Even as commercial air travel has stalled over the past couple of years, the private side of the business continues to expand. Flight volume at NetJets, a New Jersey-based company that sells fractional ownership in private jets, has been growing by 15 percent a year, says Kevin Russell, executive vice-president. Much of that growth comes from golfers -- both professional (Tiger Woods, Annika Sorenstam and nearly 60 others) and amateur (like Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway bought NetJets in 1998). "Fifteen to 20 percent of our flights have golf clubs in the back," says Steve O'Neill, CEO of Citation Shares, a Connecticut competitor to NetJets.
Those golfers have got it made. They can fly pretty much wherever and whenever they want. For instance, O'Neill's company often whisks golfers from New York to Palm Beach or Naples just for the day, so they can get in 36 holes and be home for a late dinner. A bonus: Remote courses like Oregon's Bandon Dunes or Wisconsin's Whistling Straits are no more difficult to visit than any other. "We can get you to Whistling Straits from New York in two hours," says O'Neill, "when it's an all-day trip on a commercial flight."
Dana Quigley, No. 4 on the Champions Tour money list with $957,000 in earnings, calls his NetJets share "my greatest indulgence, without question." He adds: "I've played 221 events in a row, and counting -- as long as those planes keep flying me."
Mind you, it's not cheap. A one-sixteenth share of a Citation V Ultra from NetJets, the biggest fractional-ownership seller, costs roughly $300,000, plus another $150,000 or so a year in various fees. This will entitle you to 50 hours of flight time in the jet per year. You don't pay extra for time spent on the ground.
The more flight hours you need -- or the bigger plane you buy into -- the more it costs. NetJets has everything from smaller planes like the eight-seat Citation V Ultra to the 14-seat Gulfstream V and the Boeing Business Jet, which can carry 18 passengers. A one-sixteenth share in a Boeing Business Jet will run you $3.25 million, plus another $450,000 in yearly fees.
Like an equity membership in a golf club, you get some portion of that original investment back when you sell the plane. If you don't see yourself needing 50 hours a year -- the minimum sold by companies like NetJets and Citation Shares -- consider a company like Blue Star Jets or Sentient Jets, which sell flight time in much smaller blocks. With Blue Star, you can buy as few as two hours.
And the economics? Let's say you put four golfers in a Lear 35 on a round trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Blue Star's hourly fee is $1,750. On a two-hour round trip, it works out to $875 per golfer. That's actually $2.50 less than a first-class ticket on United. Granted, you don't get the riveting in-flight magazine that commercial carriers provide. But we'll venture you could live without it.