What to do with the empty seats in Business Aviation? It’s a question asked by many a CFO about their company’s aircraft... But is the increasingly common solution a good thing for BizAv? Dave Higdon explores...
Letting an expensive asset and its crew sit idle for days, consuming funds as they twiddle their thumbs is obviously the last thing anyone wants, crew included. So, aircraft often fly back to the home-base ‘deadhead’ - a term that in aviation means a commercial pilot making a trip without paying passengers or profitable freight aboard.
For companies operating aircraft under Part 91, deadhead flights are often unavoidable. Operators flying Charter under Part 135 can enjoy other potentially-profitable options. Today, entrepreneurs offer multiple avenues to convert deadhead legs into revenue flights by offering empty seats at costs low enough to attract travelers from a broader economic range than the passengers who booked the outbound flight.
In the view of many, this is “democratizing” Business Aviation. And anything that gets more people flying private aircraft should be a good thing, for Business and General Aviation.
By now, most regular travelers know about Uber – the ride-hailing business that lets everyday car owners earn bucks as ad hoc taxis. You might say these new approaches from aircraft owners are ‘ride-hailing gone airborne’.
They go by various names and employ differing structures, but share the same goal: Fill aircraft seats that would otherwise be empty – and, in turn, make a few bucks for both the operator and the firm that places paying clients in otherwise empty seats.
The operator, of course, can only legally accept money if operating under Part 135. Part 91 operators are free to fill their empty seats with people, pets, those in medical need – they just can't accept payment.
Nevertheless, many aircraft-owning companies set up their aircraft under Part 135 commercial-carrier rules. Some do so for tax or liability purposes. Others do so for the express purpose of earning revenue when the aircraft is not needed expressly by the company. For these operators, “flight sharing” opens up one more avenue to revenue.
Democratization: A Good Thing?
These efforts to expand access to business jets while earning bucks on deadhead seats hold promise for growing the pool of private aircraft users and savvy supporters.
There are limitations, however – among them the need to go when the jet goes, and where it goes as opposed to the traditional charter customers who pick where and when.
Flight-sharing ideas work only if both the connecting services and the aircraft services maintain the high standards set by the Business Aviation community, both Part 91 and Part 135. With the aircraft operators and crews already versed in those expectations, it's going to largely be up to the companies connecting passengers and aircraft to provide the kind of satisfactory experience that keeps people coming back to fill that empty seat.
And coming back will naturally, for many, be a first step to becoming a business aircraft owner or operator. That can only be good for Business Aviation…