February 27, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 11:47 am

California firm bets on CT corporate jet market

Irvine, Calif. charter plane company JetSuite in February lauched regular service out of Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks. Below, the company’s Embraer Phenom 100 seats up to four.

A California private jet company launched service out of Hartford this month, betting on the corporate jet-setting market even though competitors have experienced lackluster performance booking Connecticut business.

Irvine, Calif., charter airplane provider JetSuite in February named Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks one of its four SuiteSpots on the East Coast, part of the company's 2012 expansion beyond its West Coast market. For people flying regularly between the Hartford, Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C. markets, JetSuite hopes to undercut competitors pricing and increase luxury, private flying in Connecticut.

Historically, Connecticut hasn't emerged as a major market for private charter jet companies. While the Northeast is a profitable market for the industry, the bulk of the business in the region is to and from New York City, private aviation officials say.

JetSuite wants to reverse this course by offering special rates between its SuiteSpots and other special pricing to attract more people to charter jets.

"It is a far, far, lower rate than most of our competitors," said Alex Wilcox, chief executive officer of JetSuite, which was founded in 2006. "Our airplanes are custom built for this kind of market."

From Bradley, the cost to charter an entire JetSuite airplane to airports in Bedford, Mass., Westchester County, N.Y., and Manassas, Va. will typically run $1,699. Typical pricing in the charter jet industry is $2,000 — $10,000 an hour depending on the size of the aircraft.

JetSuite will fly to any location beyond its SuiteSpots, but the cost will rise to $3,750 per hour.

The key to JetSuite's pricing is its aircraft, the Embraer Phenom 100, a four-seat jet. The plane is more fuel-efficient than GulfStreams and other private aircraft. Rather than taking a large vehicle for a relatively short air trip, JetSuite's plane is more economical, Wilcox said.

"It allows us to create a Lincoln Town Car for private aviation," Wilcox said.

JetSuite's airplanes — the company has 13 of them — are half the reason the firm starting flying regular service out of Bradley. Embraer has a service center at Bradley, and East Hartford aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney provides JetSuite's engines.

"They've got all the parts and all the talent we need to keep the planes running," Wilcox said.

The other half of the reason for JetSuite flying regularly out of Hartford is central Connecticut's business output, Wilcox said, particularly the insurance industry.

But Connecticut's corporate industry hasn't been a boom for others in the charter jet business.

Stratos Jet Charter Services, based in Florida, has seen an increase in demand for its services throughout most of the country, but the Hartford market remains steady, said Stratos spokeswoman Christine Harper.

Stratos arranges about 1,000 charter flights a year and one-third of those are to or from the Northeast, most often for business, Harper said. But the attraction for clients is New York, not Connecticut.

"You'll find that the Northeast is one of the most popular destinations in the charter jet world, because of the significance of New York in business," Harper said.

Stratos does have a smaller portion of clients traveling to or from Connecticut, but most of the Connecticut-based clients prefer to use the Westchester County White Plains Airport rather than Bradley or Hartford Brainard Airport.

Those that do fly out of Connecticut use a charter jet for pleasure, rather than business.

"A lot of our Connecticut-based clients are flying from Connecticut to Florida, most likely to visit their second homes, or to escape the harsh winter climate of the Northeast," Harper said.

London-based Private Jet Charter sees more potential in Connecticut. The company books 1,200 annual charter flights around the world, and finds the Northeast to be one of the best regions in the world, said Daniel Hurley, senior account manager for Private Jet Charter.

Again, the reason for the Northeast's popularity is New York City, but Private Jet Charter books a significant number of flights out of the suburbs in New Jersey.

These traits can be expanded into Connecticut as well, Hurley said. Since opening a U.S. office in Fort Lauderdale in April, the company has seen a lot of potential throughout the country, which includes Connecticut.

"There is certainly a lot of business coming out of Connecticut," Hurley said. "It is an area that is highly serviceable by private charter."

JetSuite wants to capture the more economically minded private jet customer in its Hartford push, Wilcox said. The company has a number of deals where people who couldn't afford it otherwise can book a private plane.

On its Facebook page every day, JetSuite posts a SuiteDeal, where people can book an entire plane for the next day for $499 to a preset location. The last SuiteDeal for the East Coast came Feb. 9 for a flight from Washington, D.C. to Bradley.

The SuiteDeal is an attempt to solve the industry problem of empty legs. An empty leg occurs when a customer books a one-way charter flight to a destination, and the company doesn't have anyone for the return trip, forcing the plane to fly back empty. About one-third of all private jet flights are empty.

Offering these empty legs to customers for $499 helps JetSuite entice a new type of customer to private aviation. In the past a SuiteDeal has created a regular client for the company, Wilcox said.

"For $499, they can't say no," Wilcox said.

Wilcox is a former executive at JetBlue, which started flying out of Bradley in 2010. JetSuite's expansion into Hartford has nothing to do with JetBlue in Connecticut, but the companies' have similar philosophies.

"We want to do for private aviation what JetBlue did for the airlines: a better product at a cheaper cost," Wilcox said. "We are very happy to be in the Northeast and look forward to establishing a legacy there."


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