M Magazine — Alex Wilcox is seeing red these days—as in red stripes, and that’s a good thing.
The CEO of Long Beach-based JetSuite, Wilcox recently took delivery of three more Embraer Phenom 100s, which brought his young fleet to 12 shortly before the end of its first full year of operation.
Originally called Magnum Jet when it launched in 2006, the company’s plan to buy small jets from a manufacturer that’s no longer in business and fly short hauls around the West went down in flames. Two years later, the company’s backers replaced Magnum Jet’s founders with Wilcox and re-branded it as JetSuite.
Today, the new signature red-striped, twin-engine jets are seen with growing regularity in California, Nevada and Arizona where it’s flying the bulk of its 800-mile hops.
“During the first three months, 80 percent of our business was generated by brokers,” said Wilcox shortly before Christmas. “But now that 80 percent is generated through retail so it’s completely inverted from when we started.”
During this fragile re-branding period, JetSuite has received important backing, namely a second round of investment from David Neeleman who started JetBlue Airways in 1999.
“That gave us a pretty good PR push,” said Wilcox.
Last October, Neeleman and New York investment group Acadia Woods Partners LLC acquired the company for an undisclosed price.
And it’s no surprise that Wilcox remains in the top spot, considering he helped Neeleman get JetBlue up and running and worked there for six years before heading to India to run Kingfisher Airlines.
Even with a solid financial base to expand from, Wilcox knows JetSuite will experience some turbulence along the way.
“We’re a new breed in this industry,” Wilcox adds. “People really don’t know what to make of us yet because they haven’t seen a branded charter.”
According to FAA data, there are more than 1,600 charter operators across the country (excluding commuter aircraft and helicopters), which fall under Part 135 of the federal code of regulations, but most of them have a small number of planes. Of that group only NetJets Aviation Inc. (and Marquis) stand out of the pack.
Using a variable pricing model, JetSuite has positioned itself as a regional low-cost carrier—charging typically half of what its competition does on a per-hour basis —with no frills attached.
“If you want Chateaubriand and a Gulfstream G650, that’s not us, but if you want to get from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible, then we can get you there,” Wilcox said.
Classified as budget charter operator, Wilcox says that label doesn’t weaken the brand. He points to how the words “budget” and “value” play into what is still an expensive way to travel. “Considering the economic times we’re in, people are almost embarrassed to be seen getting into planes that are too big.”
JetSuite’s business plan calls for 75 to 100 of the four-seat Phenom 100s to be operating in the next four to five years. Although Wilcox agrees that California provides a big market for private aviation, it’s less than two-thirds of what the Eastern Seaboard represents. The New York market can support 18 jets, he says, flying between Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
Looking for a few good pilots with customer service skills
As commercial airlines consolidate or go out of business, the changes have sent many veteran pilots packing.
As a result, the number of pilots available has given JetSuite a large talent pool to draw from, but it’s only half of the equation says CEO Alex Wilcox.
“There’s a risk there. Most airline pilots have had very little interaction with customers. Maybe they will say hello getting on and off and make a couple of PA announcements throughout the flight, but the rest of the time they’re locked in the cockpit,” he says.
When JetSuite is recruiting pilots, they look for personality. “If a guy has 20,000 hours and has flown 747s for one of the majors, he’s probably a good pilot. That’s not the hard part. The hard part is finding the customer service skills.”
JetSuite pilots need to be able to greet clients, check their luggage, do the preflight checks, pour the cocktails and keep the plane clean—and do it all with a friendly, engaging personality.
For those who can effectively blend the skills, the rewards aren’t bad: work 12 days a month, meet an “A” list of clientele, fly a brand new airplane to interesting locations and make the high side of five figures.