The average cost to charter a private jet is over $11,000 per hour. While I regularly receive press releases and pitches about flying privately on the cheap, most of these are not that cheap, at least to me.
For example, empty-leg flights, which can often be had for 30-50% off regular prices, are still expensive.
Between Miami, where I live, and New York, where I used to live, discounted empty legs are generally $10,000 to $15,000 or more each way.
The promoters say bring five of your friends, divide by six and it’s not that expensive.
True, but the nature of these empty flights is they are generally marketed on short notice, so your friends have to be flexible.
They are also easy come, easy go.
Since the aircraft is repositioning after dropping off somebody who was paying the full freight or on the way to pick up the next customer who is paying retail, they can be changed if those customers switch plans or the provider finds a more efficient solution, assigning another aircraft for that next customer’s trip.
Empty legs can, in fact, cancel while you are on your way to the airport.
At the same time, you need to plan for the expense of getting home and hotels.
Before being acquired by Wheels Up, Delta Private Jets had an excellent empty-leg program. It could be had on sale for as little as $6,000 per year.
You then could fly as many empty legs as you could grab for free. You logged in and when you saw a flight listed that you wanted, you clicked.
It was first-come, first-serve.
Wheels Up ended the program. Its empty leg product charges both a membership fee to join and for the repositioning flights, which in some cases are in the thousands of dollars.
However, there’s good news if you want to fly on private jets and can’t or don’t want to spend tens of thousands of dollars per year.
Vaunt is an offshoot of Volato, a 2021 start-up and the largest HondaJet operator in the world.
Here’s how it works.
You download the app and pay a $1,000 annual membership (so it’s not quite free), but then you can fly on its empty legs at no additional cost.
I was invited to join at the beginning of the summer as part of a group of guinea pigs.
I paid the standard membership and have been trying it out in advance of the formal launch, which is expected in the next few days.
Vaunt operates a bit differently than Delta Private Jets or JetSmarter. The latter helped popularize the idea of paying a membership and then flying for free before running into turbulence. It was sold in 2019 to Vista Global.
Instead of instantly rewarding those of us who constantly scan its app for the newest offers, slamming the buy button on our smartphones like a contestant on the Price is Right, with Vaunt you can opt to receive notifications when new flights become available.
The flights are typically for the next two days, although sometimes there is a bit more notice.
Today, I flew free from West Palm Beach to Charleston, South Carolina, a flight that would have cost over $12,000 per the FlyXO charter website (see below).
This morning, there were 24 flights empty-leg flights available on the Vaunt app.
They included Farmingdale, Long Island to Chicago, Las Vegas to Aspen, Dallas to Lawrence, Kansas, Cincinnati to Dallas, Teterboro, across the river from Manhattan, to Atlanta, Nashville to Atlanta, San Diego to Oakland, and Dallas Austin, any of which would likely run at least $10,000.
In fact, the Dallas to Lawrence flight on the XO website would cost me anywhere from $23,000 to $35,000 in a light jet.
While I have a ticket on American Airlines to fly back to Miami later today, this morning I saw a Charleston to Philadelphia flight for tomorrow, ideal to visit my youngest daughter who lives there.
Like this flight and an earlier short hop from Miami International to Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, to get in line for my free flight, I just clicked on the join button on the flight listing in the app.
My choice then goes into a section titled Your List, which tells me where I am in line.
With only a limited amount of paying pre-launch members, only once was I not first.
There is a prompt to pay $1,000 to lock in the top spot, which I haven’t used.
The app also tells you in hours when the flight closes. At that point, you get a message if you have been awarded the trip.
You have the entire airplane, so you can invite friends or people you want to be your friends.
So far, most of the flights are on four or five-seat HondaJets, but there are also some King Air flights.
Nicholas Cooper, the President of Vaunt, says those turboprops are aircraft managed by Volato.
There are plans to add more empty legs from other operators, although it’s not clear how they would be priced.
To date, I am two out of nine flights I’ve tried to get on.
Once your flight is confirmed, Cooper says the goal is not to cancel your flight unless there is a mechanical.
Currently, flights are confirmed 24 hours before departure.
However, it’s hard to imagine that an operator is going to fly anyone for free if they don’t need to.
After winning the flight, you need to confirm you still want it.
There’s no penalty for canceling, although if you do cancel after winning a flight, it decreases your chances of winning the next time.
Cooper says there are a number of factors in Vaunt’s algorithm determining who gets each flight, including how many flights they have already taken.
While there is no cost for the flight, Vaunt puts a $500 hold on your credit card to cover any damage to the airplane.
One downside of Vaunt is you don’t know the exact departure time or specific airport until you win the flight.
For example, my flight to Charleston ended up being at 6:30 a.m., which tempted me to cancel it, particularly since it was out of PBI, about an hour’s drive.
There are also two airports in Charleston, so I could have been going to JZI instead of the main one, CHS.
After confirming I wanted the flight and confirming the credit card hold, I then received an email from Volato requesting passenger names, weight, and how much luggage I would have.
You then get an email with a link that gives you the names of your passengers, which is you and your guests, the address of the FBOs at both the departure and arrival airport, a phone number for the private terminal, your tail number, which is how you identify yourself at the desk when you arrive, and the names and emails of your pilots.
The confirmation also notes if there are pets, and in my case, detailed that I hadn’t ordered ground transportation or catering. You can do both, although you pay retail rates, no deals.
For both flights, I got to the FBO before the pilots.
In the first instance, the airplane was on its way to Miami, and it landed on time shortly after I arrived at the lounge. The desk staff pointed me out to the pilot.
He checked my identification, and in a few minutes, we were walking out to the airplane.
For the flight to Charleston, the pilots arrived a few minutes after I did, a little before 6 a.m., introduced themselves and then asked me to wait in the lounge while they went out to get the aircraft ready, a 2017 HondaJet.
According to FlightAware, we were wheels up at 6:45 a.m., and we landed in Charleston at 8:09 a.m.
At 9:05 a.m., tail number N19JY was on its way to Ocala, Florida.
On Sunday, it had flown from an airport near Tampa to St. Simmons Island in Georgia, then to Chicago and Washington D.C. before ending the day in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Monday, it flew from Michigan to St. Louis and Jacksonville, arriving in Palm Beach late in the evening. Tuesday, it apparently sat on the ground all day.
The variance is probably a good indication of what it’s like to operate a fleet of private jets – you don’t set the schedule like the airlines; your customers, who pay all that money, do.
(Right after I landed, I got a message that the flight from Charleston to Philadelphia had been removed, so I was happy I didn’t spend any time looking for hotels in Charleston or tried to get a refund for my flight on American from Charleston to Miami.)
Inside the airplane, the cabin is four feet, eight inches in height, so don’t expect flight attendants – there aren’t any, or partying in the aisle – there’s not enough space.
Once you sit down, it’s comfortable. There are a pair of white leather seats facing each other in a 1-by-1 configuration.
The new model HondaJet Elite, which I flew on my first flight, had automatic window shades. I never quite figured out this version, but in both cases, once you are seated, it’s quite comfortable.
I’m five feet, 10 inches tall. There was plenty of legroom and it wouldn’t have been cramped if I had somebody seated across from me.
The WiFi worked well once we got to altitude. There is a large foldout table, ideal for getting some work done, and before I knew it, we were touching down in South Carolina.
The five-seat version of the HondaJet doesn’t have a galley, so there was a cooler with sodas, water and snacks on the fifth seat.
The fifth seat is flush against the wall opposite the entry door in the front of the cabin, and would be tight for anyone who is tall or wide.
In the rear of the cabin is a fully enclosed lavatory, but like all small private jets, it’s a bit of a struggle because of the low ceiling.
Still, I can’t complain based on the price and what I am getting: Free flights on private jets worth tens of thousands of dollars.
During the heyday of JetSmarter, I had a corporate job, so I didn’t have the flexibility to just take off when I wanted for endless free flights that early members racked up.
By the time I could set my own schedule, JetSmarter was gone, and I enjoyed two years with Delta Private Jets before Covid and Wheels Up ended that run.
Cooper says Vaunt is targeting the aspirational flyer, which at $1,000 for the year is not much more than a standard room at many big city luxury hotels.
He says that so far, several Vaunt members have been able to use their membership for business trips.
In fact, he was recently supposed to head from Jacksonville on a Friday back to San Francisco, where he lives, and then to New York on the following Monday for meetings.
He noticed a flight from Savannah to New York on Vaunt, canceled his trip home for the weekend, drove up to Georgia, and flew privately to New York instead.
Somewhere between 30% and 50% of all private flights are thought to be empty legs.
So while some are those 12-minute flights you read about when one of the Kardashians or Taylor Swift needs to move their jet from where they normally keep it parked to where they live, my review of the Vaunt app found plentiful flights of an hour or more, with lots of activity in Florida, the Southeast, Texas, California, Arizona and Las Vegas.
According to Cooper, the top cities for empty leg departures are St. Augustine, Atlanta, Tampa, Houston, Fort Lauderdale, Dallas, Asheville, Charleston, Miami and Teterboro.
The most frequent destinations are Atlanta, St. Augustine, Houston, Tampa, Charleston, Asheville, Miami, Teterboro, Dallas and Orlando.
It’s hard to go wrong at the current price, which is the Vaunt play. A thousand members at $1,000 would add $10 million to the bottom line.
Cooper says so far there have been over a thousand downloads. He declined to say how many have paid to join.