U.S. airports: 19,300
No. with commercial service: 546
No. of U.S. aircraft: 210,000
No. of those that are commercial: 8,000
No. of business planes in the U.S.: 15,000
No. of private pilots in U.S.: 235,994
Sources: Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, National Business Aviation Association and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Luxury jet catering soars.
When they need a plane stocked with food for a flight, fliers call Ken and Diane Dowse at Blue Parrot Catering.
The Dowses closed their Blue Parrot restaurant in downtown Sarasota and started the catering company after a customer persuaded them to cater for some clients flying their own planes and they saw the possible profits. They'll soon change the name to Blue Parrot In-Flight Services to better describe what they do, with an eye toward expansion.
"I've been in this business five years, and I learn something every day," Ken Dowse says. "I tell you, I didn't know this world existed. Every time you go out to the airport, you see 15 or 20 jets out there. You didn't see that four or five years ago."
Blue Parrot has kitchens near the airports in Orlando, Naples and Sarasota. They service flights out of all those airports, plus Tampa, St. Petersburg, Venice and the smaller airports in the vicinity. They stock planes with everything from nuts and fruit plates to full meals of filet mignon or prime rib. Although they rarely meet the passengers, the various flight operators have profiles on their clients. For instance, Dowse knows when an Orlando flight requests Trident gum with the meals, that's probably Tiger Woods' plane.
Dowse's business is a microcosm of the growing general aviation industry. He expects 15-percent growth this year, and that's without an advertising or marketing budget.
As in the rest of the industry, catering in-flight meals is about service. Dishes are served on china or decorative aluminum trays. Presentation is at least as important as the food. And high-fliers pay for it. Cost of a fruit plate for five? Sixteen dollars-per person. But the caterers are available around the clock, waiting to service a plane when the client decides to fly.
"We do more burritos than you want to know at one or two o'clock in the morning," Dowse says.