For the big carriers these days, their ultimate rival has been Southwest Airlines. In an industry that has seen a number of companies file for bankruptcy and many others operating at a loss, providing no-frills flights at rock-bottom prices appears to have become a business model for major airlines to emulate.
But it's not just the national carriers that are trying to woo customers with cheaper price tags. Even high-flying executives are trying to keep transport expenses down, albeit at price tags that are far beyond the means of the average traveler.
Even for a multi-millionaire, keeping a private jet can be a costly affair and a source of worry, with maintenance costs and other expenses in addition to the initial purchasing price. Another alternative is fractional share aircraft ownership, which has become popular with private companies and their executives in recent years.
But buying flight time in chunks of 50 hours a year or more can sometimes be wasted, just like minutes on a cellular phone service. So as individuals and companies keep an increasingly careful eye on the bottom line, some private jet operators are trying to cater to a niche market that's wealthy and careful with their money at the same time.
"You have to be a net worth of at least $5 million. Otherwise it doesn't make any sense," said Greg Johnson, the head of a charter jet provider, OneSky Network. But once that crucial criteria is cleared, then private air travel can be had easily and at a significantly lower cost than before.
Launched in May, OneSky has 225 private jets that allows anyone with the money to log on to its Web site, click on the date and destination of their flight, and then book trips on the Internet as they would for any commercial flight. The advantage is that the user doesn't have to fit his schedule around existing flight timetables, nor does he (and it's usually a he, apparently) have to be bothered by other passengers and all the inconveniences that would entail.
The problem, however, is the price tag. A round-trip flight from New York to Washington DC, which could easily be booked for under $200 on a shuttle flight with a major carrier can cost around $7,000 on the private carrier that carries up to eight passengers. And that's excluding any catering cost such as drinks and snacks which the user might rack up in addition. But while such costs for an hour-long plane ride can seem overwhelming to the average person, it's apparently a bargain for those who usually travel by their own jets.
OneSky points out that chartering a Gulfstream jet that's less than five years old on the West Coast will cost about $9,800 per hour one-way with a so-called jet card program, whereby a plane user needs to join a club in advance to allow him the right to use. But with OneSky, the same flight could be a relative bargain at $5,200.
"That's not bad, all things considered. I might look into that deal," said one Texas-based real estate developer who travels regularly across the country with his own jet, flown by his personal pilot. But at the same time, the developer admitted he relished the idea of having a plane to call his own, adding that the feeling was "priceless."
Still, cost isn't the only factor that's a driving force for OneSky, or indeed, private jet travel in general. For those who are able to contemplate spending over 30 times more than they would on a commercial flight, the amount of time they save by bypassing the hassles of airports for mass transit can be considerable.
Indeed, anyone who has traveled since the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes can sympathize with those frequent fliers who need to get to an airport and be at the mercy of security checks on a regular basis. A few years ago, it was easy enough to get to the airport with only 15 minutes to spare and slide into one's seat just before takeoff.
These days, it's difficult to predict how long the security check could take, whether one would be a victim of a random and thorough body check, and all passengers need to be on the plane at least half an hour before the plane departs, even for domestic flights. Moreover, the same security and boarding requirements apply to first-class passengers and economy-class travelers alike, making the hassle of air travel truly democratic and universally irritating.
By chartering a private jet and taking off from the airfield reserved exclusively to private planes, however, passengers can show a picture ID at the gate and to their pilot, and be off in literally five minutes, according to OneSky's Johnson.
In this day and age, that's probably what most flyers envy the most about private jet travel, rather than the plush seating and in-flight amenities.
The Manchester, New Hampshire-based OneSky anticipates expanding its fleet of jets to 1,200 within the next three years. And for now, their most popular route isn't from one major business hub to another as one is wont to expect of business travelers. Rather, it's from the Northeast region of the United States to Ft. Lauderdale on the East Coast, and from Los Angeles to Aspen on the West Coast.
"A lot of people have second or third homes" in Ft. Lauderdale or Aspen, Johnson noted.
The rich are different from you and me, indeed.