When George Antoniadis launched PlaneSense offering fractional shares in the Pilatus PC-12, he raised a few eyebrows. Like the fabled David, he would be taking on Goliaths such as NetJets, Flexjet and Flight Options. But Antoniadis appeared to have even more working against him. PlaneSense was a startup offering shares in a 1,500-nm-range turboprop single while the other fractionals flew a broad array of jets with far greater range and speed, not to mention sex appeal. Perhaps the biggest risk was that the aircraft was totally unknown in the U.S., and the manufacturer itself had no track record in America.
Antoniadis intuitively recognized that what seemed like his enterprise’s weakness would turn out to be its strength. Fast forward 20 years. Three major fractional ownership providers have disappeared, the second largest firm was swallowed by its competitor, and the launch firm and leader in jet cards dissolved under the wing of one of the two remaining giants. Throughout all these industry climbs and descents, economic turmoil, consolidation and dropouts, however, PlaneSense stayed the course. Thanks to the clarity of Antoniadis’s vision, the company emerged stronger than ever, and it remains one of three major fractional providers that continue to be viable.
Why? “PlaneSense owners understand the unique capabilities of the Pilatus PC-12,” said Antoniadis. They take full advantage of the airplane’s exceptional ability to operate anywhere, particularly into small airfields off limits to jets, such as the 2,300-foot strip at Fishers Island off the Connecticut coast. And the PC-12 does that with unprecedented economy, dramatically lower ownership and operating costs than the least expensive jet program and with time differentials on typical trips that amount to mere minutes. Furthermore, while jets may claim higher speeds in the air, the Pilatus, with its ability to negotiate the shortest runways, can land closer to the ultimate destination, and that means less time on the ground.
Taking on the Major Players
“In early 1994 we had been carefully watching the developments in the fractional ownership space,” said Antoniadis. “We were a small aircraft management company at the time, and I was thinking about how to make our mark in the industry. You can’t compete against FedEx with one truck, and you can’t start with 100 trucks either. So we tried to define a new space: we would find a cost-effective, modern-design aircraft, we would develop a product that was extremely cost competitive and we would focus unrelentingly on service,” he said.
“We started thinking about turboprops, and we thought possibly a single-engine turboprop.” After numerous trips to Switzerland, Antoniadis was convinced: the PC-12 was the airplane to bet the business on, “and we did,” he said. “There is no question, the single-engine aspect was a big risk, but I felt that was counterbalanced by an airplane with a brand-new design and the ergonomics, engineering and efficiency to go with it.”
The first PlaneSense PC-12 was delivered in September 1995. “We used it as a demonstrator to attract clients,” he said. The second aircraft arrived six months later and the third a year after that in 1997. “Then we started accelerating,” said Antoniadis. While Antoniadis spoke with AIN recently, the newest aircraft to enter the program had just arrived from Switzerland, bringing the fleet to 34 airplanes.
One of the attractive aspects of the PC-12 is that it can land on long hard-surface runways or on short, grass or gravel backwoods strips. “When you arrive in a PlaneSense PC-12, you might possibly be landing literally in the backyard of your destination,” he said. “Last year we flew into approximately 800 different landing fields that range from major airports such as JFK to private grass strips. Our clients expect that.”
Now, PlaneSense is making a new departure. The company is the launch customer for the Pilatus PC-24 twinjet, and it has six on order, to complement its fleet of turboprops. First deliveries are expected in 2017.
What prompted the move? “We had looked at multi-engine jets years ago,” Antoniadis said. “Our clients had been using seven-, eight- or nine-seater jets for longer-range flights and they told us that if we had a jet offering, they would be using ours. So we started thinking about a jet, and now we are making good on that thought. The idea is that we will offer jet capability married to the unique qualities of the PC-12.” That will give PlaneSense a significant advantage in the fractional ownership environment as the only PC-12 and PC-24 fractional operator in the U.S.
With all the new jets on the market, why the PC-24? “There are definitely others, and we have always looked closely at what’s out there, but an airplane has to offer much more than performance,” he said. Dispatch reliability for an airplane that will fly a thousand hours a year or more was a powerful driver, but the decision went beyond that. “It’s the maintenance philosophy, the backup support, parts availability and subsystems reliability,” he said. “It’s the dialogue with the manufacturer and the ability to pollinate ideas to make the airplane better. All of those things are important.”
The PC-24 carries the capabilities of the PC-12 into the jet arena, said Antoniadis. The airplane has a large door like the PC-12 and can operate to and from extremely short fields. Projected figures indicate a 2,690-foot balanced field length along with the ability to fly out of unprepared airstrips as well as paved runways.
With its unmatched field performance, said Antoniadis, “The PC-24 will let us fly to places that no other jet of that size could ever go.” That means virtual year-round access to hot and high Rocky Mountain airports even with contaminated runways, which typically hamper jet operations. The PC-24 promises to be an impressive performer by many other measures. It will climb at 4,000 fpm, cruise at 45,000 feet and 425 knots and fly 1,950 nm.
Because of its close relationship to the PC-12 turboprop, the new jet offers several other advantages. Its Honeywell flight deck has full commonality with that of the PC-12 NG, which simplifies flight crew transition. In addition, the PC-24 boasts the largest cabin and the largest entry door in its class–as big as the cargo door in the PC-12.
With first delivery of the PC-24 planned for 2017, PlaneSense is buying a different jet in the interim. “The Nextant 400XTi is the airplane that is going to help us build the jet program so we’re prepared when the PC-24 arrives,” explained Antoniadis. The first Nextant 400 has already arrived, and it immediately began garnering attention from current PC-12 owners who want greater range and speed for longer-distance flights. The Nextant 400s will become part of the PlaneSense core fleet, and they will be available as an upgrade for PC-12 owners. An hour-exchange rate will apply to the PC-12 owner’s annual allocation, said Antoniadis. The company will not sell shares in the jet program until it is a year out from deliveries of the PC-24s.
Antoniadis is enthusiastic about the future. While he takes risks, nothing is a gamble. Every move is precisely calculated. “I will tell you that I am excited every day. I am happy to see how this company has developed from the beginning through the difficult times of 2009 and 2010 to today. We have an extremely loyal following, we have a high percentage of retained owners at contract renewal, and we are optimistic about the growth opportunity that we see ahead of us,” he said.