Odds are that you have never taken a private charter flight. Don’t feel bad—neither have I. But many do on a regular basis; in fact, there are thousands of charter flights that take off across the US every single day. And many of them use the services of Ben Parker and his company JB Jets.
After being guided to try his hand at becoming a broker for charter flights, Ben took his years of experience and launched his own company, JB Jets. Ben and his team of “aviation advisors” help a surprisingly wide range of clients find flights to suit their needs and budget. The charter flights industry is one that most people have heard of but never learn too much about. Interestingly, most people who charter flights also must be educated on the details behind private travel. Ben provided a behind-the-scenes look at the industry and explained that, like many industries that seem glamorous, it all boils down to hard work to make it happen. ~Nesanel
”Growing up, I never thought about the aviation industry and never had a passion for flying at all. I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but moved to Englewood, New Jersey, when I was 13. I went to Ramaz for high school and then went to learn at Reishit in Israel.
“In Memphis, I went to the local Hebrew day school. My family was in the mortgage business, but they sold it to a large bank in the early 2000s. My great-grandfather, after whom I am named, started the business, and almost everyone in my family was involved with it. By the time I would have been old enough to possibly join, the business was already sold. Obviously, it wasn’t meant to be for me, but there are lots of difficulties involved in multigenerational businesses.
“My mother practiced law, but today she is involved in helping the community. She is also a shadchan and has helped make many shidduchim.
“Sadly, my father passed away last year and it has been a very difficult year for me. Having to say Kaddish with a minyan three times a day, especially in the travel business, has its challenges, but of course it is rewarding as well.
“As a kid, I was not entrepreneurial; I was never thinking about money. However, as I got older I knew I needed to do something. As a college student, I started a T-shirt business while at the University of Maryland. I studied general business there and thought I would end up doing something like marketing or running a business. I figured I would be involved in sales in some shape or form, but I had no clear direction or passion I wanted to pursue. The T-shirt business did okay, but I gave it up because I didn’t see much potential, and, to be honest, I didn’t want anything to do with the fashion industry.
“After college, two cousins of mine had an idea for a mobile app and asked me to join. The app was called “Vowch,” where the idea was that you could share, or “vouch” for, some of your favorite things on the app; this was in 2009.
“We did pretty well and amassed hundreds of thousands of users. We got several celebrities on board who “vouched” for some of their favorite things, adding a link for where to buy them, and we would receive a percentage of each sale.
“At a certain point we all foresaw a long road ahead to make this truly profitable. However, it didn’t matter in the end, because we were fortunate to sell the app to a large media conglomerate that liked our technology.
“One of the first investors in our app was famed entrepreneur Jesse Itzler. Jesse started a company called Marquis Jets, a private jet company that was basically a large brokerage company. He would find private jet flights for customers, plus the company owned their own jets, and they would sell hours on those as well. He eventually partnered and then sold to NetJets, Warren Buffet’s company, which owned many more jets of their own. Jesse allowed us to use his offices when we worked on Vowch, and he became a mentor of mine.
“After Vowch, I didn’t really know what to do with my career and went to talk to Jesse. I was interested in the world of aviation based on seeing what he accomplished, so I asked him about it. He told me that he thought I had what it takes to be a broker in this business and pointed me in the right direction, which led me to work at Blue Star Jets as a broker for charter flights.
“At Blue Star, we were a bunch of guys making cold calls to rich people, hustling away, trying to sell $15,000–$20,000 charter flights.
“It was a new and fascinating world to me. Watching people willingly spend thousands of dollars to take a flight that would cost a few hundred dollars if they flew commercial was interesting, to say the least. There was new money and old money using our service—basically, people who have lots of money to spend on something like flying private. There were many corporate clients, and then there were emergencies when people needed to get somewhere quick. Blue Star Jets was purely a brokerage firm that would book flights on other companies’ jets.
“When I started, I had no connections, no relationships within the industry, and no idea what to expect. We had leads, a phone, and the Internet. I went from lead to lead, cold-calling and speaking about offering private charter jets. Many of the leads had wrong numbers, so I would take the time to find the right numbers for the decision makers in these large companies.
“The interesting thing about charter jets is that many people who can afford them have never taken a private flight. They simply have never looked for one and were never approached about the option. Many well-to-do people take their first charter flight only once we explain to them how simple and hassle-free the process is.
“Although I enjoyed working there, I saw the writing on the wall at Blue Jets and left to work at a different company, XOJETS. They had 40 planes of their own, so it was a different conversation when talking to the client. I made the right decision, because Blue Jets went out of business shortly after I left.
“While working at XOJETS I kept thinking that I could open my own business within the industry. There were advantages to having a brokerage company as opposed to owning your own jets. When you own your own jets, every hour that the plane is not being used you are losing revenue. There is also tremendous overhead in running a large-scale business. With a brokerage, you only pay for what you use, and I felt I could offer a healthy work environment while keeping expenses low enough to make money. I decided to open my own company: JB Jets. Besides offering flights, our niche was going to be a full-service concierge type of business. We would arrange the travel plans to and from the plane and secure the clients’ lodging as well as entertainment when the client requested it. And that’s what we did.
“I tried to bring some of my old clients over and several did come, but others preferred to work with a brand-name company. Believe it or not, several years later we are still working to bring some of my older clients on board; they are pretty large accounts.
“I decided early on that I would build the company, not by making more cold calls or pursuing leads by myself, but rather by bringing on a team of industry professionals who have already been exposed to this business. I would hire people like me, and they would bring over many of their clients with them. I call my team members ‘aviation advisers.’
“Through word of mouth and referrals, we slowly built the business with a very nice clientele—clients who brought us repeat business. However, during COVID, our business took an interesting turn. With many parts of the world closed, our company began to focus more strictly on the flight aspect of the business, not about providing things for clients to do once they got to their destination. Additionally, during COVID, wealthy people wanted to get to specific destinations, such as second homes, and they sought any means to get there. COVID exposed the concept of chartering flights to an entire new clientele. For example, one such client is a high-net-worth family of very low-key people. During COVID they used us to get to their second homes in LA from New York. Being low-key people, they had never spent their money on private flights before, but after using our service during COVID, they have become regular clients.
“We have chartered flights ranging from a few hours long to trips from New York to Israel; the minimum for one of our flights is two hours.
“It’s an interesting business, and I always enjoy the process of making all the moving parts work—from the time the clients say yes to the time they get on their flight. It is an exciting experience.”
Can you please describe the process when a potential client calls you?
The first thing is to gather several critical pieces of information. Where is their point of origin and where is their destination? Is it one-way or round trip? How many passengers? Do they prefer a certain type of aircraft?
There are four types of planes we usually offer: a light jet, which holds three or four passengers; a midsize, which can hold about six or seven; supermids, which hold a maximum of nine; and heavy jets, which can hold between ten and 14 people. All prices are per hour, and it makes no difference how many passengers you bring along. Prices range from around $3,500 for a light jet to $10,000 for a heavy jet. The most popular are midsize jets, which are generally a Citation X or a Challenger.
We then ask the clients if there is anything else they want on board, like food. Interestingly, we have several celebrity clients, and you would think they would want high-end, extravagant food, but they don’t. They ask for fast food like burgers or fried chicken. They can spend $10,000 for the flight, but they want $50 fast food; everyone likes comfort food.
When you arrange one-way flights, do you need to book a return flight to make money?
No. Our industry is kind of like a rent-a-car company with branches across the world. We can arrange for the travel of a one-way flight and then leave the plane where we land, kind of like picking up a rental car in one state and dropping it off at another. That’s why we don’t charge less for a round trip than a one-way, because it makes no difference to us. We pay for the use of the plane per hour and charge our clients per hour as well. The only advantage for two-way flights is that, many times, clients want to go somewhere to take care of something quickly, such as to sign documents, and they want to know their plane is waiting to take them home. Charter flights are indeed a different world.
Where do most charter flights fly out of?
Charter flights fly out of main airports as well as many smaller ones. We don’t fly out of large airports like JFK or Newark, because those airports give preference to their commercial flights when it comes to taking off and sometimes you have to wait for a while. In the New York area we fly out of Teterboro, White Plains, Farmingdale and Islip, to name a few. Many of the people who use JB Jets have their own airport preference.
You mentioned that several of your “aviation advisers,” or the people who do the sales and bookings, came from other companies. Why do you think they came to you as opposed to staying put or starting their own company?
Many people are grinders and want to bring in business but don’t want the hassle of managing an entire company and all that it entails. As far as why they come to our company, there are several reasons. Like I mentioned before, the way we structure our business, there is no fear that our employees won’t get paid on time for a lack of funds. Sometimes, with companies with large overhead, it can be a problem. Also, we offer better commissions than most places. I like to think that when employees earn more of what they worked for, they appreciate it and work harder, so it’s a win-win.
Tell me a crazy story involving private flights.
This was before JB Jets, many years ago. Some people booked a flight from Texas to Mexico, and I was involved in the booking. Right before they were about to take off, the Feds showed up, arrested several people and confiscated their luggage.
We do basic background checks on all our flights, but at the end of the day, similar to an airline, there is a limit to how much we know about who books us. Today, as most of our business is word of mouth, it’s not something we worry about too much.
Would you recommend this as a business for someone to go into?
You have to be a go-getter, good on the phone, and capable of handling rejection. It’s a sophisticated type of sale, and it does take some time for business to ramp up, but if someone is motivated, he or she can do pretty well in this business.
You mentioned that most of your clients come from word of mouth. Before we spoke, I looked up your company online. Besides for a few articles on aviation websites, you have almost zero online presence. No website, no social media, nothing. It’s strange and fascinating at the same time. I would love to hear the thought process behind it.
The truth might surprise you, but here it is: there was no thought process. When I first started JB Jets, I had no money for marketing; we were a bootstrap company. I simply hustled on my own and then brought on more aviation professionals who brought along their clients, and we kept on going with our model.
You’re right—we probably should have more out there, but our business doesn’t revolve around impulse decisions. We do have a website, jbjets.com, but we are not really out there. I never thought too much about our online presence, because what we do is working, but perhaps I will put some more out there. Thanks!
Is there also a sense of exclusivity involved in that people feel they are part of something not readily available to the public?
There is something to that as well. Our booking process is very personal. When a client calls us or reaches out, we send them a proposal via email. When they approve, we send them a contract with a method of payment, generally wire or credit card. We secure the full payment on their credit card in advance so there is never an issue with losing money. It’s all very direct and nothing like booking a flight online. I am proud of what we were able to build without working hard on brand awareness.
What I find perhaps difficult about your line of work is that when you reach out to potential clients, 99% of the time they are not in need of a charter flight at the time. You need to remain in their minds for when they do need you.
You are absolutely right; our business is not an impulse-purchase type of sale. In our industry, we believe that you need eight to 12 touches per sale. That means eight to 12 times that one has to contact a potential client until a sale is made. We do have a system in place where we follow up with people.
However, what is unique about this business is that you don’t need hundreds of clients; you can do very well with 25–50 clients who give you constant business.
Obviously, it’s a different world, but what are some reasons that someone would spend $15,000 for a flight that would cost only $500 even in business class?
There are several reasons. First, over 75% of our business is on demand—meaning, people want a trip within the next day or so; they aren’t planned long in advance. You would find it interesting to see us in action as we put together a flight on such short notice.
Most of our clients are corporate, and to them, timing and convenience is everything. When you fly commercially, you can only fly on the airline’s schedule, not yours. Plus, you need to spend at least an hour at the airport before the flight for check-in and security. With a private jet, you can fly when you want and only need to show up about 15 minutes before the flight. Finally, some people just have a lot of money, and this is a luxury they want to spend on.
How do you deal with stress?
Ha. Don’t get me started… I don’t really know. I do feel that when you are stressed it’s important to try to reset, to get yourself back to a point of balance. A l’chaim once in a while helps (laughs).
There must be significant competition in this industry if people can open their own brokerage without owning jets. Is there, and how do you stand out?
There is competition, but, interestingly, most don’t last. The world of private aviation sounds exciting, but at the end of the day, it’s a business where you have to hustle. We have been around for more than five years, and that’s already considered significant staying power.
One of the ways we positioned ourselves for success is that we know whom to target. By the way, what I am about to say applies to anyone who is in business: know whom to target. People think that the targets for this industry are the people flying; that is incorrect. The target audience is the people who actually book the flights—the executive assistants. My goal is to find the ones who book the travel and target them. It can be a letter a few times a year, chocolate or a bottle of wine, but it always boils down to giving them a feeling that they can trust you to deliver and make them look good. In today’s hectic world, people want to give over a job and be done with it. That is how we look at the world of charter flights—tell us what you need and leave it to us.
I think that whatever business you are in, figuring out a way to alleviate your clients’ stress is your best selling point. ●
To book a private flight with JB Jets contact: [email protected]
Thank you to Dalia Maidi, Ami’s editorial coordinator, for the introduction. ~Nesanel