Turn the clock back eight years to 2013. Serial entrepreneur Kenny Dichter’s non-competition with NetJets had just expired. It was three years since he sold his former startup, Marquis Jet Partners, to the world’s largest private airline provider. Back in 2001, Dichter helped the birth of the jet-card revolution by concluding an agreement to sell flights on NetJets’ fleet in 25-hour blocks. Today, the cards are 20% of NetJets flying. Back then, it was not even on the market.
Wheels Up was another approach. Dichter wanted to democratize the private aviation market. His chosen horse was the Beechcraft King Air 350i. An hour of flight time on an eight-seater turboprop was priced lower than jets. Dichter championed the aircraft for its ability to pull a full load of skiers or golfers to smaller and more convenient airports.
His access was as with other jet cards. Members receive fixed rates. In other words, they wanted to know what they would pay when they signed their contract instead of pricing each trip with a charter broker. However, he would not demand deposits. You pay a membership fee to participate, and then when you are on a fly-by-flight basis, you pay no need to write a 6-digit check.
Last year, Wheels Up raised over $ 550 million in deposits. Following a two-year acquisition, it is also now the second largest operator of leased private jets in the United States. In the next few weeks, it will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange worth over $ 2 billion.
Operating out of Annapolis, Maryland, hopes another serial entrepreneur, Patrick Britton-Harr AeroVanti is Wheels Up in this decade. If successful, he will have to avoid the pitfalls of JetSmarter, JetSuite, Black Jet, Rise, ImagineAir and others who shared the same vision of moving travelers out of first class and into private cabins.
So far, he seems to be following Dichter’s playbook – with a few critical twists that mean even lower prices.
AeroVanti uses Piaggio P.180 turboprop, which has the cabin space for a medium-sized jet, the speed of a very light jet and space for seven. He does not charter the planes. He leases to own, giving him full control over the planning. He has entered into a contract with Part 135 operator Brazos Valley Air Charter to fly the plane. It is a similar arrangement that Dichter struck with the Gama Aviation Signature when he launched.
Britton-Harr has nothing to do with discounts empty legs or options next to the seat. Instead, he offers members a full hourly rate of only $ 1,950 plus tax east of the Mississippi and $ 2,450 plus tax west. By comparison, Wheels Up’s King Air 350i is priced at $ 4,695 per hour.
AeroVantis memberships start at just $ 12,000 a year and you can pay monthly. For now at least there is no deposit program – you pay as you go. The catch is that there is no guaranteed availability. If there is a plane for free when you call, you will fly. You can hold up to 12 reservations at a time and you can book up to 365 days in advance. You may need flexible hours or days, but Britton-Harr believes for many of his target customers that the price is right.
While the 37-year-old made his money on medical services – his first venture was to offer dental services to residents in assisting living facilities – he is no stranger to aviation. A third-generation pilot, his father Steve Harr, who serves as chief pilot, is a former naval soldier who spent 35 years flying for the airlines, starting as his father for Piedmont Airlines, then through a merger and bankruptcy, USAir, US Airways and finally American Airlines.
The father and son say the experience was not a deterrent, more a lesson. Harr says he always admired Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher, who famously said he put his employees in front of both customers and shareholders.
Britton-Harr says he brings a lean management approach to AeroVanti. There are only 10 employees – Brazos flies the planes and therefore employs the pilots and support staff. Even marketing and accounting are outsourced. This is one of the reasons to avoid deposits. More paperwork that tracks customer funds means more manpower and more expenses.
There is no phone number on its website. You apply online. After the first 300 members, Britton-Harr says additional members will come via referrals.
There are currently five P.180s with plans to add more. All had interior upgrades and are equipped with WiFi. Britton-Harr says he is in talks with Piaggio to buy new models in the future. The Italian manufacturer is currently in the process of closing down reception after delivering less than 10 aircraft in the last three years. Britton-Harr says he is not worried about parts for the existing fleet, as Brazos, he says, has the largest inventory in the world.
Right now, Brazos is only allowed to operate in the continental United States. However, it has applied and expects to receive authority that will cover Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. It could come in the middle of summer.
One issue that AeroVanti does not have is recruiting pilots. Harr says he has a robust pipeline. Many retired captains want to continue flying beyond the mandatory retirement age of 65 years.
Another area that AeroVanti has no shortage of is big dreams. Britton-Harr has visions of expanding to Europe. He then plans to add large cabin aircraft to connect his budget operations on both sides of the Atlantic.