Last February, former President George W. Bush walked down the stairs of a private jet onto the tarmac of Sarasota Bradenton International Airport on his way to a meeting of top global CEOs at The Ritz. He wasn’t alone. More than 300 private jets flew in and out of Sarasota that day for the convention.
It doesn’t take a conference of the world’s most successful executives to bring in these pricey jets, though. On a typical Wednesday late last spring, 25 private jets landed at Rectrix, a 20-acre facility adjacent to the commercial terminal at SRQ, according to Rectrix Aviation general manager Deron S. Webb.
Rectrix, Dolphin Aviation—also located at SRQ—and Suncoast Air Center in Venice are private air travel facilities known as Fixed Based Operators. All of them have seen an increase in takeoffs and landings over the past few years. Private air travel is up across the country, Webb says, and it’s especially up in Sarasota.
Air taxi data from SRQ shows private charter flights have increased 19 percent over the past two years. Propeller planes still dominate, but private jets—big ones—are becoming more common. Landing here is the Bombardier Challenger 350, a $26 million plane, and a favorite of the corporate jet crowd, which seats 10 people comfortably. Another frequent flyer is the Bombardier Global 5000, a $50 million jet with room for 16 passengers that can fly 5,200 nautical miles (hello, London to Sarasota). The fast $71.5 million Gulfstream 650ER, which can be outfitted to fit 13 passengers, sleeps 10, and has a range of 7,500 nautical miles, also flies in and out.
The interiors of these planes look like luxury yachts. “It’s what you’d expect if you are spending $18,000 an hour for a charter,” says Sarasota pilot John Romine. And if the plane is privately owned, the owners try to “one-up each other” in just how lavish and customized they can make them, he says. The galleys of these jets are stocked with top-flight liquor ($1,000 a bottle is routine). Catering costs are notoriously high and accepted. Another private pilot says he once saw a $1,000 bill for three breakfast burritos, a cheese platter and orange juice. Of course, these flights (even if the passengers are headed to the Bahamas for a vacay) are almost always considered a business expense, so a $300 burrito doesn’t hurt so much.
Fuel costs for a Global 5000 that flies 400 hours a year can be $800,000, and a dedicated, on-call private pilot who handles all the scheduling, services and personnel for one of these big jets can make $250,000 annually. Total cost to operate a large private plane for 400 hours a year is about $2.3 million.
This area has always had wealthy residents, says Ron Ciaravella, owner and president of Dolphin Aviation, but now we are “seeing the über wealthy.” And, to them, purchasing a plane right now makes sense. The economy is good, the wealthy have seen increased earnings, and the 2017 Republican tax overhaul provides an incentive to buy.
National aircraft sales were up 5 percent in 2018. Ciaravella traces the increase to the enhanced deduction in the tax code. Under the 2017 tax plan, the full cost of a new or used plane purchased for business can now be deducted during the first year of ownership.
Alexander C. Landry, managing director of Suncoast Air Center, says he saw a growth in his business even before the tax overhaul. “When Trump became president, I noticed an immediate uptick,” he says, reporting that private air travel increased more than 30 percent at his FBO in the last two years. Many of his private air travelers land at Suncoast Air and in less than an hour can be at their waterfront homes in Boca Grande, north Casey Key and south Sarasota. “We’ve seen people fly in for lunch or dinner at Cassariano restaurant here in Venice,” he says, and then head back to Palm Beach.
Wealth here tends to be less ostentatious than what one sees in New York or Los Angeles, says Ciaravella. Often, the couple disembarking from the $50 million plane is wearing tennis shoes and baseball caps. “The money here is quiet,” he says. “You don’t see the showing off of wealth, even though I know many of them own multimillion-dollar businesses.” These travelers don’t need the glitz, but they do want the ease and independence of private travel. “It’s 2.5 hours from Chicago to here,” Ciaravella says. “They can come and go as they want. Some use it to commute. Some to bring their families down here.” Recently, wealthy donors to Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe had a private plane fly more than a dozen troupe members to New York to perform at a birthday party.
Jane McCormack, a corporate pilot for a well-known Sarasota company, flies a Beechcraft King Air 200, a turboprop plane, up and down the eastern seaboard and the Caribbean. The owner of the company uses the plane for business and pleasure travel for both himself and his family, as well as for business partners, McCormack says. The ease, security and time savings make it worth the cost, she says. An eight-hour ordeal on a commercial flight becomes three hours house to house from Newport, Rhode Island, to Venice. “That’s a huge draw,” she says.
Fractional flying is also a growing trend. Without the need to plan too far ahead as with a charter plane, and without the headache and overhead of owning a private plane, fractional ownership allows a client to buy a share in a plane—such as a 1/16 interest—for a certain number of hours on a certain type of aircraft and use them as needed. Flexjet, one of the largest fractional businesses in the country, also offers a jet card program (which is different from fractional ownership) for people who fly less. For example, 25 hours of flight time in a seven-seater Phenom 300 light jet, with a range of 2,268 miles, costs $166,000. Fractional ownership at Flexjet goes up to 800 hours a year. It’s a large expense, but less per hour than a single charter flight that could cost up to $15,000 for a one-way flight from New York City to Sarasota.
“Our fractional owners fly into and out of Sarasota with great regularity,” says Megan Wolf, Flexjet’s chief operations officer. “Our operations jumped approximately 20 percent into and out of Sarasota Bradenton International Airport when comparing 2017 and 2018.”
And with approximately 5,000 airports in the U.S., passengers who can afford private air travel are usually close to where they want to fly to and from. They don’t need to navigate TSA and can go from car to plane in as little as 10 minutes. Wolf says the typical client might leave their home in Westchester County in New York after the children get home from school, drive to the Westchester County Airport and land at SRQ in time for dinner reservations.
Rectrix has 29 employees, and Webb says keeping clients’ anonymity is serious business for all of them. Celebrities and business tycoons who fly in and out on a regular basis value their privacy, as well as their security, and using an FBO helps protect that. None of the FBO executives interviewed would drop names.
FBOs are not just a landing strip, but the first and last contact for passengers as they arrive and depart, so FBOs work hard to make the experience pleasant. (Pilots ranked Rectrix’s Sarasota facility in the top 10 percent among 3,600 FBOs in the country in a recent national survey.) The pilot and flight crew take care of most needs, but often the FBO staff are on call for specific accommodations—fresh lobster and champagne for dinner, a warm wool throw blanket, juice boxes for the kids. Limos are arranged, and private cars pull close to the tarmac so clients don’t have to walk far. The mission is to get them off that plane and to their beach house with little hassle.
Like all travelers, says Webb, “They just want to come off the plane and be home.”
Which Plane Can You Afford?
Bombardier Challenger 350
Description: A super mid-size jet, popular with the business set.
Capacity: Up to 10 passengers
Speed: 614 mph (cruising speed)
Range: 3,200 nautical miles
Length: Almost 69 feet
Wingspan: 69 feet
Altitude: 43,000 feet
Cost: $26 million
Piper Cherokee 6
Description: A single-engine plane geared toward the owner who likes to fly herself and friends for business and pleasure.
Capacity: Maximum capacity of six people, or four adults with luggage
Speed: 190 mph-200 mph (in zero wind)
Range: 1,000-1,200 miles
Wingspan: 35-40 feet
Cost: $80,000-$200,000, used; $400,000 new