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By Thomas Heath,
Speaking of air travel, there is an alternative to putting up with the pat downs, long lines, constant waits, cancellations and the passenger mistreatment you’ve been reading about recently.
But it will probably cost you thousands of dollars per hour.
We’re talking about fractional ownership in private jets.
James Butler is an attorney with a one-man shop in Bethesda called Shaircraft Solutions. Butler, 58, has created an enviable, 20-year niche negotiating contracts on behalf of the one-percenters who can afford to own a piece of a private aircraft. Think Flexjet, NetJets and others.
Butler’s dozens of clients include big-time financiers and sports-team owners; business executives; professional golfers such as Scott Hoch and Bob Tway; retirees; people with two homes; and just plain wealthy individuals who want to smooth out some of the rough edges in their lives.
“It’s a time machine,” Butler said of private air travel. “You can leave in the morning, fly directly to Aspen. Ski all afternoon, ski the next day, and ski the last day until 3 p.m. You can turn a three-day weekend into a five-day vacation compared with commercial travel.”
One couple hired him for a fractional deal just so their dog could fly with them in the cabin.
Private air-travel contracts run can from $1.8 million to tens of millions. But the legal piece is a field inhabited by only a specialized few.
“Most aviation attorneys handle [Federal Aviation Administration] regulations or air-crash litigation,” said Butler, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School. “This really is too small potatoes for them. But on the scale I operate, it’s a nice niche. It scales to the way I want to work.”
But there is plenty of money at stake.
“These are big-dollar deals,” Butler said. “Say you are buying 50 hours on a midsize jet. Fifty hours a year for five years, you can end up spending more than $1 million just to purchase the share. So you own an asset.
“Then, over five years, you pay a monthly fee of over $10,000 a month. Then you pay an hourly operating charge when you are in the plane. That can be from $5,000 to $25,000 an hour.”
Butler helps with the contract in a few ways. He negotiates the deal so the jet providers do not “round up” a 40-minute flight from D.C. to New York into an hour.
“We negotiate so you get billed from wheels up to wheels down, and six minutes on either end for taxiing,” he said. “This is only one example of the many adjustments that we negotiate.”
One interesting part of this exercise was the economics of the private-jet provider. The jet companies are lucky to break even while they fly their customers around the world.
“Running the jets is equipment intensive, labor intensive,” he said. “You have demanding customers and you are subject to things you can’t control, like weather. They try like heck to make money on that end of it, but it’s hard.”
Where they can make their profit, Butler said, is in selling the jet share at the outset and buying back the share at the end of the deal. (Usually, five years.)
Let’s say a provider charges $1 million for a share. Because of its market-buying power, in buying that aircraft, the provider may have only paid the equivalent of $800,000 for that share. Then at the end of the investment, the provider is obligated to repurchase that share at its fair market value. But all too often, providers attempt to offer a buyback price that may be below that.
“Most of my clients don’t have the knowledge and ability to contest the redemption price,” Butler said. “They just say, ‘Forty cents on the dollar is too bad for me.’ What we try to do upfront is to get them the best fair residual value.”
Butler showed me one analysis of a contract from several years ago for 120 hours of private jet service over four years. When the hourly operations, the fuel, the management fee and the deduction for the residual value of the share price of the jet all were calculated, the customer was paying $6,569 per hour.
It’s still a lot less expensive than having a jet that’s all your own, which includes a big purchase price, payments to a management company to run it for you (pilots, hanger storage, maintenance, fuel, et cetera), insurance and taxes.
“We did a deal with a company that had several jets,” he said, “and decided that rather than maintain a flight department and pilots and infrastructure, they would sell their jets and go into fractional.”
Butler grew up in the Washington area, the son of successful parents. His dad is a real estate developer and his mom is an artist.
He attended Colorado College, then earned a master’s degree in government from the London School of Economics before graduating from law school in 1985.
After clerking for a federal judge and then handling various business transactions at Arnold & Porter, he wanted out of the 24/7 path of corporate law.
Like most small-business owners, he was willing to take a risk for the sake of independence.
“I wanted my future in my own hands,” he said. “I figured if I worked as hard for myself as I was working for the law firm, that I could make a decent living. When I did the math, I thought it added up. The benefit is I could see my kids grow up, coach them, raise my family.”
So in the early 1990s, he hung out his shingle. Real estate and business deals came his way. After a few years, his connections with local sports agents brought some inquiries from professional golfers who needed an attorney to help them navigate the customer end of fractional jet ownership, which was growing in popularity.
“My first client, professional golfer Scott Hoch, came to me in 1997 through a referral from a sports agency that was a client of my law practice,” he said. “Scott was investigating a newfangled way to fly privately, called fractional.”
Fractional jets are perfect for professional golfers.
“Unlike other athletes, they don’t travel on a team plane,” Butler said. “They have to find their own transportation to tournaments and back. They need reliable service so they get to where they need to be.”
Butler researched the topic for a year and that concluded it was a growth business in which an attorney with expertise could ride its arc upward. He eventually launched Shaircraft Solutions, combining legal and aviation expertise and solely representing private fliers.
Like any job, it can be stressful. Take the family celebrating its father’s 70th birthday with a cruise out of Mexico.
They booked “commercial, but the airline canceled the flight and the cruise ship was going to leave whether they got there or not,” Butler said. “In the course of a couple of hours on a Sunday morning, we booked them a last-minute charter and they made the sailing.”
Then there is the attorney who faced commercial delays followed by an arduous red-eye flight from Los Angeles to D.C., only to grab baby poop in a soiled diaper when he dipped his hand into the seat pouch in front of him.
The attorney called Butler the next day, saying that he would never fly commercial again.
Butler likes his niche. He invents his work schedule, lives with his schoolteacher wife in Bethesda, a short drive from the office, and has helped raise their two now-grown children — all while being his own boss.
He earns a comfortable, six-figure income, but is it enough to fly private aircraft?
His answer: “Not unless somebody takes me on their jet.”