Understanding Empty Legs Pricing and Availability

by Richard Zaher / Dec 05, 2011

Private Jet Empty Leg

The private jet charter industry had undergone a number of changes in the last decade, from newer, faster aircraft, to dealing with one economic downturn after another. During the Holiday Season, one of the changes that have truly changed the face of this industry is the prevalence and preference for empty leg/one-way flights. At one time, the industry was dominated by round trips. When you booked a jet, you paid for the trip down and the trip back. If you stayed in Palm Beach longer than the operators “minimums” allowed, you had to pay for the two round trips.

Then in a brilliant marketing effort, operators and brokers began to capitalize on these empty return legs. Suddenly, trips cost half of what they used to. Passengers began to see that if they were smart and flexible with their travel, they could fly for a fraction of the traditional charter jet prices. Ten years later, and it is now the norm. Savvy travelers have come to expect flights to cost just the hourly rate for their one-way trip. Fringe clientele that could only afford to fly but once a year in the past, were now able to do a number of trips. However, as this new way of flying has taken hold, it has also spilled over, and created a buzz. There is confusion in terminology that is built on by a lot of industry talk and more marketing. What is an empty leg? What is a one-way flight? How much do they really cost? When and where can you find them?

Although these terms are used synonymously in our industry, they really are two different things. A light jet traveling from the New York Area to the Miami Area is going to fly 2.5 hours. A light jet average hourly cost is about $2500 per hour, so by hourly rates, this trip is $6,250. If this aircraft was taking off out of HPN and landing in FLL to pick up its passengers, then there are no added landing fees, and unless the operator has a fuel surcharge, it stands to reason that this would be the price. This is an empty leg. Traveling from the point the aircraft originates to the point the aircraft is destined for and paying only the hourly rate for that aircraft (plus tax and a commission for the hard-working broker that hunted that down for you!!). As can be imagined, these empty leg flights are not so common that you can just pick up tomorrow afternoon and grab one going to wherever you may be going. They are a gem that can only be found with hard work and a lot of luck.

This brings us to the definition of a one-way flight. A one-way flight is simply when you don’t have to pay for the aircraft’s return home. This means you DO pay for the positioning leg from the aircraft home base, and any positioning on the other end to get to where they have their next flight. You DO pay for landing fees at your pickup airport, your destination airport, and sometimes the final destination of that aircraft. Sometimes, an operator will take a risk, or gamble and give a client a one-way price, believing they can sell the return. On these trips the operator often adds in a logical positioning leg, say from OPF up to PBI to make sure they can pick up another flight without losing money. They also add a little bit to cover the aircraft parking for a few days, just in case it takes some time to pick up that return trip. All said and done, the 6250 may have a total of an hour of positioning, ie ISP to TEB to pick up and then OPF to PBI for the next trip. Then add $500 per landing give or take a few hundred. A few overnight fees of $500 and now we are up to about $11000 for the one-way flight.

How does that differ from a same-day round trip? A same-day round trip will have 5 hours of flying at $12500, plus landing fees, and fuel surcharges will put the trip at an average of $15,000. So we see that the one-way is certainly a savings over the round trip, and the empty leg is certainly a great deal. The one-way can be tailored to come closer to the empty leg price if the passenger is willing to be flexible and do some legwork. If the aircraft is originating in Morristown, and the client is closer to White Plains, then there will be a little bit of a drive to get there, but the payoff will be most likely a thousand dollars or so. You also need a broker that knows how to read an operators quote, and what to ask them to shed for the flight. If your broker is a novice, they will also most likely be a pushover when the operator stands firm on their price. The other end of the spectrum is that the broker gets pushy with the operator, making them feel beat up because they keep asking for a lower price, but with no logic behind their request. Paramount Business Jets sales staff is highly trained in this area, and very respected by operators as a solid, knowledgeable broker that won’t make pushy requests.

With this firm distinction between an empty leg, and a one-way price, we often have clients call in looking for something lower. There have been a number of articles published that talk of people showing up to an FBO and finding a jet heading their way, and getting on for just a few hundred, to a few thousand dollars. Though I am sure it has happened, I doubt it happens often. But we do see outstanding offers, like an east coast empty leg on a Gulfstream for $7000, or a Falcon 50EX for $5000. These are called “fire sales”. They happen within 24 hours of the flight date, when an aircraft owner has a planned trip and needs his aircraft in position. At this point, he is willing to get whatever someone will pay to cover that expense. He is going to fly anyway, it’s already paid for, and he just wants to cover some of that cost. It’s a great find, and believe me, your broker’s heart started beating 3 times as fast when he saw the price. If you’re lucky you have an honest broker that did not double the price when he tried to sell it to you! If you have a Paramount broker, you got an honest price.

One-way/empty leg pricing does not occur all over the country, or all over the world. It happens on very distinct routes, almost like scheduled commercial flights. However, if you know these routes, you can often use them to help cut down the price of your out of the way destination. The normal routes are New York to South Florida and back, New York to LA and back, South Florida to LA and back, and a little less common are flights to Chicago, and other corporate jet hubs like Dallas, Phoenix, and Cleveland. There are also international one-ways, but they are almost exclusively limited to East Coast US to Western Europe. Inter Europe one-way/empty legs are a completely different market, and there is a strong flow of one-ways to and from Moscow, and the Arabian Peninsula. The information to take away from this is where does your destination lay in regards to these routings? Are you coming out of Pennsylvania to Sante Fe, NM? Then a New York to LA one-way will work well for you. If you are going to Seattle, you will need to pay that positioning leg down to LA. You simply have to consider how your flight lays out on the normal traffic routes of corporate jets. And with a little luck, a true empty will fit right in with your trip!

If you understand the terminology, you will better understand how to manage your flight, and look for these three types of cost-saving trips. There are many operators that specialize in floating fleets and offer one-way pricing for every flight. If you are flying a normal route, you can expect to find the trip at cost, but don’t assume you will find a fire sale. Work with your broker, push hard if you feel there is a better deal to be had, but understand the costs, and have your broker discuss them with you.

  • Check empty leg availability here.

About Richard Zaher

Richard Zaher Richard Zaher is the founder and CEO of Paramount Business Jets. He is a pilot and the President of Air Charter Association of North America (ACANA). Richard is a graduate of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) with a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Studies. A seasoned international jet charter expert, entrepreneur, humanitarian, and the recipient of the Embry Riddle Eagle Excellence Award at the 2012 National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) convention. He is also an active member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) as well as several safety and air charter organizations.

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