Private Jets For Everyone

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Chicagoan Matt Andersson, like millions of Americans, has watched as this season has turned into the Summer of Discontent for airline travelers. Bad weather, airline mismanagement and an overwhelmed air-traffic-control system have made this year the worst ever for the flying public. Delays, cancellations and the number of passengers squeezed into planes recently hit all-time highs. United Airlines has spent the past two weeks apologizing to hordes of ticked-off passengers. A labor tussle with its pilots, who refused to work overtime, forced United to cancel 700 flights in a single weekend, stranding thousands of flyers. The Chicago-based carrier is the world's biggest, and it is awaiting approval of a merger with US Airways. But the company acknowledged--by eliminating 1,800 flights scheduled for next month--that although things might get bigger, they won't get better soon.

So why is Andersson having the best travel summer of his life? Because he has a way out. By the end of this month, Andersson, who is CEO of Indigo, will open to the public the nation's first corporate-jet service. The new airline--Andersson prefers "personal mobility service"--will offer passengers a roomy nine-seat Dassault Falcon 20, a midsize business jet, and will fly to business-oriented airports around the country. "We're playing by a different set of rules," says Andersson. Literally. Indigo operates under the Federal Aviation Administration's charter regulations, so it can't, for instance, offer "scheduled" service. But it can, and will, be selling seats to all comers from Chicago's Midway Airport to Teterboro Airport, just seven miles outside New York City. The company also plans to serve Minneapolis, Minn., Washington and Atlanta. Indigo will charge $600 one way. That's steep, but not compared with the $659 full coach fare the major airlines will charge for the same one-way trip.

Indigo is only the newest entry to serve an angry consumer market. Agitated passengers, especially those high-paying business flyers, are beginning to see private jets as a realistic alternative, and not just a perk of the CEO. That's why charter flights are increasing at double-digit rates, and corporate shuttles and fractional ownerships of aircraft are booming. Business jets have the best safety record in all of general aviation.

The major airlines' convoluted, time-consuming hub-and-spoke (a.k.a. hub-and-hope) system is another boon to charter services that can offer passengers direct flights. When Thomas Hoover, the city manager of Worcester, Mass., had to fly 82 people to Louisville, Ky., last June to make a presentation, he worried about the connections and the $75,000 in tickets. For one-third the price he rented the town its own plane, a DC-9 that delivered on-time service, from FlightTime.com.

Technology has streamlined access to these planes. New websites with obvious names like ejets.com and eBizJets.com are making it as easy to charter a flight as to buy a ticket online. Take David Catalano, the CEO of Midwest Bankers, a commercial-finance firm based in Indianapolis, Ind., who was working on a deal and needed to go to Chicago, taking five colleagues with him. He could have bought six first-class airline tickets at about $1,000 a pop and trekked through packed airports, waited in lines and risked being delayed. Or he could have laid out $4,700 for a Lear 25 business jet from Skyjet.com, which would have enabled him and his colleagues to talk strategy on the way, and which would have got him home in time for dinner. "It was a simple decision," says Catalano, 35, who booked and paid for the trip online and by fax. "I'm removing myself from the regular system. It was well worth it." For those of us who aren't closing deals, Skyjet.com also has an auction service that lets customers fill unused seats on so-called deadheads, empty return flights.

Certainly, private jet travel isn't trouble-free--don't expect to be able to reschedule on a moment's notice. But some of the airlines' best customers now have an option, and they are using it. "The horrible conditions of airline travel have opened a window of opportunity for charters and companies like Indigo," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. And to Indigo's Andersson, it's a window wide enough to fly a small jet through.