Meet JetSuiteX, An Operation Trying to Turn an Unloved Regional Jet into Something Awesome

Niche Airlines

There’s never a shortage of ideas for new opportunities in the airline industry. But an opportunity that has a chance of success? That’s a much rarer breed. Sometimes, something that seems insane starts to make more sense as market conditions evolve. That’s exactly what the private jet operator JetSuite is banking on with its new operation called JetSuiteX. Get ready for some pimped out Embraer 135s flying around. First up, Burbank (near LA) to Concord (near Oakland). While this is an interesting effort, success is going to be an uphill battle.

JetSuiteX Embraer 135

You might know JetSuite as a private jet operator. I took my only private jet flight on them way back in 2009. (It was only Long Beach – Orange County, sadly.) But now, JetSuite is venturing out into scheduled service. Crazy? Maybe, but the CEO Alex Wilcox does have airline background, so maybe he’s on to something.

What JetSuite realized is that the Embraer 135 is one of the most unloved airplanes on Earth. It’s a shrunken Embraer 145, and that airplane isn’t remotely in demand either. That’s a 50 seat airplane, and airlines have realized that those work better as niche airplanes than the backbone of their regional fleets. The 135? That has even worse economics. Some were operated for American by Chautauqua back in the day and those are now back with Embraer collecting dust.

With that background, Alex came up with an idea. Those airplanes are so unloved that they’re cheap to buy. Really cheap. Alex wouldn’t tell me how much they cost exactly, but he picked up 10 of them. I’ve spoken with others who said it couldn’t have cost more than $5 million to buy each airplane and that’s at the high end. On top of that, Alex put about $1 million into each airplane to turn it into a more “private jet” style experience.

JetSuiteX Cabin View

They pulled the plastic wall panels out and put in leather. The overhead bins were removed as well, and seats were put in that are a few inches shorter. That gives it a very open cabin feel. Seats are still 1-2 across, but they have 36 inches of pitch so there are only 30 seats on the airplane. Wifi was also installed (using Gogo) along with power outlets.

JetSuiteX In Seat Experience

That 30 seat capacity is no coincidence. See, these flights are being operated as public charters, and to do that, the max number of seats onboard is 30. Why do it this way? Because they’re trying to get it to feel as much like a private jet as they can. They’ll use private terminals/fixed base operators in each city. There will be security screening, but it’s a much lighter touch. They aren’t planning a fee-heavy model either with seat assignments and drinks included. Again, it’ll be more like a private-style experience.

Sounds like a fine idea, but, uh, where to send the airplanes? Service starts on April 19 (very soon) between Burbank near LA and Concord near Oakland. Concord hasn’t had commercial service since PSA flew there, so it’s been a really long time. There will also be weekend service from Concord to Vegas and even stranger, weekend operations from San Jose to Bozeman.

Part of the route selection is based on demand from existing JetSuite private jet customers. They want to be able to fly more often or be able to fly their employees on something like this. The price is going to start at $109 one way for now, and it’s not unreasonable to think of that as a normal off-peak fare, I’m told. Premium peak fares? Those might head up to the $300 range, give or take (between Burbank and Concord). There’s value in those prices for sure.

My biggest concern personally is how they’re going to fill these airplanes and make money. Yes they have a marketing budget, and they were even able to score a deal where travelers can earn TrueBlue points with JetBlue when they fly. (Helps that Alex was a JetBlue founder.) But there are still 2 flights a weekday (1 on Tuesday and Wednesday) each way between Concord and Burbank. That might not sound like a lot of seats to fill, but it’s still going to be tough. First, it’s not a lot of frequency for a business traveler that could take a very frequent flight to/from Oakland instead. But that’s only part of the issue.

All sales are direct, so nobody will see this for sale when they search Expedia or go through a travel agent. Further, even if they were available in those services, nobody is looking for a flight to Concord since they don’t know it exists. I get that the low cost of the airplane and the current price of fuel means that they can do pretty well if they sell even half the seats. But even that is going to be a challenge.

One of the benefits of the cheap cost of acquisition here is that JetSuiteX can afford to sit the airplanes on the ground outside of peak travel times. Initially they expect to get less than 5 hours a day in utilization. That does give the operation a lot of flexibility, which is helpful.

Initial routes will focus on the west coast, and they don’t see a market for flights longer than 75 minutes. But they see opportunity for flights within the northeast as well within a couple of years.

With any luck JetSuiteX has identified a relatively small niche that’ll work out. If not, it’ll just fall into the graveyard of failed efforts.

23 comments on “Meet JetSuiteX, An Operation Trying to Turn an Unloved Regional Jet into Something Awesome

  1. Just a short note. I saw one of their aircraft in SAN two days ago.
    Sent from my Boost Mobile Phone.

  2. One possible model would be something like guaranteed room minimums at hotels. At ~$250 r/t, I could see corporate accounts being very interested in this for West Coast operations. Intel already operates a private jet doing a SF-Portland (OR) for their engineers, and I could see my company being interested in an SF-Seattle operation as well.

  3. Was there any talk of charters? this would the the right size for may college sports (Basketball) with only 30 seats.

    1. Terminalwander – Yep, they do charters with these airplanes. I saw something about Coachella charters on their website. Not sure if they want to get into the college basketball market or not, but you can see how it might make sense considering the low utilization. It just depends on the time needs.

  4. Ultimate Air Shuttle (UE) does pretty well here in Cincinnati flying out of both CVG and LUK with mostly Dornier 328s but they also have an E-135. They service Chicago, New York and Charlotte with Cleveland in the planning stages. Fares run $400-$700 round trip. From the people I know that use it, the appeal of arriving 15 minutes before takeoff and the private jet experience is the draw. They do stuff like free bags and booze, but the convenience is what brings in the business. The price is right too with the big 3 are charging $500+. They do a lot of advertising and primarily focus on the business traveler.

    1. Have flown Ultimate Air Shuttle a number of times and am a huge fan. Only complaint is that departure times are all geared towards CVG based travelers for day trips versus the reverse. However, the complimentary cheese course and wine were a nice touch. If the Emb-135s were cheap enough, I could definitely see this working a the Dornier 328 was a similarly unloved airplane. One thing Ultimate has going for it is the absurdly expensive airfare in CVG allows them to keep their airfares artificially high.

  5. I live in the city of San Franciso, and CCR is not an easy or short drive, so they are definitely targeting north bay, Napa, Santa Rosa type people. That being said, I hope this is successful and that they add an airport closerr to the City. OAK, San Carlos or even Palo Alto.

    For a weekend in Vegas this is a killer deal, the price is the same as Southwest, and there is 100 less people on the plane.

    Ill fly it for a day trip to Magic Mountain, but i wish the return flight was a bit later.

    Also, being part 135, I bet they start Long Beach really fast as well. Lots of slots there.

  6. I love the idea. Tell Alex that some of us are desperate for this kind of service between Southeastern Florida and the New York Area.

    1. estein47 – That’s not going to happen anytime soon. He doesn’t see an opportunity for this particular model over about 75 minutes. (San Jose-Bozeman goes over that, but it’s still only 800 miles while NYC-PBI, for example, is well over 1,000.)

  7. Well $109 one way if about what WN has between OAK and BUR/LAX so fare wise they are ok, it will just be the lack of frequencies in flights compared to OAK service that will cause some people to still use WN at Oakland. But I’ve always said if you can make money with one flight, and the other guy can’t with a dozen flights, who’s really the winner.

    But I still don’t get San Jose to Bozeman, what’s in Bozeman that would get people in San Jose wanting to go there?

    1. Bozeman is something of an up-and-coming Jackson Hole alternative. JetSuite reported they are actually being provided subsidies by high-end mountainside communities in the area, one of which sells condos starting at $5M and single family homes starting at $6M. In an interview, JetSuite said their discussions with the developers have showed there is a substantial population of affluent individuals in the Bay Area who have real estate in those communities. Currently, their only option is to charter a private plane at around $6000, fly another airline with a layover, or fly Allegiant direct. That’s the market they’re trying to go for.

    1. The 135/145’s are pretty closterfobic so the removal of bins and shorter seats help open up the cabin. I do wonder where the O2 masks pop out from.

      1. Good question about the O2 masks. Perhaps somewhere in the sidewalls?

        Sent from my computer that moonlights as a phone.

  8. Based on the prices I could see using a service like this. Biggest issue is if their plan is to use secondary airports without much service it could be a hassle getting around unless you know someone. Guess you could call an Uber but seems like a niche service at best.

  9. I hope this will work out for them – having an additional option to travel south would be awesome.
    I would expect they are planning to sign up the local industry (Chevron, etc), if they haven’t done so already, to fill a decent number of seats.
    Marketing is going to be a challenge – without being on the major OTA sites they have to constantly remind people that JetSuitX actually exists.
    Concord, Walnut Creek and surrounding area have plenty affluent folks that might prefer a local option (if they actually know about it), if only to avoid the terrible rush hour traffic to OAK/SFO. I know that I would happily pay $50+ above WN at OAK for the convenience, if they ever start service to SNA or ONT from CCR.

  10. I don’t think Concord is a bad choice. It’s easy to get to for East Bay or Sacramento/Napa folks. I like the model but just don’t know if they will make money. It will take time to build up the clients I’d think.

  11. As someone who is based in San Francisco and has flown SurfAir a number of times, I can say that there is plenty of convenience in the notion of arriving 10 minutes before your flight. Also the ability to change flights is very nice. This service appears to be a hybrid of commercial and subscription service. I believe you will pay for flight changes. CCR airport is quite a ways away from the city of San Francisco, and with a 7am departure time, commercial options out of OAK might be better. Also for flights that arrive into BUR on the private side of the airport, renting a car can be a bit of a challenge (or pricey). Surf Air also services OAK and SQL which are closer to San Francisco, albeit with 8-seater prop planes which fly slower (and flights fill up faster). Interesting option if you’re in East Bay or Napa and need to get to the Valley/North LA.

    1. Agreed! I’m in SF and have a corporate SurfAir account and love the service, though on occasion I’ll get bumped on a flight back from Burbank or Hawthorne if we don’t have a flightpass available. I would much rather fly this service than schlep through the mess that is LAX, even if it adds 30-45 minutes to my commute back to SF proper. Prices are right too.

      Once you taste the private side it’s hard to go back…

  12. Well JetSuite started service yesterday and will begin Las Vegas on Friday, according to the newspaper today which ran a story today. They had a photo of the inside of the airplane taken from a different angle then the one shown here. It does have a overhead space where you would normally see the air vent, call light and the panel for the oxygen masks to drop from, but this is only over the head of the window seat. Anyone on the aisle of the two seat side would have to reach over in front of the window passenger for their mask.

    At the foot of the door stairs they had a little red carpet. Don’t know if they will always use it, but it made for a nice color photo in the paper and an added touch for the local officials attending the launch event I guess…..LOL

    The one thing I don’t like is that red stripe across the top and down the nose. It reminds me when you see workmen spray painting lines on the street where they are going to tear the road apart for a project, or marking something for removal or that something is dangerous since it’s red. But that’s just me.

  13. I think they’re planning to use Atlantic Aviation as their FBO in Burbank. I heard Hertz has a desk there, but it’s not a standard location. Does any one know how Hertz operates here? I believe SurfAir uses Atlantic/Burbank as well–So perhaps someone can provide some information. Much appreciated-Thanks.

    1. Jeff – They aren’t using Atlantic. Atlantic is on the other side of the runways from their hangar 2 which doesn’t look like it was used for anything before.

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