Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fractured Fractionals

Fractional aircraft ownership programs - whereby customers/owners typically buy a "share" of the aircraft via a five-year management contract with guaranteed availability of aircraft - have now been around for some 25 years. While industry pundits continue to debate their true value proposition, the popularity and viability of this business model is no longer in question. In fact, the fractional industry has remained relatively robust, even with the continuing lackluster economy. Still, on average, companies that offer shared aircraft ownership programs have had a difficult time in forecasting demand and maintaining profitability. This is not quite the scenario imagined by NetJets founder Richard Santulli - who, when he first introduced the fractional concept, envisioned thousands of jets owned by tens of thousands of owners - but it shows that the industry is here to stay. Here are some updates on a few of the major players in the fractional space...

NetJets, now part of the Berkshire Hathaway, was the company that originally launched the fractional concept and, by all accounts, they were and continue to be the biggest and most successful company in the industry. Direct from their web site, the company has a global presence, best-in-class programs and "The largest, most diversified private aircraft fleet in the world". From the Cessna Citation Bravo, to a Hawker 900XP to a Gulfstream GV (to name but a few available aircraft!), NetJets has a plane and program for anyone who has the wherewithal and financial resources. By all accounts, the company has a great job of navigating the recession, peaking at 600 managed aircraft to a current number of around 400.

Part of the Bombardier family, Flexjet, like NetJets, is another major player in the fractional space and they too have done well weathering the current financial storm. They "rightsized" their fleet” of Challenger and Learjet aircraft - one if the youngest fleet in the industry - and they worked hard to retain as much of their customer base as possible. In a stubborn economy, this is always easier said than done but, by most accounts, Flexjet has weathered the storm quite nicely. Currently their fleet size is just under 90 aircraft, having peaked at just over 100 aircraft in 2008.

And then their is Avantair - a fractional aircraft ownership company with operations in Caldwell, NJ, Clearwater, FL, Dallas, TX and Camarillo, CA. Launched just a few days before the tragic events of 9/11, the company is not the largest provider of fractional programs but arguably the most financially successful. The company utilizes just one aircraft - the Piaggio P180 Avanti turboprop (just like JetSuite has done with the Embraer Phenom) - and this "Southwest-like" approach has been a major contributing factor in their success. Avantair also seems to have a broader market appeal given the relatively smaller cost per share of the turboprop versus a jet. Still, flying up to 400 knots with a service ceiling of 41,000 feet, the P180 is no slouch! Industry data validates that Avantair has continued to grow each year and, at present, has roughly 60 aircraft in their fleet.

Cessna’s (Textron's) CitationAir fractional program made the transition to a full-service aircraft access program as a result of the 2008 economic turmoil and customer needs analysis. With a current fleet size of roughly 80 aircraft including the Citation CJ3, XLS+, Sovereign and Citation X, CitationAir has done a great job of leveraging their parent company assets (e.g. huge customer base, aircraft sales, etc.) and sought-after fractional programs offered by competitors (e.g. Jet Cards). They have also continued to innovate, offering programs such as "Jet Access" which allows a customer to have many of the fractional benefits without having to own the asset.

Another major player in the fractional aircraft ownership space is Flight Options. Like their counterparts, they too have taken their share of lumps over the last few years, having a current fleet of just over 100 aircraft under management.While they have scaled back their size in the last few years, Flight Options has remained aggressive in their marketing and operations, earning high marks in the area of customer satisfaction. They also boast a great aircraft fleet that includes the Nextant 400XT, the Phenom 300, the Hawker 800, the Citation X and the Embraer Legacy.

In spite of some tough market conditions over the past few years, the major fractional ownership players (and many others not mentioned herein) may be "fractured" but they are no way near close to being broken. In fact, they seem to have adjusted well to the current  economic climate and, are in some ways, stronger than they were 5 years ago. While certainly not the largest component of business aviation, fractional aircraft programs should remain a viable ownership alternative - albeit, for a relatively small amount of aircraft owners - for many years to come.

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