PlaneSense, Inc’s George Antoniadis on the virtues of fractional ownership and the success of the light jets concept
PlaneSense Inc, currently the third-largest fractional aircraft programme manager in the United States, was founded upon the acquisition of its first Pilatus PC-12 in 1995. The company’s President and CEO, George Antoniadis, had decided on the state-of-the-art turboprop aircraft because it best suited his vision to offer vast differentiators compared to competitors – affordable price points, access to more airports, and superior service.
PlaneSense, Inc has achieved steady growth since its inception, and has gone on to purchase some 54 PC-12s, shedding the older aircraft over time. Its fractional fleet presently includes 33 PC-12 aircraft. It has also recently bought two Nextant 400XTi light jets, with an option for three more aircraft. The PlaneSense® programme is also the lead launch customer for the Pilatus PC-24 jets, with first deliveries expected in late 2017.
Q: What made you decide on the PC-12 for your first fractional offering?
A: What we liked about the PC-12 from the start was the fact that it was a very modern aircraft with very good maintainability. The Pratt & Whitney PT6 power plant that drives the PC-12 is very cost effective and efficient with, as you know, a very long and venerable history. The aircraft has a very large cabin for its class, and it has excellent short field performance which opens up thousands of airports for our owners.
Q: Whom do you see as the typical fractional owner of a PC-12? Are they mostly small to mid-sized businesses?
A: Our share owners are comprised of individuals as well as small and medium-sized companies, but we also have some large businesses among our client base, too. Remember, even large businesses derive a great deal of benefit in being able to get as close as possible to their destinations by air. Given the congestion – both auto and aircraft traffic – associated with large airports, very often the large airports are not the best access point for that critical meeting. What we enable our clients to do by virtue of using smaller airports is to minimise the drive to their final destination, and that is very valuable. It doesn’t mean that we do not fly into the larger airports, too, but more airport choice gives our clients the opportunity to do a number of face-to-face meetings in a day. They may have several branches, suppliers or customers scattered across various states, for example.
Q: As such a major customer, what is your relationship with Pilatus like?
A: We have a very close relationship with Pilatus, and we have been very closely associated with the development of both the PC-12 over time, as well as with the PC-24. To date we have flown over 250,000 missions in the PC-12. As a very large volume operator of the aircraft, we have a lot of experience and, therefore, a lot of data and input to provide back to Pilatus.
Q: Have you requested any specific tweaks to the interior?
A: No. In our configuration, the cabin is a very well designed, six-passenger-seat aircraft, which works well for our clients. Part of the beauty of our operation is that the fleet aircraft are, for all intents and purposes, identical, so the owners have a consistent experience. Theoretically you could put a seventh passenger in the co-pilot’s seat since it is certificated for single pilot operation. We always fly with two pilots, however, which is the safety standard in the US fractional industry.
Q: How does the allocation of flights work among the various owners? Do they get their own aircraft again and again?
A: The owner buys a fraction in a particular aircraft. The aircraft that will be assigned for an owner’s use, however, will be the closest one in the fleet that is available. Share owners have guaranteed availability of a programme aircraft with as little as eight hours’ notice, which offers incredible flexibility for the owners. In order to provide this level of service, we manage the fleet as a system, where each aircraft moves from one owner flight to another allowing us to seamlessly serve our owners’ flying needs.
Q: Is that guarantee difficult for you to achieve, given that you can occasionally get a rush of requests from owners?
A: Our primary market is the eastern half of the United States, as well as Canada, moving down into the islands of the Caribbean and The Bahamas. It is a large geography, but because of the size of the fleet, combined with the way we organise our operations, we are able to handle the demand cycles with relative ease. We have an extremely high on-time record, and our clients are very happy with the level of service that they receive.
Q: The first test PC-24 aircraft had its maiden flight on 11 May last year. What is your view of the PC-24?
A: We are the largest launch customer for the PC-24, which shows how much we are looking forward to this new jet. We are very excited about the performance and comfort that this aircraft will provide to our share owners. We have six PC-24s on order. For us, it will not be a replacement for the PC-12; rather, it will be an addition to our service offering. If a PC-12 fractional owner, for example, wants to do a 1,200 to 1,300 nautical mile trip and come back in the same day, they will have the option of using the PC-24. We’re expecting the aircraft to enter service somewhere around late 2017.
Q: How are the Nextants performing?
A: We felt that we needed to add a light jet to the fleet, and we did a very thorough evaluation of the Nextant 400XTi before we chose it. We were very impressed with the remanufacture process as it was very robust. We also like the fact that the Nextant 400XTi enables us to build familiarity and experience with the Williams turbofans, which also power the PC-24.
We have already flown over 550 missions in the Nextant. We are not selling shares in it, but we offer it as an upgrade opportunity for our PC-12 clients, which is a very good way of introducing our clients to the light jet experience. For us, buying the Nextant was a major departure from our prior aircraft buying practices. Every aircraft we have added to the fleet before this has been brand new, so remanufacturing was a new concept for us. We did a lot of due diligence work in order to convince ourselves that this really was an ‘as-new’ aircraft, with great modern equipment – and it is!
Q: How does it compare to the PC-12?
A: That is not really a fair comparison to make. We particularly like the flat floor in the Nextant. We think that the Nextant interior is a very significant improvement over the old Beechcraft interior, but it clearly has a smaller cabin than the PC-12. It can seat seven, or at a pinch eight, but in general our experience is that two to four people is the usual mission. The PC-12 and the Nextant are both very efficient aircraft and are very reasonable in terms of operating costs, but without question a jet is a more expensive aircraft to fly than the PC-12. We expect our clients to continue to make responsible decisions about when to fly which type of aircraft.
Q: The fractional market is clearly working well for you. What is your opinion of the charter market?
A: The charter market is more of a spot market. You book today to go tomorrow. This makes it a much more volatile and unpredictable market. The fractional business, on the other hand, is a long-term relationship, so fractional provides a very different level of stability for the operator. Our programme has always been based on owners who have made a considered decision to commit to the fractional model.
Q: How interested are corporations in buying into the fractional concept?
A: It used to be that companies who flew privately had flight departments and would invest in as many as three different aircraft to meet various different flight needs. Now, they can solve that problem very easily without the expense of a flight department, through fractional ownership, using our flight department capabilities. They are much happier to own fleets of shares to address their varying flight needs. The addition of the Nextant 400XTi and the PC-24 enables us to address the corporate market’s needs with enhanced variety, choice and flexibility.