AINsight: Millennials' Shared Use Is a Real Deal

NAFA member, David G. Mayer, Partner at Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton, LLP, discusses millennials, shared use, and private jet travel.

Millennials—those ranging in age from 21 to 37 years old this year—have discovered the private jet travel experience, and they like it. With unique attributes, this generation seems broadly interested in on-demand chartering, sharing flights with friends and, to a lesser extent, owning jets and other types of private aircraft—always on their terms.

Also known as “Gen Y,” Millennials seem to enjoy private aircraft travel “experiences” at an acceptable cost with emphasis on safety, freedom, personalization, efficiency, speed, privacy, customization, and transparency—all couched in a high level of service and luxury. They also crave digital connectivity, mobility, and flexibility to travel when and where they want, preferably arranging private flights on mobile devices.

Their perception of the benefits of business aviation includes accessibility of aircraft on-demand, the ability of aircraft to save time, and the efficiency of aircraft travel to increase their work productivity.

Finally, Millennials care deeply about climate change and social causes. They might prefer aircraft operators that demonstrate their environmental responsibility. In fact, the business aviation community has long been committed to mitigating climate change, proven in part by the formation of a broad industry coalition that emphasizes developing and using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

As a generation of roughly 73 million adults, Millennials often have high ambitions. Their top aspiration and priority in 2019, according to Deloitte, is to travel and see the world (57 percent). But their needs and wants are far more than aspirational. Some Millennials have, and others in the foreseeable future may earn or inherit, more than enough money to travel by private aircraft amid their peers who, by one report, now make up nearly half of the world’s super-wealthy, including Millennial billionaires.

Indeed, Millennials already seem to be altering the business aviation industry by transforming a business aircraft from a product for purchase into a tool for transportation services in their “click and ride” world.

VIABLE STEPS FOR MILLENNIALS TO ACCESS PRIVATE AIRCRAFT

What, then, is the right generational, practical, and legal path forward in business aviation to meet the needs and wants of Gen Y? Setting aside the critical issue of selecting the right aircraft for use or purchase, let’s consider two high-level access and legal structures for Millennials to buy, use and share private aircraft along with the corresponding obligations, risks, and benefits.

First, Millennials can decide, and currently seem to prefer, to experience private aviation travel without commitment to, or investment in, aircraft. They simply prefer to click and ride. Second, Millennials can elect to own or lease a fractional share of an aircraft or a whole aircraft.

Regardless of what Millennials choose, private aviation is highly regulated. The FAA oversees the safety of U.S.-registered aircraft operations under the FARs, including Part 91 private flights and Part 135 charter.

Further, now—perhaps more than ever—the FAA is looking for, and potentially taking enforcement actions against, operational and other violations of the FARs. Even with this FAA presence in mind, Millennials can still share ownership or use of aircraft with others or go it alone—as long as they properly structure their arrangements under the FARs.

The following two use and ownership options work under the FARs:

• Use only with no ownership commitment—click and ride. Many Part 135 operators do and increasingly will offer charter-based services such as on-demand charter flights (like renting a car), jet cards (types of pre-paid flight debit cards), block charter programs (package of charter flight hours), club or member programs (reduced flight costs for up-front fees). With myriad choices available, Millennials can select flights by criteria that meet their personal life values, economics and travel preferences, including aircraft type, flight sharing, transparency, connectivity, and privacy.

Although many of the services might be easy and simple for Millennials to use, it is imperative that Millennials do not trade their safety just to pay lower charter fees offered by flying with illegal charter operators. Millennials should do their diligence to identify and steer clear of such legal and personal risks.

• Own or lease specific aircraft. Properly structured, Millennials, solo or in a group, can take a deeper commitment in accessing private aircraft by leasing or owning an aircraft. Ownership, of course, requires a capital investment in an aircraft unlike the click-and-ride model, which has no ownership component. Banks may want to lend part or all of the purchase price to Millennials or buy and lease the aircraft to them, which frees up cash for Millennial to deploy in other ventures or equities.

Within the option to buy or lease aircraft, Millennials can buy and finance or lease a fraction or whole private aircraft. Although a large number of financiers compete to finance or lease whole aircraft, relatively few lenders or lessors finance fractional shares.

Fractional share programs, regulated under Part 91K, offer one good way to dip a toe into the water of aircraft ownership. Fractional shareowners buy and use a certain number of flight hours associated with owning or leasing as little as a one-sixteenth share of an aircraft.  This type of purchase might appeal to Millennials who decide to change their interests from click-and-ride offerings to ownership in an aircraft fleet that, for example, uses newer engines and fuels that minimize an aircraft’s carbon footprint, has an outstanding safety record, or has better connectivity features on the ground and aloft.

The next step up in commitment is to buy or lease a whole private aircraft instead of a fraction of one. A Millennial might be able to locate and buy an aircraft that adequately meets his or her personal life values and needs, including size, customization, privacy, and technology. Whole aircraft purchases start to make sense when flying at least 200 hours per year. Before then, click-and-ride or fractional programs might work better economically.

FARS NEVER FAR AWAY

If Millennials need or want to share ownership or leasing of an aircraft jointly with others, they can legally structure such sharing under the FARs. However, being an owner and an operator might not be the same thing, and a joint operator (either as a joint owner or a joint lessee) under Part 91 can be tricky. For example, as a general rule, no cost-sharing, reimbursements, or other compensation in any form can be conveyed to any operator or owner for any Part 91 flight, other than under very limited circumstances.

In many situations, receipt of compensation by the operator will convert the Part 91 flight into an illegal charter. However, if correctly structured, Part 91 will allow Millennials to enter into certain joint ownership and leasing arrangements that Millennials can use to accomplish their objectives.

In contrast, under a bona fide Part 135 flight operation, Millennials can devise their own cost-sharing arrangements under appropriate agreements with much greater flexibility, typically at a higher cost than Part 91 flights.

Millennials today and in the foreseeable future will have the financial means to use or acquire personal aircraft. Only time will tell whether Gen Y prefers to fly private aircraft as a service free of the ownership risks or lean into the world of aircraft ownership or leasing, alone and with friends, to fulfill life experiences and work objectives. No matter which way Millennials go, the FARs will be right there with them.

This article was originally published in AINonline on September 13, 2019.