Ride-Sharing Takes To The Skies

By Molly Duffy The Miami Herald.

Ride-sharing services are reaching cruising altitude -- at least for highfliers.

Two firms with South Florida roots have created apps that allow celebrities, wealthy entrepreneurs and other high-net-worth travelers to fly private at a fraction of the price of buying or even chartering a private aircraft.

On some routes, the price is about the same as a last-minute refundable first-class seat on a commercial plane. On the popular Miami-to-New York run, for instance, a one-way seat costs around $1,000. Well, after the initiation fee.

And flying private means no winding check-in lines, unpredictable cancellations and other hassles that can go with commercial flight.

"Aviation wasn't meant to be that way," said Sergey Petrossov, the founder of Miami-based JetSmarter, a service-oriented technology company seeking to make private jets accessible to more consumers. "It's supposed to be a fun experience. We're trying to bring aviation back to its roots."

Both JetSmarter and Wheels Up recently launched apps to facilitate filling empty seats on private charters. JetSmarter has a jet shuttle service from Fort Lauderdale to New York, while Wheels Up lets members who have chartered a jet offer empty seats up to other members. JetSmarter's most popular route out of South Florida is to New York and includes free helicopter transfers to Manhattan, while Wheels Up flies frequently to New York; Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, and Augusta, Georgia.

In and out of South Florida, JetSmarter charters 5 to 10 flights a day, while Wheels Up charters 10 to 20.

"People who have reached that level want to hang out with each other," said Justin Firestone, one of Wheels Up's founding partners and a Miami-native. "You don't get Six-Pack Joe on the airplane."

The New York-based membership service is backed by South Floridians including Yankees' slugger Alex Rodriguez, catcher Mike Piazza (who played briefly for the Marlins), entrepreneur Melissa Krinzman, Chico's former CEO Scott Edmonds and tycoon Thomas Oakley.

Wheels Up flies on a fleet of 35 new King Air 350i turboprops. Round, aqua-tinted windows dim the cabin. Pull-out drawers are filled with bottles of Fiji water, San Pellegrino, Hill Family wine and Avion tequila. The nine passenger seats are nappa leather. A one-time family or corporate membership fee starting at $17,500 and annual fees from $8,500 plus the cost of flight time. The service also offers flights on its fleet of nine-passenger Citation/XLS jets. Both planes can pick up passengers from any airport in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area.

If members want to lower their cost, they can post empty seats on a flight on the Wheels Up app. When all the seats are taken, a trip on the King Air 350i from Miami to New York -- which typically costs about $11,850 -- drops to about $1,320 per person.

If available seats don't fill up, a member can cancel the flight without penalty.

With JetSmarter, travelers pay $8,500 per year plus charter fees. That cost includes its new weekend JetShuttle from Fort Lauderdale to New York on Friday and back on Sunday. A charter costs about $10,000 from Miami to New York for members -- about $1,250 per person -- and $13,000 for non-members, or $1,625 per seat. Flights are on eight-seat leased jets.

Until the 1990s, the only way to fly privately was to buy a jet or charter one. NetJets, owned by Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, popularized fractional jet ownership. That company does not have any plans to explore ride-sharing, according to a spokeswoman.

Miami-based Unity Jets, isn't planning on expanding into jet-sharing either because, president Kevin Diemar said, turning a private jet into something like a bus "really takes away the private jet experience." Unity Jets is a private jet brokerage firm that began as a trip-by-trip alternative to fractional ownership.

After years of flying on fractionally owned jets, Joseph Kubicek, co-founder of Envision Realty Group, became a JetSmarter member about six months ago. Envision has offices in New York and in Miami Beach, so the jet shuttle service was "icing on the cake," he said.

"It's still private air travel, it's just sharing a jet with a few people you may not know," Kubicek said. "Along the way, it's also social. If anything, it's an added feature."

The by-the-seat sharing concept is the latest twist on expanding the private aviation market, said Brian Foley, an aviation industry market analyst with Brian Foley Associates.

"I don't think any company really has the secret sauce," Foley said. "Rather, what you're seeing is just companies that are finding little niches."

The opening of the market will give those with the discretionary funds to fly private more choices and, Foley said, an opportunity to escape the "hell" he called flying commercially.

"The best salespeople for these types of programs aren't the charters or the [new] companies, the best salespeople are the commercial airlines," Foley said, "because they have made flying so miserable for the general public."

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