Semi-private air carriers have seen mixed fortunes over the course of the pandemic. But now, with the travel industry turning back, some of the biggest players in the sector see a smooth future ahead.
“Given the flexibility and unique qualities of our business model and our ability to adapt to the needs of the local market, we see a lot of upside,” said John Redcay, chief commercial officer of Dallas-based JSX, the largest player in the sector. “We’re only seeing increased interest from customers in our core market and outside our core market.”
Semi-private airlines, also known as scheduled charters, are similar to private carriers by operating from the airport terminals of small aircraft. The maximum number of seats the FAA allows for scheduled charters is 30. The interior offers plenty of legroom, and customers must arrive only about 15 minutes before flight time.
However, they differ from private by offering regularly scheduled flights. Ticket prices range widely but tend to be similar or somewhat higher than domestic first-class seats and much less than the cost of private flights.
Like the commercial sector, semi-private operators sharply curtailed operations early in the pandemic. One of the largest, Cincinnati-based Ultimate Air Shuttle, which services mostly business flyers, is still standing. Another company, Hawthorne, California-based Surf Air, which markets flights under the membership model, has sharply cut its schedule, said Doug Golan, publisher of the Private Jet Ticket Comparisons newsletter. But Surf announced last week that it would be going public and that it plans to buy regional operator Southern Airways, which operates commercial flights on a nine-seat Cessna aircraft in various parts of the United States. The purchase will affect her semi-private network.
Other semi-private operators are increasing. JSX has traditionally operated on a large scale along the West Coast using 30-seat Embraer jets. During the pandemic, it expanded with the addition of Austin, Texas, and Destin, Florida, and began operations between Miami and Westchester County, New York. As of April, JSX flew 72% more frequencies than it did during the first four months of 2019.
More business growth. In March, JSX announced that it would acquire 54 Embraer aircraft, bringing its total fleet to 77. Redcay said the plane will be used to expand a wide network, with details to be announced as the planes are rolled out in phases at a rate of several per month. The first expansion will take JSX in both Crested Butte and Denver, Colo. , in June and August, respectively.
Tradewind Aviation uses eight-seat Pilates aircraft to operate scheduled charter flights in the Northeast and the Caribbean. Image source: Courtesy of Tradewind Aviation
Tradewind Aviation, which operates networks outside the New York area and within the Caribbean, has ramped up its operations. The company will launch its newest route, between Westchester Airport and Newport, this Memorial Day weekend.
Tradewind’s chief marketing officer, David Zipkin, said the carrier expects a normal summer in terms of demand in the Northeast for scheduled flights on the company’s eight-seat Pilates plane, but in the Caribbean, demand is up 30% compared to before the pandemic.
Late this winter, Tradewind ordered another 20 Pilates aircraft, which will nearly double its fleet over the next five years. Despite this, Zipkin said the company has not decided how many of these planes will be used on scheduled flights and how many will go toward the company’s traditional on-demand leasing process.
“It really depends on the form of the order at the time we receive the delivery,” he said.
Tailwind Aviation began scheduled seaplane service between the ports of New York and Boston last fall. Photo Source: Courtesy of Tailwind Aviation
Elsewhere, Tailwind, a semi-private airline, added service between New York and Boston ports last year, and this summer will begin serving Provincetown in Cape Cod from Boston and New York.
“We think there are opportunities beyond the Northeast,” said Peter Manes, co-founder of Tailwind, noting that the company’s Cessna Caravan Amphibian planes could land on lakes, rivers, harbors or at airports. “The tailwind is strong, so to speak, and we have very big growth plans over the next four or five years.”
Meanwhile, charter airline Aero has launched US operations during the pandemic, connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco to upscale western destinations such as Aspen, Colorado, and Sun Valley, Idaho.
Despite the optimism of some semi-private operators, Golan says the question of whether the business model has legs is an open one.
“It’s a great concept, but I think it’s not yet proven where it will work and what won’t,” he said.