Many would-be air travelers are hesitant to fly on commercial flights during the pandemic out of social-distancing concerns, realizing the risk of sitting for an extended period of time next to someone potentially carrying the virus isn’t worth the risk.
Private-flight carrier AirSmart in North Las Vegas has provided a different option, as its flights are limited to eight passengers — none of whom are strangers. Officials at AirSmart say business is up 20% from this time last year.
“The only bad month we’ve had was when the country literally shut down in March,” said Tommy Suell, AirSmart’s CEO. “That was it, and once things started to open up a bit, people started traveling again.”
A group of six could fly round trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles for about $7,000 — a worthwhile investment to stay safe from the virus, said Marlee Malamut, AirSmart’s sales and marketing coordinator. The company is situated at the North Las Vegas Airport grounds.
AirSmart isn’t the only private-flight company seeing an increase in business.
According to flight tracking company FlightAware, however, business flights — the firm counts business flights as anything other than commercial or cargo trips — have been operating at between 85% and 90% of 2019 numbers since July. By comparison, McCarran International Airport reported a drop in passenger volume of more than 50% in 2020.
“You can be almost completely touchless with a private aircraft as opposed to going through a terminal,” said Ryan Waguespack of the National Air Transportation Association. “Private air travel is not just for the rich and the famous. We’ve got companies flying their engineers and sales teams. Business and private aviation is truly a way to keep the economy moving, and an essential business as it relates to health and safety.”
Many of AirSmart’s new customers formerly flew first class on commercial flights before the onset of COVID-19. Without long lines, wait times and possible unexpected flight schedule changes, the convenience of private air travel makes for a much different experience than commercial air travel.
“Recently, a lot of people have found out about us from word of mouth,” Malamut said. “Las Vegas is a close, inner-circle community. We have a lot of people who have businesses here, and they recommend their friends or clients.”
AirSmart, which has 20 employees and five planes, was started in 2005 by Paul Steelman, a Las Vegas architect and CEO of the Steelman Partners design firm.
Steelman, well-known in the gaming industry for his work on various casino-resort projects, started the company because he liked the convenience of traveling on a “minute’s notice.”
Along with offering chartered flights, AirSmart also grew to offer its own small flight school and aviation maintenance service.
“I guess my real desire was that many Las Vegas businesspeople could expand their businesses to alternate locations or get away from the summer heat in the mountains or the ocean,” Steelman said. “I wanted people to be able to enjoy life to the fullest.”
After getting its first Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprop plane 16 years ago, AirSmart now has four PC-12 planes, along with a Pilatus PC-24 light business jet.
The PC-24 can fly at 45,000 feet and reach speeds around 480 mph. The PC-12 model flies at 30,000 feet and can go about 300 mph.
Each of AirSmart’s planes can comfortably hold eight passengers, along with a pilot and, often, a co-pilot (the company is licensed for single-pilot flights).
The Swiss plane manufacturer’s PC-24 doesn’t come cheap — it costs a little over $11 million off the assembly line.
But customers who frequently fly with the company can buy “fractional ownership” in one of AirSmart’s PC-12 planes, which means they own a piece of the aircraft, similar to how a timeshare property might work. The company sells the packages at one-eighth or one-sixteenth of what a new PC-12 would cost through a five-year contract, giving the customer 24/7 access to AirSmart’s planes and a fixed hourly rate for flights with no blackout restrictions or markups during busy holiday weekends.
AirSmart does business with anyone from casino company executives and well-off retirees to celebrities, but private air travel is within reach for those in many other walks of life, Malamut said.
“These planes are safe and affordable,” Malamut said. “The operating costs are much less than what you’d find for something like a Gulfstream. We can sell fractions and make this work for the average person who can afford private air.”
The Pilatus planes are also able to land on a variety of surfaces, Suell said, including on open grass areas or on dirt.
Though it was canceled because of the pandemic last year, the annual Burning Man event in dusty northwestern Nevada is a popular destination for AirSmart customers.
The company also takes passengers to many business meetings, golf and ski outings, and weekend getaways. Many of its most popular destinations are the West Coast, Malamut said, but the company also flies to the East Coast and to some international destinations like Mexico or Colombia.
At AirSmart, Suell said the company has the potential for more growth in the coming years.
“I think once you get past your first, second and third planes, it can be a rapid growth from there,” Suell said. “You can really take off from that point.”