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Thanks to affordable new aircraft and chartering options, the cost of flying private is coming down to earth.
The Citation Mustang cost far less than a larger jet and is cheaper to operate.
The Citation Mustang cost far less than a larger jet and is cheaper to operate.Conde Nast
/ Source: Condé Nast Traveler

Thanks to affordable new aircraft and chartering options, the cost of flying private is coming down to earth.

When John M.­ Sobrato, a Silicon Valley real estate developer, flew down to Los Angeles on business recently, he didn't remove his shoes at security or cool his heels in the airport lounge. Instead, using a "jet card" he had bought from new charter operator JetSuite, he strolled up to a four-seater jet that took off within minutes and landed less than an hour later at Santa Monica Airport—a short drive from his destination. "Not having to go through a huge airport like LAX—that alone saved me an hour," Sobrato says. "Private flying may not seem economical, but it is if you value your time. The plane leaves when you want to, and it's hard to put a price on that."

Flexibility and time saved are just two of the many benefits of going private. But they've traditionally come at a very high price—easily hundreds of times more than you'll pay to fly commercially in coach and dozens of times the cost of flying first-class. Now, a new generation of low-cost microjets and a surplus of small aircraft created by the economic downturn are bringing private flights within reach of more business travelers.

The Embraer Phenom, a light jet that can fly up to 1,100 miles without refueling, looks more like a sports car with wings than a gold-plated Gulfstream. Inside, it's comfortable but not luxurious, with two pairs of beige leather seats facing each other and separated from the rest of the cabin by only a curtain.

But the Phenom and its main competitor, the Citation Mustang, cost far less than a larger jet ($3 million versus more than $13 million for a Lear Jet and $45 million for a Gulfstream 500). They're also cheaper to operate, burning a third of the fuel that larger jets do, allowing Long Beach, California-based start-up JetSuite to offer flights on the Phenom by the hour or the day for less than half the cost of other charter companies or fractional-ownership plans.

With a JetSuite jet card (you need to deposit at least $35,000 on its debit card to get one), a group of four would pay $999 per hour, or $250 each, plus $2,750 for the use of the plane. Chartering a typical midsize jet that seats six runs more than $7,000 an hour.

Other companies, including Omaha-based CoGoJets, are vying to bring private jetting to those who ordinarily fly first-class, with charter and jet-pooling services. CoGo charges a $99 fee that entitles you to post your trip requests online and check out other members' trip aspirations to see if a match can be made; the company then charters a jet to meet your specs and budget. Prices start at about $500 per person per hour.

Though flying private may still seem extravagant, especially in a lackluster economy, business jet industry analyst Brian Foley points out that it sometimes makes sense not just for CEOs but for middle managers or sales teams.

It can be a big time-saver if you're not traveling to a major city, since private planes can fly to some 5,000 "general aviation" airports in the United States, versus the 450 available to scheduled airline flights. And, Foley notes, if employees need to prepare for a presentation or discuss confidential company information, a private jet cabin can also double as a secure conference room.