The indignities of commercial airplane flight may be mitigated by going first class, but for people with lots of money, short vacations, and pressing business of all kinds — from closing a deal to seeing a loved one for the last time — the real issue is the stress of time wasted checking in, getting through long security lines, waiting for flights, and bracing for the all too common flight delays and cancellations. The process can easily eat up one full day on either end of a trip. For business executives, this wasted time translates to dollars foregone. For candidates, lost time can mean lost votes. For the seriously ill, life itself may be at stake.
“What we are selling that wealthy companies and individuals can’t buy elsewhere is time,” says Howard Moses, who recently opened an office of Blue Star Jets, a $100 million a year private jet broker, at 182 Nassau Street. With the seven-year-old company from its infancy, he says that he chose this location because it is close to his home in Lawrenceville, and, more importantly, because the area is full of high powered real estate and mortgage salespeople who need a new field now that their industry is in a slump.
There are lots of reasons that people choose to charter planes, despite the expense, which can be breathtaking, and Moses says that business at his company is booming. During a political campaign, for example, even the less-wealthy candidates have to allot money for private aviation. “The only way to do a campaign is on a private jet,” says Moses. “You can’t get to three or four cities on commercial aviation. We provide a solution that is part of every budget for every presidential campaign.” And in fact Blue Star Jets ferried two candidates during the primary season.
Blue Star Jets is working to transform the flying experience, not only for candidates, but for a whole range of people who want or need to go private. The company was founded by two 30-something Wall Street executives, Todd Rome and Ricky Sitomer, who realized that existing private aviation models did not work for younger people. NetJets and flightOptions, two high profile interval ownership private aviation companies, were asking these newly minted millionaires to put millions on deposit to buy a portion of a plane, equivalent to an exclusive vacation home timeshare, says Moses. Furthermore, they were billed $8,000 to $10,000 monthly for maintenance, even if they didn’t fly.
Moses has been with the company almost since the beginning. His first position, back in the days when the company was still “10 people working in an apartment” in New York City, was chief operating officer. For six years he commuted daily into the city, but at the beginning of this year decided he wanted to step away from the chief operating officer position to focus on other interests while building a Princeton office. Today he is an equity partner as well as managing officer of the Princeton office and the even newer Hong Kong office.
Moses maintains that this demographic of younger people who made lots of money in the 1990s prefers renting to purchasing luxury goods, whether cars, summer homes, or resorts. They will pay significant money to use these things, but don’t want to worry about all that goes into maintaining them.
Rome and Sitomer realized that this desire to rent rather than own also applied to private aviation. They decided to aggregate information on the few thousand people who own their on planes in the United States and on the planes themselves, and to use it to arrange charter flights for their customers, which they do on four hour’s notice.
The private planes on which Blue Star Jets draws generally belong to a small organization that markets itself to a regional market, like Nassau Helicopters at Princeton Airport or Worldwide Aviation in Millville. These companies have fleets of flying vehicles that they either own or manage for corporations that own them. When a helicopter or plane is not in use, Blue Star Jets can tap it for its own clients.
An example, says Moses, could be a Nassau Helicopters’ helicopter that is leased by one of that company’s clients for a trip to East Hampton for the weekend. While it sits idle in the Hamptons between Friday night and Sunday afternoon, Blue Star Jets can lease it from Nassau and then re-lease it — complete with pilot — to its own customers who need transportation in the East Hampton region. Similarly, on a worldwide level, an airplane positioned in Rome for a week while its owner is doing business could be used for European clients who want to fly from Rome and Cannes. “We became the private marketing arm for the owners of private jets,” says Moses.
Competition for these planes can be stiff, because 50 companies have entered the private plane leasing business in the seven years since Blue Star was founded. The company tries to stay ahead, in part, by paying operators quickly. As a result, says Moses, when two or three companies have clients looking for a plane during the holidays, Blue Star Jets will be at the top of the list and will probably get the flights it needs.
With a story about his family’s experience flying commercially to Mexico, Moses captures exactly the kind of flight experience that wealthy individuals and businesspeople are trying to escape:
Leaving home at 4:30 a.m. to arrive at the Philadelphia airport at 5:15 a.m. for a 7 a.m. flight, the Moses family dropped off their luggage, stood in the security line for 45 minutes, grabbed a quick cup of coffee, then boarded. On the five-and-a-half-hour flight to Houston, they were served a self-contained bowl of Cheerios, an elementary-school-sized carton of milk, and a brown-spotted banana (okay, he admits, it was fine when peeled), and, oh yes, a diet Coke.
When they arrived at their hotel, exhausted, they had all their bags except one. They paid about $3,500 for the commercial flight.
Now Moses imagines what the same trip might have been like had he used a private jet:
“We would have left at 7:50 a.m. and driven six minutes to Mercer County Airport,” he says, as he begins to re-imagine his family’s experience. They would park in a lot adjacent to the private terminal, and then the pilots would put their bags on a cart, collect their passports, and then escort them through the 50-foot-long terminal and onto the plane.
“From the time we left the house and kissed the dog goodbye to flying over Mercer County would be 15 minutes as opposed to four hours,” says Moses.
While they are still waking up, family members would choose either to watch their own DVDs on the separate screens at each seat or stretch out for a nap (without any worry of irritating the passengers behind them). They could relax, knowing that all the luggage made it onto the plane, and appreciate the entertainment on board, even choosing a massage or Yoga instruction. maybe next time they would bring along a masseuse or a personal trainer. Furthermore, adds Moses, “you don’t have to worry who is in the seat next to you, and the children are not worried about whether the restroom is clean or feels comfortable.”
There is, however, a big difference in price. A really, really big difference. The tab for a private flight for a family of five, traveling round-trip from Trenton to Cancun on a Gulfstream jet? $110,000, says Moses.
But there are people willing to pay amounts like this for the convenience. Moses says that about half of his company’s clients are individuals, with the remainder being businesses. This later segment could be poised for growth. Bristol-Myers Squibb has just decided to sell its aviation department, including its two jets and two helicopters. Moses, sharing this information, says that it will be less expensive for the pharmaceutical company to lease from companies like his than to keep its own facilities, planes, pilots, and support staff. Corporations already use his services when its executives urgently need to be going to many different directions at the same time. Outsourcing aviation, if it becomes a cost-cutting trend, could be a big boon for companies like his.
When Moses gets a call for a flight, whether during the business day or at 2 a.m., he will know in five minutes every available aircraft within a reasonable timeframe of the town in which the client is located. He narrows the potential choices based on the needs of the client; if he is looking for a plane to carry eight passengers from New York to Florida first thing in the morning, for example, he will eliminate planes that are either too small or do not have enough fuel capacity to fly nonstop.
“There’s always going to be a crew that is on call for any private jet.” Of course he may have to hustle and run through 12 aircraft to get to five that are available, are the right size, and have the time to take on the flight, but even in the middle of the night, the whole process of presenting options to the client and sending along the paperwork takes only 15 minutes.
Just recently he had a client at a vacation home in Hawaii who wanted to get home to Las Vegas, and Moses was able to offer three options by morning. “We are the agent of our client,” he says. “We don’t own or operate planes, but find the best aircraft that is independently audited by a third-party safety organization.”
Although Blue Star Jets does not give out the names of its clients, because of confidentiality and security concerns, Moses allows that customers include entertainers, athletes, touring bands, and chief executive officers.
“A big part of our customer base is the business traveler who has to use private jets,” says Moses. He believes that more people are being pushed away from commercial aviation as the airline industry is eliminating flights in order to fill the remaining ones.
When a person’s destination is not a big city, the argument for private aircraft is even stronger. Private planes can land at any one of the 5,000 thousand airports in the United States that are not open to commercial traffic — for example, Princeton, Trenton, Belmar, or Morristown. (There are only 550 commercial airports in the country.)
Certain private airports can also handle customs for Blue Star Jets customers, as can fixed base operators that function as private terminals at international airports. The company recently had a client flying into Azores Island in Portugal late at night, and Blue Star Jets had customs stay open to accommodate him and his family, who were flying in for a funeral.
One Blue Star Jets customer is a chief executive officer in Shreveport, Louisiana, who has offices in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas that he needs to visit once a week. Using commercial flights, he would only be able to manage one or two sites per day. With Blue Star Jets, the scenario is different. “We can get to all four in one eight-hour day and have him home in time to coach his daughter’s soccer team,” says Moses.
Recently a representative of a publicly traded apparel company with several hundred stores came to Blue Star Jets with a list of 25 stores, scattered around the country, that seven top executives wanted to visit in five days. “The only way to do it in less than two weeks was on a private jet,” says Moses. The final journey had 16 legs and included destinations that might have been four hours from the closest commercial airport, but were only 12 minutes from the closest general aviation airport.
Another type of customer might be an entertainer who has a three-day break in his shooting schedule to spend with his wife and children, and the only option to maximize his time off is to fly in a private plane.
“As much as this is a product that provides luxury to high net worth individuals and organizations,” says Moses, “it is also a tool for people during an emergency.” With phones manned 24/7, 365 days a year, Blue Star Jets has often heard from people whose parents, brother, or children had an accident in another part of the country. “The difference in seeing them one more time or not is whether you can get on a plane in the middle of the night to get there,” he says.
Blue Star Jets has also worked with a mother in the Midwest whose child needed to get to Seattle within five hours of a phone call that a heart transplant was available. The company also did evacuation flights out of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and out of Houston during Hurricane Rita.
When Moses came on staff six years ago as chief operating officer, the company had revenue of $6 million a year. The next year it climbed to $18 million, then $32 million, $50 million, $68 million, and then $100 million. He says that he expects the new Princeton office to have revenue of $10 million in its first year.
“Our job is to represent the client,” says Moses, adding that excellent service comes from knowing the customers’ wants and needs. A C-level executive going across the country is likely to expect a particular type of aircraft; a top agent representing an actor who is not a great flier, but who has very specific taste, will want a certain type plane, and might want it with a light-cream interior. “If he is spending $75,000, he should be able to decide what he wants and does not want,” says Moses.
To cater to these specialized and individualized needs, Blue Star Jets maintains detailed information on its clients, from names of spouses, names and ages of children, and passport information to what they like to eat at each meal, who eats what types of food, peanut allergies, and preferences for down versus foam pillows.
Regular customers generally fly six to twelve times a year, but Blue Star Jets also does 70 percent of its business in pay-as-you-go charter flights — for example, for engaged couples, bachelor parties in Vegas, and summer camp visiting days for people not in the demographic who fly once or twice a year.
At its founding Blue Star Jets represented a new concept in an industry that was comprised of smaller charter companies and larger companies that either sell or lease fraction shares of a specific aircraft or offer membership programs for specific numbers of flight hours on a specific aircraft. Now some 50 companies emulate the Blue Star Jets approach, but on a smaller scale.
One of Blue Star Jets’ competitors in the fractional ownership business is NetJets. Its primary clientele are fliers who purchase a fractional share in a specific aircraft or sublease an aircraft by way of a jet card. Although NetJets offers some flexibility — according to its website, downgrades are guaranteed while upgrades are subject to availability — what you’re buying is a specific plane type.
Moses says that this type of arrangement can be unsatisfactory for many customers. “No plane is right for everybody,” he claims. If your plane is perfect for taking eight people from New Jersey to Arizona, what do you do when you need to fly to Europe with 12? Or you might find yourself paying double what you should when you need to fly to Boston with three people.
Blue Star Jets’ model is designed for flexibility. “Our clients are chartering flights when they need to fly,” says Moses. “We find the best aircraft for each trip — what makes sense for each individual mission.”
Furthermore, whereas NetJets guarantees availability “with as little as four to ten hours notice, depending on the type of aircraft you acquire and the size of your share,” according to its website, Blue Star Jets promises turnaround in four hours or less.
Moses thinks a lot about how to cultivate the next generation of luxury fliers. “Think about how a luxury car company is marketing to the younger generation,” he says. Mercedes is trying to get 25-year-olds to purchase a lower-priced Mercedes as their first car so that as they get older, they will move to a higher-priced version. Similarly with airplanes, many clients start out with an occasional short flight on a light jet, but down the road take longer flights on a mid-sized jet. “We find our customers growing into more expensive, larger aircraft,” says Moses.
The level of luxury is related to the size and type of aircraft and, within each category of aircraft, the interior finishing, which can range in cost from $400,000 to $10 million (usually the highest level of luxury comes only in the heaviest jets). The highest-end interiors may include 24-carat-gold-plated fixtures, Rolls Royce leather, the plushest carpeting, the most expensive flat-screen televisions, a separate bedroom and shower, and inlaid veneer tables. “Private jets are both transporters and luxury vessels — like if you have a beautiful boat — you can have a 30-footer because you love to fish versus a 60-foot yacht that is luxurious,” says Moses.
Recently a new category of aircraft has come on the scene — very light jets. The four seaters have low operating costs and can be a good choice for an hour-and-a-half flight. “They are called the ‘taxis’ of the private aviation industry,” says Moses, whose company has recently expanded into light jets. “It allows a lower point of entry to private aviation.” These planes, whose cost is the same or less than that of turbo props, work well for bringing a couple of business people to two or three cities in a day or for making possible a one-day jaunt to New York City to shop or to Maine to eat lobster.
Blue Star Jets encourages its customers to become members of its SkyCard program, and says that about 30 percent of its customers do join up. They put up sums of money ranging from $50,000 to $1 million in advance, and then draw upon their accounts as they take flights. In return, the SkyCard members receive a 10 percent discount, preferential booking at the crunch times around the holidays, more personalized service, and first access to any inventory of discounted one-way flights. These (relatively) cut rate flights occur when the companies that own the planes Blue Star Jets leases have to repositioning a plane.
This may mean removal to an airport 15 minutes away or a return back to the origination point. As a result, at any given time, Blue Star Jets can offer between 200 and 300 empty legs at a discounted price to club members. If a family in Europe, for example, needs to come back home, and Blue Star Jets has access to 45 planes that need to return to the United States, then the cost to the family could be as low as $55,000, rather than the usual $90,000 for this flight.
Blue Star Jets also offers a high-level rewards program, with different rewards at different levels of membership. SkyCard members earn reward points at five times the rate of charter clients. “Even the wealthiest of wealthy are still driven by points and getting some kind of reward for their actions,” observes Moses. With one long flight and a “five times” bonus, a customer may go home with a $4,000 home gym. Or clients who already have everything they need can be generous and send home their assistants with a flat screen television or support their favorite charities with reward items they can use.
Staffing for flights can vary. The crew, employed by the operator, includes a pilot and a copilot (who are each required to have a minimum of 3,500 to 5,000 hours of flight time as well as two physicals a year) and, for heavy jets, flight attendants (who are licensed, trained, and experienced in emergency procedures and evacuations) or cabin hosts and hostesses (the servers on a flight).
The safety criteria are established under section 135 of Federal Aviation Administration regulations. To audit the aircraft and crew for safety, Blue Star Jets uses Wyvern Consulting (www.wyvernltd.com), based out of Mercer County Airport. This firm supplies corporations and aircraft operators worldwide with real-time information from government agencies involved in aviation, like the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Wyvern enables its customers to monitor the safety of flights by issuing reports on airplanes, operators, management companies, and pilots. It is so careful that sometimes a “no” will come back about the safety of a plane or crew that is not a real safety issue but may be as minor as an insurance policy expired last week whose renewal has not yet been uploaded into the system. Issues not related to safety can usually be resolved in five minutes via a communication between Wyvern and the operator. A more serious issue might be that a copilot does not meet the required minimum number of hours for a certain type of airplane.
“Even through the recession, we have been growing between 15 and 20 percent a year,” says Moses. He attributes this growth for the most part to its customer demographic of $5 million-plus income or $25 million of net worth. Moses now has 19 salespeople in the Princeton office to sell these millionaires on the advantages of private aviation.
Moses grew up on Long Island in the 1960s and 1970s. His father was an entrepreneur in the apparel industry in the garment center in New York, and his mother stayed at home with the children until she became a psychiatrist in her mid-30s.
In 1984 Moses earned a degree in political science at Stony Brook University, with plans to be a lawyer who would step into one of the family’s businesses. He did work for a while at a small family business, Mohawk Industries, a company that sold accessories for women’s clothing, helping it expand into a larger import-export company with offices throughout Asia, but he never went to law school. After the first couple of years, Moses became Mohawk Industries’ president, then in the late 1980s its chief executive officer, and he had to spend a lot of time traveling between Taiwan, Hong Kong, Europe, and the United States.
By the time he hit 35, Moses found himself in an earlier-than-usual midlife crisis. He was involved with four related companies, but he was not having fun getting up and going to work. “I was successful but didn’t like what I was doing,” he recalls. He sold two businesses and divested the other two, but he could neither afford to retire nor did he want to. Unsure of what to do next, he just knew that he did not want to be in New York City in the apparel industry.
To help him with the next step in his career, Moses found a mentor who walked him through the long process of figuring out an environment where he would actually be excited to go to work every day. Narrowing his focus to technology and sports and entertainment, Moses, a Lawrenceville resident, also realized that he preferred to work close to home and that he loved startups more than mature companies.
In the late 1990s he joined Jim Medalia, now the owner of Charter Private, a Forrestal Village-based private safety deposit box company, in Medalia’s start-up, Just Balls, an Internet company that sold all manner of sports balls. He was the company’s first director of sales, says Medalia, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “What I learned was that there were other people who were totally passionate about being in their workspace,” says Moses. They would stay up all night because a project was so exciting, and would celebrate tiny successes together.
Moses did learn a lot about what it takes to run a startup, but perhaps more important, after three years he realized he had a short attention span. He moved on to another startup, a celebrity fan management company for celebrities, including Aerosmith, Mariah Carey, and Michael Bolton. Next came an opportunity that was unlike anything he had done thus far, working for Clear Channel Entertainment, a really large company. “I decided it would be a great test to see if I could survive and do well,” he says.
Moses was vice president for sales in Clear Channel’s SFX Sports division, which managed about 500 athletes and owned about 30 sports events, including Michael Jordan’s golf tournament. After three years, though, he realized that although he loved what he was doing, he did not like the bureaucracy of working for a very large company.
When the founders of Blue Star Jets started the company, which is privately held, Moses was marketing exclusive sports events to high net worth individuals. At the same time, Blue Star Jets was looking to create a presence at Michael Jordan’s Celebrity Golf Tournament . Rome and Sitomer approached him, but they had no capital and he had no interest in working with a startup. But he liked their model from the start and told them to come back to him when they were a little larger.
Not only has Moses always wanted to have an office on Princeton’s main drag, but he believes that Princeton possesses the seasoned sales force he needs for marketing private aviation both locally and globally. “Princeton has a heavy concentration of people who were in the real estate market or the mortgage business and who are looking for a way to do a career change ,” he says.
“Our entire model is based on having seasoned sales professionals representing Blue Star Jets.” His firm’s sales and marketing organization, he says, has people with an average of 10 to 20 years sales experience selling high-end products.
Blue Star Jets, says Moses, is transforming the difficult and time-consuming process of flying commercially into something that is enjoyable from the time of departure. “The entire process feels different than what travel normally feels like on an airplane,” says Moses. “We sell the ability for people to enjoy aviation again.”
Blue Star Jets, 182 Nassau Street, Suite 303, Princeton 08544; 609-454-4050; fax, 609-921-0683. Howard Moses, partner.