Golf Gold

The Case for Flying Private on Your Next Buddies' Trip

Photo: Getty Images

In some respects, Frank Granito is a frugal family man, a 55-year-old father of five who drives a sensible sedan and favors home-cooked fare over fancy restaurant dinners. Raised in a modest three-bedroom in the Bronx, he says he grew up “understanding what it takes to earn a dollar.”

But over time, as an attorney and avid golfer, he has also learned the pleasures of the private jet.

Granito’s first exposure to that luxe form of travel came in 2008 when he and his family boarded a seven-seat XL Citation and flew from White Plains, N.Y., to Kiawah Island, S.C. They spent five days in the Lowcountry sunshine, enjoying rounds on three top-tier layouts, including the celebrated Ocean Course.

Yet the thrill Granito recalls as vividly as any was the rush he felt as the Citation surged toward takeoff, how rapidly it climbed, and how swift and hassle-free the journey proved to be.

“I never thought of myself as the kind of guy who’d be flying private,” Granito says. “But once you try it for the first time, it becomes addictive. It isn’t easy to go back.”

Ever since, Granito has enlisted the services of NetJets, a leading player in a shifting industry that isn’t just for names like Gates and Buffet anymore.

Gone are the days when a traveler intent on flying private had pretty much two options, short of purchasing his own plane: splurge on a charter, or catch a ride on the company jet.

The airways have opened to a broader range of services, spanning from jet cards, which allow for the purchase of set hours of private air time, to fractional arrangements, which offer partial ownership of (and access to) entire private fleets. A more recent emergence of online private-flight consolidators and apps for booking private travel have expanded the horizons farther still.

Costlier than commercial flights, but not limited to those with Forbes-like wealth, such “affordable” indulgences have filled a niche in the high-end travel market, and demand for them has helped stabilize a private aviation sector that swooned in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.

After flat-lining in 2011 and 2012, the industry showed signs of recovery in 2013, and enjoyed a 2 percent spike in flight activity in 2014. As of December, the number of private flights taken in this country had increased for 13 consecutive months.

“The economic recovery has definitely played a role,” says Shirley Mason, a senior vice president in the market research division of Argus International, a Cincinnati-based aviation service company. “But there are a myriad of other factors, from long security lines to commercial airlines cutting back on flights. Then you have all the individuals and corporations that need to travel to areas that aren’t served by large airports. A private jet can get you there faster, and you can bring a client and do business on the way.” Plus, you never have to worry about the airline losing your clubs.

While the surge in private air travel has largely been driven by business-related trips, golf fans also have played a role, especially around major tournaments. During the 2014 Masters, for instance, 1,575 private flights touched down in Augusta, more than double the number of planes that winged into the area the week before, according to Argus International. A similar story played out around Louisville when the PGA Championship was held at Valhalla: 271 private flights arrived for the event, a 32 percent jump from the previous week. Then again, who wants to watch golf when you can play it?

Not Frank Granito, who takes a private jet on several golf trips a year. Since signing up with NetJets, Granito has opted for the same annual package, buying 25 to 27 hours of flight time a year, which leaves him with a tab of about $200,000-$225,000, or roughly $9,000 per hour in the air.

Photo:

Frank Granito (center, green shirt) is an avid golfer who charters a private jet for trips with his golf buddies.

To get the most bang for his buck, he keeps most of his trips within a two-hour radius of White Plains, a short drive from his home in New Canaan, Conn. But every now and then, he’ll extend his range. He has crossed the country to Arizona and crossed the pond to Ireland. He’s fortunate, he says, in that he often gets the chance to blend business with pleasure, which allows him to expense some his private travel. Still, he always finds it hard to wrap his mind around the numbers (“It’s an extravagance,” he says, “no matter how you pencil it out”), just as he finds it difficult to quantify the perks.

Take the time a few years back, when he and a few friends got invited to play Augusta. On the day of their big trip, a rogue storm swept through the New York area, sending the major airports into spasms and grounding a slew of commercial flights. Had they been traveling with the masses, Granito and his buddies never would have gotten out. But they did. “We played all the golf we could handle,” Granito says. “And when we were finished, we pushed back the departure so we could squeeze in another 27.”

There are some things money can’t buy. Convenience isn’t one of them.

There are four primary ways to book your own jet. Here are the ups and downs of each:

FRACTIONAL OWNERSHIP

What is it: As the term suggests, this option give you partial of ownership of an aircraft, and access in accordance to the percentage you buy. Most fractional outfits sell shares in 1/16 increments (which amounts to roughly 50 hours of air time). Most agreements are good for five years, at which point you can sell your share back to the company at market value.

Pros: The comfort and convenience of private air travel at a fraction (get it?) of the cost. Plus the headaches of full ownership (service, maintenance, hanger storage, etc.) are handled for you.

Cons: Some fractional companies have small fleets with limited aircraft options, and may only serve a fairly small region. Fractional deals also come with a range of additional costs, including insurance and fuel charges. And depending on how much use an aircraft gets, its value may depreciate significantly by the time you sell your share.

JET CARDS

What is it: You know that Starbucks card you’ve got? It’s kinda like that, with the option to upgrade from a latte to a Cessna. You pre-pay for a fixed number of flight hours, which commonly are sold in 25-hour increments. Some entry-level programs start as low as $100,000.

Pros: A relatively cost-effect way of flying private, especially if you make a lot of short trips or are in the air fewer than 50 hours a year.

Cons: Some cards come with restrictions on travel days and aircraft types. So if you’re looking to get airborne during a peak travel time, you might run into roadblocks. Or you might not get the type of plane you’re hoping for.

ON-DEMAND CHARTER

What is it: Like pay-per-view TV, it’s a one-time transaction. Decide where and when you want to travel, choose the company and price that suits you, pay the tab, and away you go.

Pros: Great for one-off travelers, or very infrequent fliers. It’s also a flexible option, allowing for a wide range of travel times and aircraft. No deposits. No maintenance costs.

Cons: The small print can carry some unpleasant information, the likes of taxes, fuel charges, ramp fees and expenses for the crew. If you’re flying one way, you’ll likely have to pay to send that empty aircraft back.

OUTRIGHT OWNERSHIP

What is it: You can’t play like Tiger, but you can travel like him--assuming you can afford to purchase your own plane. Prices range wildly, depending on the age and type of aircraft. But on the cheap end of the spectrum, you might pickup, say, a Super King Air Turboprop for as little as $4 million. Feeling flush? Tiger flies a Gulfstream. Those start in the vicinity of $50 million, and you can customize them in all kinds of ways for many, many millions more.

Pros: Duh!

Cons: Purchasing the plane is only the beginning. You’ve still got to pay for service, maintenance, fuel, not to mention the salaries of your crew. Those costs can run anywhere from $300,000 to $4 million a year.

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