If you’re used to booking travel with the click of a button or the swipe of an app, it might come as a surprise that the higher up the luxury chain you go, the harder it becomes to do that.
Always dreamed of flying in a private airplane? Usually that means calling a broker – and if you don’t have one on speed dial it can be an intimidating business. You might have to spend thousands on a membership to even get a quote, for starters. You might not know how much you’re splurging, either – private airplane operators can bill clients after the journey if extra fuel was consumed, for example.
But now, the Uber of private aviation has arrived. KinectAir aims to make the skies friendlier to regular people dipping their toe into the world of private planes. On the website, which was founded in 2019 for private air travel in the Pacific Northwest, you could already book a regular on-demand flight. But from December 2023 you can snap up a private aircraft bargain by booking an “empty leg” repositioning flight – all over the US.
And by bargain, they really do mean a (relative) bargain. The site offers quick hops starting at around $111 per person.
“We want to change the way people think about short flights,” says co-CEO Katie Buss, a former pilot in the US military.
“People think it’s only for the Bill Gates and Elon Musks of the world. It’s by no means cheap, but it’s more accessible than most people think. Instead of just going to Delta, we want people to see what flying private would be like … It’s a totally different way of travel.”
She says the company wants to “revolutionize” the private flight market in the same way that Uber did for taxis and Airbnb did for the hotel industry.
Cheaper planes, cheaper flights
The site uses AI-backed software to trawl through private airplane operators, co-CEO Ben Howard told CNN. “We’re letting the software do that sifting through the haystack to make it more accessible and give [customers] a better chance of putting together the trip you actually want,” he said.
And to keep prices down, they’re working with turbo-prop and piston-engine aircraft. Both are cheaper to run than a regular jet, although they fly slower. That difference in speed, however, is less crucial on a flight of under 500 miles, says Howard, who claims, “If you fly a jet to the same location, you’d be paying five times as much and get it done a few minutes faster.”
The way they’re really dropping those flight prices, though, are through the “empty leg” repositioning flights – where the aircraft has already been booked for one journey, and can pick up passengers to take them to its next booked destination.
KinectAir claims that its empty leg offerings come at a discount of up to 75% of a regular private airplane price. Most of the deals are for short-notice booking – from their data over the summer, three quarters of all bookings were made within 72 hours of travel, meaning that the empty legs were generated last-minute, too.
As a pilot herself, Buss says that the company will only add operators that pass their safety ratings.
Cheaper than flying commercial
Some of the prices KinectAir is advertising even beat flying commercial airlines in economy – when talking about last-minute fares.
An empty leg flight this week from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport to Palm Springs was on sale for $698 – or $233 per person on the three-seater aircraft.
The cheapest direct one-way fare CNN could find over the next week from Phoenix to Palm springs was $300, flying from Sky Harbor International on December 14 in economy. That fare includes a free seat assignment but not a checked bag, which would be an extra $30. A first class seat would be $425 one way – nearly double the price of KinectAir’s empty leg.
For $264 you could pick a flight with Sun Country Airlines – but the journey would take 40 hours, with a stopover in Minneapolis.
And of course there’s no long check-in line or TSA when flying private.
Looking at another online broker, the cheapest deal from Phoenix to Palm Springs was $3,198 for a five-seater plane – or $639.60 per person.
Semi-private airline JSX, which operates out of private air terminals but sells individual seats on its aircraft, doesn’t fly that route. However, on a similar-length route from Phoenix to Las Vegas, prices start at $249 per person.
“In many cases, last-minute flights are more expensive per seat on commercial, and that’s not even looking at first class tickets,” says Howard.
“In our case, you’ve got to fill the full aircraft, but if a family of four is flying last minute, this is a really good option. United might charge as much as a private flight.”
The cheapest flight for sale currently is in Sunriver, Oregon, to Aurora, also in Oregon, on December 10, for $333 for a three-seater Diamond DA62 light aircraft – or $111 per person for the 48-minute flight.
The most expensive empty leg is a Spokane, Washington, to Bozeman, Idaho flight on December 13. The eight-person aircraft costs $1,792 for the 71-minute flight – or $224 per person.
There are no membership fees or transaction fees, as many competitors charge.
Wheels Up, for example, charges a minimum $2,995 initiation fee, with a minimum $2,495 membership from year two onwards. NetJets also requires users to be members, as does UberJets. KinectAir’s fees are baked into the price you see. And you can see those prices without handing over your data or scheduling a phonecall, as you do with Wheels Up, NetJets or UberJets.
While usually booking a private airplane means going with an estimate – and receiving the final bill after the flight, once any additional fuel has been calculated – it guarantees the price you’re quoted is the price you pay.
“We understand statistically how likely [additional fuel costs] are to happen, have good weather models, know it’s less expensive to fly one way than the other – so KinectAir absorbs the variability,” says Howard. “We want to make private aviation work more like commercial.”
KinectAir’s closest competitor is Airble, which doesn’t charge membership fees, provides real fares not estimates, and has a “deals” page for empty leg flights. Airble also allows users to reserve a private flight, but mark it as a “shared flight” which opens up seats to be booked by other users, bringing the price per passenger down. The cheapest Phoenix to Palm Springs one-way this week costs $10,740 for eight people, or $1,342.50 per passenger.
Looking to the future
Of course, it’s a potentially contentious move to open a private airplane company as the climate crisis intensifies.
A 2021 study by the environmental nonprofit Transport & Environment found that 1% of people were responsible for half of all global emissions from flying. The private aircraft industry is booming, expanding by 31% between 2005 and 2019. What’s more, 40% of private flights are “ghost flights” – empty of passengers as they reposition for their next pick-up.
Howard says that filling those ghost flights “is a way to make flights more efficient.” He adds that turbo-props and piston planes burn less fuel than traditional jets.
Because private jets tend to make short hops, that makes them less environmentally sustainable – in Europe, for example, there’s an alternative by rail for 80% of the most popular private flight routes, Matteo Mirolo, Transport & Environment’s sustainable aviation policy manager told CNN in 2022. The US is in a different situation as regards public transport, however, with train travel not an easy option in most parts of the country.
But at the time, Mirolo said that because of their smaller size, private jets have the potential to be at the forefront to adapt to new technology as it comes on the market – and Howard says that the platform is also a first step towards preparing for the electric and hybrid planes of the future, which are expected to start with small aircraft.
In the future, the company hopes to start selling single seats, though they say it’ll take some time.
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com