-- It may not seem like the best time to launch a company catering to the private business flier.
Business travel is down. Companies have been pressured by an angry public to sell their corporate fleets. And at a time when environmental responsibility is critical to many consumers, few CEOs want to be called out for leaving a big carbon footprint.
But at least two new ventures are turning those challenges into selling points, offering services that allow you to fly private but preserve cash, the climate and possibly your corporate reputation.
Greenjets and CoGoJets help bring together travelers willing to share a ride — and the cost — of a private plane. They also will find the aircraft the passengers need.
Leisure travelers are part of their clientele. But the companies believe the business community can be their source of success, as executives seek to get where they need to go without being dependent on commercial flight schedules, try to save money and avoid angering shareholders outraged by corporate excess during the economic downturn.
"I think the socioeconomic and political climate for this … right now is spot on," says Dean Rotchin, 45, president of Greenjets, based in West Palm Beach, Fla. "We're seeing people looking at alternative solutions, being able to still access private airports and private jet experiences but doing it in a way that's more responsible."
There's little doubt business air travel is in a slump. The use of private planes for business trips is down about 30% compared with the same time last year, according to the National Business Aviation Association.
Corporations have been getting rid of their jets to cut costs and to dodge the firestorm that erupted last year in response to perceived corporate greed and recklessness. Outrage reached fever pitch in November, when the CEOs of Detroit's automakers —Ford, Chrysler and General Motors— flew on corporate planes to ask Congress for a multibillion-dollar bailout.
There were 3,014 business jets for sale worldwide at the end of August, 36% more than that time last year, according to UBS Investment Research. If they're not eliminating fleets, many companies are shrinking them. Citigroup, for instance, has said it will reduce its number of planes to two from five.
Contrary to the popular image of a Fortune 500 titan jetting around in luxury, 85% of the businesses using private planes are small and midsize firms that are flying midlevel managers because it's the most efficient way to conduct business, says Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association.
CoGoJets, based in Omaha, launched a website in December that allows fliers to coordinate trips among themselves online. Once they've booked the trip, CoGoJets will act as a broker, finding them a plane to charter.
Based on the number of people flying, a passenger could pay as little as $500 an hour for a seat on a light jet vs. about $3,000 an hour if they'd chartered the plane themselves, says CoGoJets founder Jamie Walker.
"The private jet industry has really taken a black eye, and this concept … reduces the cost so much you really can't lobby against it," says Walker, who adds that a couple of trips a month have come together through the website.
Greenjets, which launched in April, says about 200 people have used its service, which works with travelers wanting to share a ride between Chicago, Boston, New York and South Florida.
The service allows jet poolers to pay a flat rate of $3,850 for a seat, Rotchin says. Those who purchase a Greenjets discount card pay less and are entitled to perks, such as some free trips.
Greenjets has made saving the environment part of its pitch. It says sharing a flight means fewer planes in the sky and a reduction in air and noise pollution. Sharing chartered flights may be one of several options that companies turn to in the future to avoid the scrutiny that can come with owning their own jets, says Brian Foley, who consults on business aviation management.
"There are many companies that are a little gun-shy about the perception of owning a business jet today," he says. Instead, businesses may do more leasing of planes or purchasing of jet cards that allow them a certain number of prepaid hours on private aircraft.
"They're not going to give up business aviation," Foley says. "They still see the benefits. … They'll find ways to use the business jet without having it on their books where it sticks out like a sore thumb."
Lawrence Moens, who owns a luxury real estate company in Palm Beach, says that he has been flying private for about 25 years. In recent months, he has used the Greenjets service.
"It's certainly easier on the … environmental footprint that I'm leaving and obviously more economical," says Moens, who recently shared a ride between Chicago and New York. "I thought it was nice."
He's recommended it to others, saying that jet pooling can give a business person the benefits of flying privately but at a fraction of the cost. "It's like having your cake," he says, "and eating it, too."