Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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JetSuiteX Marks Its Spot: Small Airports
Thursday, October 4, 2018 -- Alex Wilcox never met Kirk Kerkorian, a grade-school dropout who made billions in airlines, movies and resort hotels. But the two risk takers have several fascinating things in common.

After World War II, Kekorian ran a charter airline to fly gamblers to Las Vegas from a small airport in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank. Wilcox started JetSuiteX 29 months ago as a public charter carrier and Burbank-Las Vegas is one of its most popular routes.

In his storied career, Kerkorian owned huge chunks of several carriers, including Western Airlines and MGM Grand Air, which offered plush rides on aircraft configured with fewer seats than the competition. Wilcox has appointed two of Kerkorian's senior executives as advisors to the JetSuiteX board of directors.

Yet the difference between Kerkorian and MGM Grand and Wilcox and JetSuiteX may say everything about today's stripped-down era of commercial aviation and the more freewheeling days just after deregulation.

MGM Grand operated full-sized Boeing 727 and McDonnell Douglas DC-8 jets reconfigured with just 34 seats. It flew a sybaritic transcontinental service with gourmet meals, fine wines, private drawing rooms and an in-flight bar. MGM Grand flew between New York and Los Angeles and courted the movie set, bicoastal financiers and deal-making moguls.

Wilcox, however, is thinking--and flying--on a much, much smaller canvas.

JetSuiteX operates a fleet of tiny Embraer 135 regional jets that once flew as American Eagle aircraft. The seat count has been reduced to 30 from 37, which means everyone gets at least 37 and as much as 40 inches of legroom. Everyone gets more headroom, too, because overhead bins have been removed. Cocktails, WiFi and checked bags are free. There are no lines or security checkpoints, either, because JetSuiteX flies from private-jet terminals. And while MGM Grand flew between the nation's two most important cities, JetSuiteX limits itself to routes shorter than 500 miles and lesser-known airports such as Buchanan Field in Concord, California. His customers aren't the glitterati or financial elites, but road warriors and upmarket holidaymakers looking for a better experience at a reasonable price from close-in airports.

"I've been a student of aviation for a long time and loved it, but most people hate it today and I'm doing my damndest to find more reasons to like it again," Wilcox says about JetSuiteX. "What I've learned is that people are buying time with us more than anything else. They love the free drinks and the comforts, but if you're not running on schedule, none of the other amenities matter."

Wilcox claims 97 percent of JetSuiteX flights arrive on-time and 96 percent depart within 15 minutes of the schedule. Customers pay for the timeliness and the perks: JetSuiteX fares range from $80 to $400 one way. Not cheap on a fare-per-mile basis, but not outlandish given the extra comfort, perks and hassle-free experience.

JetSuiteX grew from JetSuite, a private jet operator that Wilcox also owns and runs. Familiar with secondary airports from the charters, JetSuiteX focuses its network on small airports such as Burbank and Concord in San Francisco's East Bay. It also flies from Oakland, another SFO alternative, and John Wayne/Orange County, an LAX alternative. In the winter, there are flights between Burbank and Mammoth Mountain, a popular ski area about 300 miles from Los Angeles.

(Not all of JetSuiteX's unconventional routes have panned out, however. Wilcox launched, then quietly dropped, a route between San Jose in the heart of the Silicon Valley and McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, a San Diego suburb. A Reno-Oakland route ended three weeks ago after only three months.)

Wilcox believes the short-haul, 30-passenger business model is reproducible anywhere in the United States where demand can sustain it and a private jet airport is nearby. Northeast and Mid Atlantic? "Yes to both of those," he says. "By the second half of next year, we'll add cities in the central U.S. or the East Coast." He also hints about flights to the Arizona desert from Southern California.

JetSuiteX has relocated from its birthplace in Newport Beach, California, to Dallas, home of both American and Southwest Airlines. "The reason we moved is the amazing talent available in Dallas," Wilcox explains. It's also a homecoming of sorts since Wilcox once interned in Southwest's advertising department.

Wilcox is no stranger to new airline ventures. He helped launch JetBlue Airlines, which is a 10 percent investor in JetSuiteX as well as a code-share and frequent flyer partner. He was founding president and chief operating officer of Kingfisher, the now-defunct Indian airline launched by Vijay Mallya, the flashy brewery mogul who eventually fled the country and an estimated $1 billion in debts.

"I worked for Kingfisher for two years and it was the longest decade of my life, but I wouldn't trade it for anything," Wilcox insists.

If nothing else, JetSuiteX seems to be on firmer financial footing. Besides JetBlue, deep-pocketed Qatar Airways is also an investor. "We're very well-funded at this point," Wilcox says. JetSuiteX currently operates nine refurbished EMB-135s and Wilcox claims he'll take an additional aircraft each month starting in January.

"The challenge for us to is to choose, out of a thousand potential markets, the most rewarding markets first. Where people will pay a dollar a mile" to fly, Wilcox asks.

More skeptical observers naturally ask a more immediate question: How many people are paying to fly JetSuiteX now? The company declines to divulge passenger counts or load factors. A spokesman claims August was the airline's busiest month so far and insists traffic is growing quickly, but provides no statistics.

California marketing executive Sharon Sperber and her husband made their maiden JetSuiteX voyage from Burbank to Las Vegas on a recent Tuesday and said their aircraft was half full.

"Normally, we drive to Vegas and it can take five hours. But for $650 for both of us, it was worth it," she says.

About the flight itself, Sperber was effusive.

"We walked in, two agents behind the counter tagged our bags and gave us boarding passes," she explains. "It was business class legroom. A flight attendant offered beer, wine, spirits, soft drinks. The WiFi was free. We landed in about 40 minutes and our bags were there. No waiting."

This column is Copyright 2018 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.