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How Art Basel and Uber-style apps are helping fuel Miami's private jet industry

Rob Wile, Miami Herald on

Published in Science & Technology News

The Opa-locka Turnaround

Today, many private jet travelers -- especially ones traveling to Art Basel -- arrive at Opa-locka Executive Airport. About a decade ago, that would have been unlikely.

"Years ago, Opa-Locka was faint on the radar," said Bobby Courtney, vice president of aviation at Fontainbleau Aviation. "Today flying into Fontainebleau means access for our privileged clientele, we invested in peace of mind for all of our guests by providing a premium facility with full-service amenities to match."

"Today, the days of everyone going into Miami International, or Fort Lauderdale International, those days are changing," he said.

In 2010, Turnberry, which owns the Fontainebleau Resort and Aventura Mall, invested $27 million to remake its Opa-locka flight center into a full-scale FBO. It opened as Fontainebleau Aviation in 2012, and is now one of the nation's premier flight hubs. Today, Fontainebleau sees between 70 and 90 takeoffs and arrivals a day -- a number that can surge to 120 during special events like Miami Art Week. It has grown from a handful of employees a decade ago to about 80 today.

The airports two other FBOs, Atlantic Aviation and Signature Flight Support, have also made upgrades.

This year, Opa-locka was named Airport of the Year by the state of Florida, thanks to the presence of top-rated FBOs like Fontainebleau.

"Opa-locka continues to be the status hub for the area," said Adam Twidell, founder and CEO of PrivateFly, the jet charter search engine. "They have really, really fantastic facilities there -- it's great if you want to make an entrance." It's also convenient to Miami Beach and downtown, and far less expensive than Miami International Airport.

Bombardier, the maker of Learjets, recently announced it would build a $100 million, 300,000-square-foot maintenance facility at Opa-locka.

"If the traffic is already going in and out of the airport," Bombardier vice president Jean-Christophe Gallagher said, "it's a natural to have a service facility next to that airport." The company predicts it will be the busiest in its global network of repair shops.

According to Miami-Dade County, operations -- meaning flights leaving or arriving -- at Miami Opa-locka Executive fell slightly from 2014 to 2017 -- from 145,389 operations in 2014 to 136,556 last year. The culprit: construction and severe weather events. This year, operations are up 17 percent through October year over year, which would put it at nearly 160,000 operations for the year.

By comparison, Miami Executive Airport (formerly Kendall-Tamiami Executive) operations grew from 260,000 in 2014 to 300,307 in 2017; though many are student training flights.

And at Miami International Airport, private aviation has remained flat, with 18,607 flights in 2014 and 18,049 in 2017.

Labor Shortage -- and a downturn?

Demand for private jet services in South Florida has become so great that FBOs like Banyan Air in Fort Lauderdale, another top-rated South Florida operator that already employs about 200 people, is facing a labor shortage.

"It just gets challenging to find warm bodies," senior vice president Mike O'Keeffe said.

After World War II ended, military pilots returned to a growing commercial industry. But that pipeline of interested bodies has run out.

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"A lot of millennials don't have that passion for being around airplanes and smelling jet fuel," O'Keeffe said. "Those of us in the pilot business are paying the price."

At the same time, some are wondering how long the current boom can last as many economists predict a recession sometime in the next two years. Private jet executives are often heard saying their industry is the canary in the coal mine: When margins get thin, jet travel often dries up.

But businesses like Wheels Up believe their model will help insulate them from any downturn. Firestone argues that a $60 million corporate fleet will be the first thing to go in a downturn, while an $80,000-per-member utility is more likely to get overlooked in a line-item cutting scenario.

For Proctor, it all comes down to the time factor.

"One thing about aviation, something these guys can't buy is time," he said. "They get more time in life, more time with customers, selling services, it's a multiplier. It's an investment people are getting more comfortable with."

Flying private

These companies offer service from South Florida:

NetJets. The oldest and largest jet membership service in the U.S. is Warren Buffett-owned NetJets, an Art Basel sponsor. It offers both fractional jet ownership and leases. The company does not reveal pricing. Offerings include a 25-hour jet "card," with starting prices estimated between $165,000 to $200,000. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio.

Wheels Up. A Wheels Up Membership starts at $17,500, but you can take advantage of additional savings through their partners such as Costco. After joining, you simply pay as you fly with a fixed hourly rate on its 8-passenger King Air 350i or 8-passenger Citation Excel/XLS.

XOJET. Membership in California-based XOJET requires a $50,000 deposit, which then pays for flights on any size jet the customer wants. It has a dynamic pricing model, which means hourly rates change depending on demand.

Sentient Jet. Entry-level memberships start at $131,800 card for 25 hours on a light jet, including taxes. Sentient Jet is headquartered in Quincy, Mass.

BLADE. The cost of a BLADE one-jet ride between New York City, where the firm is based, or Westchester, N.Y. and Miami on scheduled service starts at $2,250 each way; there is no membership. The cost of seaplane flights between Miami and Palm Beach are $325 each way. For customers who travel often and/or in groups, season passes for bulk seats are offered at a discount.

JetSmarter. After facing questions about changing terms of service from longtime members, Fort Lauderdale-based JetSmarter now offers both memberships and pay-as-you-go options. Individual memberships have an initiation fee of $3,000 along with the $4,950 annual membership fee

(c)2018 Miami Herald

Visit Miami Herald at www.miamiherald.com

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