NetJets: Behind the Fractional-share Curtain

 - June 3, 2019, 12:37 PM

In the normal day-to-day flow of business jet traffic around the world, one rarely takes note of the regular passage of flocks of jets safely and routinely completing their missions. Yet for these missions to succeed, it takes a massive behind-the-scenes organization to make it all happen so that passengers arrive at their destination on time for that important meeting or family event. And then, for companies like fractional-share provider NetJets, the process starts all over again and the vast pool of experts that make it all work continue their labors, and on it goes.

During a recent tour of NetJets headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, the company gave a group of reporters an opportunity to see how the company works, from treating us like regular NetJets owners during a flight to Columbus and back to meetings with key players during the tour and even a sampling of the catering fare that customers enjoy on their flights.

Those of us based in the New York City area met our NetJets crew at the company’s Teterboro, New Jersey base at the Signature Flight Support-South FBO. Our flight was in a NetJets Citation Latitude, which has a comfortable, modern, and extremely quiet cabin. NetJets is taking delivery of its 100th Latitude this month, and the midsize jet has proven extraordinarily popular with its customers since deliveries to NetJets began in 2016.

Flight Center

At NetJets’s Columbus, Ohio headquarters, we started the tour in the flight center, where hundreds of people work around the clock making sure the airplanes run on time and that the company’s more than 7,000 fractional-share owners are taken care of.

It was a typical day, and the U.S. NetJets fleet of about 420 airplanes would log nearly 400 flights. Each flight is followed by an owner-service team, which monitors flight progress using the NetJets-developed Intellijet software program. The team is not only responsible for each flight but also to get to know owners and their preferences, according to Richard Wrona, vice president service experience. “It’s all in the communication,” he said, “and understanding what they’re striving to do. We take care of them to the best of our ability.”

This means more than just arranging a trip for a shareowner. For example, on the day of our visit, team members were warning some customers about the possibility of delays due to snow events. The team also tries to help the owner make the best decision for a planned trip, asking why they are traveling via NetJets and helping them determine the best airport to use at the destination. Sometimes Teterboro, for example, isn’t the best choice for certain areas near New York City. Or the requested airplane might not be the best for the trip, and a smaller or larger one may make more sense. Another example is at Aspen, where some days the winds are too strong and because takeoffs are in just one direction, could exceed the airplane’s tailwind limitations. In this case, the team would recommend an earlier departure if the customer is able, thus avoiding possible delays because of the strong winds.

Each owner gets a personal representative, reachable by a dedicated toll-free 866 number assigned to that particular owner. The owner can call the personal rep to help with travel or any other questions or work directly with the owner-service team.

Inside the flight center and near the owner-service team are other NetJets staffers critical to the efficient operation of such a large fleet of business jets. Five full-time meteorologists work from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., aiding dispatchers and pilots and often speaking with customers who want more detailed information about upcoming weather. Some passengers want to know, for example, what time to depart to avoid turbulence or if the weather for an upcoming vacation weekend will be optimal. If the meteorologists spot a hurricane approaching, they are the front-line defense in making sure the NetJets airplanes are nowhere near when it makes landfall.

The dispatchers are FAA-licensed and do all flight planning and flight releases, which reduces the burden on pilots and leaves them more free to focus on flying safely.

Another group in the flight center are aircraft maintenance technicians who monitor the condition of the jets and facilitate repairs at sometimes far-flung locations.

Another team specializes in the airport experience, constantly vetting FBOs, ground transportation, and other non-flying activities for safety, security, and passenger comfort issues.

New Latitudes

In a hangar at NetJets headquarters, Michele Marder, manager of fleet configuration and analysis, showed off a new Latitude that was being prepared for customer flying. NetJets customizes its interiors to some extent, based on customer preferences. In the Latitude, for example, the galley, which is larger than typical, is equipped with a Keurig coffeemaker, and there are under-seat snack drawers, along with NetJets-specified materials and furnishings.

Generally, NetJets keeps light and midsize jets from 10 to 12 years and large-cabin jets as much as 15 years, she said. A refurbishing team constantly evaluates cabin condition and makes sure repairs and upgrades are done.

When it comes time to move an airplane out of the fleet, an owner’s share is moved to another like airplane, or if their normal five-year contract is due, they will be offered the opportunity to sign a new contract, or they may choose to exit.

All NetJets flights are catered, and core team manager Michelle Musselman runs the company’s catering logistics support department, which employs 16 people. To keep the food flowing for the fleet, NetJets has 29 locations with food lockers and three warehouses. During a typical year, NetJets will serve 26,000 cheese trays, 40,000 fruit trays, 17,000 orders of chips and salsa, 1.2 million bottles of Fiji water, and a 4,300 peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

Customers can select catering, including wine and other adult beverages, for their flight online in their owner portal, including “always stock items” that they prefer. Pilots are also well-fed by NetJets, which enhances safety and the all-important flight crew quality-of-life.

The catering experts at NetJets also consider the “science of taste” when creating menus, according to Musselman. “We taste with all our senses,” she said, but taste buds are affected by noise, altitude, and low humidity. The latter two reduce the perception of sweet and salty but don’t impact spicy, while noise can affect salty and spicy. Some breads—bagels for example—aren’t very pleasant in low-humidity environments. The taste of wine is affected, too, and this has to be taken into account.

Pilot Ranks

NetJets employs more than 2,500 pilots, and chief pilot Don Wittke is well aware of the competition for pilots that airlines offer and how important it is for an operation like NetJets to retain its flight crews. “We offer the best of both worlds for pilots,” he said. NetJets gives most pilots a seven-day-on, seven-off schedule, and they know their schedule a month in advance. Other schedules are available. Airline flying, he said, “is so routine and boring. It’s basically driving a bus.” NetJets pilots get to fly to many different destinations—over 4,000 airports—and they interact with customers on a much more intimate basis. “The scope of what we do is so much more exciting,” he said. “Our mission is much more challenging than any airline.”

The pilot shortage hasn’t affected NetJets as much as some operators, but the company nevertheless has worked to improve pilot quality of life. Pilots have more options now for where they can live, and NetJets now has 200 bases in the U.S. And compensation has been enhanced, paying pilots more when they work extra hours, which wasn’t the case in the past. “When they are working hard, they deserve to be rewarded,” he said.

Last year NetJets hired 185 pilots, and it expects to hire between 25 and 75 this year, according to vice president of operations Alan Bobo. “I think we’re in a good spot with low attrition, and folks want to work here.”

Although NetJets went through a pilot layoff of about 500 people during the 2008 recession, there have been management changes since then. “Currently there have never been better relations between pilots and management,” Wittke said.

Safety Solutions

Vice president of safety Richard Meikle wrapped up the visit by describing the NetJets safety program. He pointed out that there is no regulatory requirement for a fractional-share operator like NetJets to even have a safety department, “which is crazy. We’re more complex than any airline.”

The safety department employs 18 people and has a $2.7 million annual budget. NetJets runs its own flight operational quality assurance (FOQA) program, at a cost of $750,000 per year. While NetJets isn’t required to have a flight data recorder, which provides data for FOQA, on airplanes that seat 10 or fewer, it installs them on the entire fleet.

“We’ve seen tremendous improvements in certain areas,” he said. In one example, the FOQA data showed that in some jets, it was impossible for pilots to fly a stabilized approach to Truckee Airport’s Runway 29 near Lake Tahoe in California. Those aircraft can’t use that runway, and for the other jets that can safely land there, NetJets created a visual approach to ensure that pilots have a tool for flying a stabilized approach.

NetJets has a strict no-fault fatigue policy and mitigation system, and this puts hard stops in the Intellijet software that tracks the fleet and flight crews. “But crews can call off a trip anytime, with no consequence,” said Meikle. “We would much rather have them out of the airplane and in the hotel.”

NetJets works closely with its sister company training provider FlightSafety International, including customizing recurrent training based on information from the FOQA program. “Every six months we update our training,” he said. Some of these training scenarios are amazing.”

“Safety is so infused in our organization. It’s our DNA.”

Meikle credits NetJets leaders with unwavering support of the safety program. “It’s second to none,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Our trip back to Teterboro was in a new Citation Longitude, which shares interior features of the Latitude, including design touches specified by NetJets. NetJets expects to take delivery of seven Longitudes this year and has already begun selling shares in the new jet. The company announced in late 2018 options to purchase up to 175 Longitudes and 150 Citation Hemispheres.