Turn back the clock eight years to 2013. Serial entrepreneur Kenny Dichter’s no-compete with NetJets had just expired. It was three years since he sold his previous start-up, Marquis Jet Partners, to the world’s largest private aviation provider. Back in 2001, Dichter helped birth the jet card revolution by striking a deal to sell flights on the NetJets’ fleet in blocks of 25 hours. Today cards are 20% of NetJets flying. Back then, it wasn’t even in the market.
Wheels Up was a different approach. Dichter wanted to democratize the private aviation market. His horse of choice was the Beechcraft King Air 350i. An hour of flight time on the eight-seat turboprop was priced lower than jets. Dichter championed the aircraft for its ability to haul a full load of skiers or golfers into smaller, more convenient airports.
His approach was like with other jet cards. Members get fixed rates. In other words, they would know what they would pay when they signed their contract instead of pricing each trip with a charter broker. However, he wouldn’t require deposits. You would pay a membership fee to join, then pay-as-you-go on a flight-by-flight basis, no need to write a six-figure check.
Last year Wheels Up took in over $550 million in deposits. Following a two-year acquisition spree, it’s also now the second-largest operator of for-hire private jets in the U.S. In the next couple of weeks, it will be publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, valued at over $2 billion.
Operating out of Annapolis, Maryland, another serial entrepreneur, Patrick Britton-Harr, is hoping AeroVanti is the Wheels Up for this decade. If he succeeds, he will need to avoid the pitfalls of JetSmarter, JetSuite, Black Jet, Rise, ImagineAir and others who shared the same vision of moving travelers out of first-class and into private cabins.
For now, he seems to be following Dichter’s playbook – with a couple critical twists that mean even lower prices.
AeroVanti uses the Piaggio P.180 turboprop, which has the cabin space of a midsize jet, the speed of a very light jet, and seats seven. He’s not chartering the airplanes. He’s leasing to own, giving him complete control over scheduling. He’s contracted with Part 135 operator Brazos Valley Air Charter to fly the aircraft. It’s a similar arrangement to the one Dichter struck with Gama Aviation Signature when he launched.
Britton-Harr’s not messing around with discounted empty legs or by-the-seat options. Instead, he’s offering members a full aircraft hourly rate of just $1,950, plus tax, east of the Mississippi, and $2,450, plus tax to the west. As a comparison, Wheels Up’s King Air 350i is priced at $4,695 per hour.
AeroVanti’s memberships start at just $12,000 per year, and you can pay monthly. For now, at least, there is no deposit program—you pay-as-you-go. The catch is, there isn’t guaranteed availability. If there is an aircraft free when you call, you get to fly. You can hold up to 12 reservations at one time, and you can book up to 365 days in advance. You may need to be flexible, by hours or days, but Britton-Harr believes for many of his target customers, the price is right.
While the 37-year-old made his money in medical services – his first venture was providing dental services to residents in assisting living facilities – he’s not a stranger to aviation. A third-generation pilot, his father Steve Harr, who serves as chief pilot, is a former Navy airman who spent 35 years flying for the airlines, starting like his father for Piedmont Airlines, then through a merger and bankruptcies, USAir, US Airways and finally American Airlines.
The father and son say that experience wasn’t a deterrence, more a lesson. Harr says he always admired Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher, who famously said he put his employees before both customers and shareholders.
Britton-Harr says he brings a lean-management approach to AeroVanti. There are only 10 employees – Brazos flies the airplanes, and so employs the pilots and support staff. Even marketing and accounting are outsourced. That’s one reason for eschewing deposits. More paperwork tracking customer funds means more manpower and more expense.
There’s no phone number on its website. You apply online. After the first 300 members, Britton-Harr says additional members will come via referrals.
There are currently five P.180s with plans to add more. All had interior upgrades and are WiFi equipped. Britton-Harr says he is in negotiations with Piaggio to buy new models in the future. The Italian manufacturer is currently in the processing of exiting receivership, having delivered less than 10 aircraft in the past three years. Britton-Harr says he’s not worried about parts for the existing fleet since Brazos, he says, has the largest inventory in the world.
Right now, Brazos is only allowed to operate within the Continental U.S. However, it has applied and expects to receive authority that will cover Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. That could come by mid-summer.
One issue AeroVanti won’t have is recruiting pilots. Harr says he has a robust pipeline. Many retired airline captains want to keep flying beyond the mandatory retirement age of 65.
Another area AeroVanti doesn’t have any shortage is big dreams. Britton-Harr has visions of expanding to Europe. After that, he plans to add large cabin jets to connect his budget operations on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.