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How To Use “Empty Legs” To Fly Private for Much Cheaper [7 Tips]

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Stephen Au
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Stephen Au

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Stephen is an established voice in the credit card space, with over 70 to his name. His work has been in publications like The Washington Post, and his Au Points and Awards Consulting Services is used...
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Flying private is one of the most lavish ways to travel around the world — and for those who have been blessed with the rare opportunity to try out private aviation, you’re probably somewhat conflicted.

On one hand, it was probably the most incredible logistical experience you’ve taken part in, whether it’s having the entire plane to yourself or taking off 5 minutes after you arrive at the hangar.

On another hand, it’s probably such a big financial commitment that you’re second-guessing flying private every single time even in light of how amazing your experiences are.

So in this guide, we’ll show you how you to maintain your fancy private jet flying habits without breaking the bank too much. We’ll walk you through the concept of an empty leg, how they are different from traditional charters, and the best tips to save loads of cash on flying private.

What Is an Empty Leg?

The world of private aviation is totally different from the commercial aviation world you’re used to.

With the way flight and operations planning works in private aviation, there are many times in which a private jet is flown completely empty.  These are known as empty legs.

Empty legs are also known as repositioning flights or deadheads.

On the flip side, most people who book a private jet flight do so on a “charter” basis, which is essentially renting out the private jet to fly wherever you want and whenever you want.

How Empty Legs Are Different From Charters

Empty legs are arguably the best way to enjoy a private jet experience without ponying up the entire cost of a charter. Empty legs usually cost 50% to 90% less than a charter, which is enormous when you think about charters costing anywhere from $6,000 to $20,000 per flight hour.

For example, instead of paying $15,000 for a private jet charter between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, an empty leg can cost a fraction of that, as little as $5,000. That being said, pulling off an empty leg is much easier said than done. Because empty legs are flown specifically to reposition the jet to pick up a charter passenger (who is paying full price), you’ll need to follow the schedule of the charter passenger after you.

Unfortunately, empty legs are extremely prone to schedule changes and cancellations due to being at the beck and call of the charter passenger’s plans. Those who fly private operate on notoriously last-minute schedules, so your empty leg might be canceled and replaced with someone else who paid full price for a charter on a last-minute flight.

In light of the mind-boggling costs associated with operating a private jet aircraft, charter operators would rather sell an empty leg flight to at least recuperate some of the operating expenses instead of having the plane fly completely empty. With the right empty leg customer, this becomes a win-win situation.

In the rest of this guide, we’ll show you how you can use this knowledge to fly private for much cheaper.

Hot Tip: We’ve put together an article detailing the best credit cards to use to book private jet travel once you’re ready to book!

The 7 Best Tips You Need To Know To Fly Private for Much Cheaper

Private jet interior
Image Credit: James Heming via Adobe Stock

1. Plan Last-minute and Have a Back-up Plan

To make the most of empty leg flights, you’ll ideally want to book empty leg flights at most a week before departure. Most commonly, it’s best to book just a couple of days before departure (and sometimes same-day departures).

The reason why this is an important principle is that empty legs are much less likely to get canceled the closer you get to the departure date. For example, if you attempt to book an empty leg a month before departure, it’ll probably end up getting canceled the vast majority of the time. In contrast, if you book an empty leg on the same day as the departure date, there’s a good chance that your flight will operate as planned.

One of the biggest mistakes is planning an empty leg a month before departure and booking thousands of dollars worth of hotels and activities, only to find out that your flight was canceled. To counteract this, it’s always best to have a backup plan beyond the empty leg flight.

For example, if you’re flying from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and plan on booking an empty leg, you might be willing to either drive or fly on an empty leg to get to Las Vegas. If your empty leg is canceled or if there are no empty legs available, you can still drive to Las Vegas without calling off your trip entirely.

In another example, let’s say you plan to fly from New York to Miami on an empty leg. You could book an award ticket using miles as a backup flight while waiting for an empty leg flight. If your empty leg is confirmed, you can cancel your award ticket and get a full refund of your miles and any taxes or fees you paid.

Hot Tip: Empty legs are always booked as one-way tickets. If you have the privilege of booking an empty leg, remember that you’ll need to find your way back home, too.

2. Be Flexible in the Plane Type

Whether you book a charter or empty leg, you’ll always know the type of plane you’re flying in advance.

Many travelers who charter private jets are particular about which type of plane they want. As a result, they may end up paying higher prices in the long run.

To get the best deals all the time, it’s best to be aircraft-agnostic. That being said, an area where you should not compromise on is the safety rating.

In general, there are 3 types of safety ratings:

  • ARGUS
  • WYVERN
  • IS-BAO

These organizations certify the safety rating of the aircraft, and you should pay close attention to your aircraft’s safety rating.

Other than that, the more open-minded you are in a specific plane type (do you really need 12 seats if you’re only flying with 4 other people?), the more successful you’ll be at getting great deals.

3. Be Willing To Fly To/From Different Airports

One of the most common mistakes that first-time private jet flyers make is trying to look for flights out of common commercial airports instead of fixed-based operators (FBOs).

For example, if you live in New York City, you’ll need to know that the lion’s share of private jet flights depart from Teterboro (KTEB), not Newark (EWR), New York-Kennedy (JFK), or LaGuardia (LGA). Similarly, almost all private jet flights in the Miami area depart from Opa-Locka Executive Airport (KOPF) instead of Miami (MIA) or Fort Lauderdale (FLL). And to drive the point home, almost all private jet flights from the Los Angeles area depart from Van Nuys (KVNY), not LAX.

It’s technically possible to charter a private jet flight to depart from Miami (MIA) instead of Opa-Locka (KOPF), but it’ll probably cost at least another $10,000 in landing fees. For most people, that’s definitely not worth it.

Another concept you’ll need to keep in the back of your mind is that as an empty leg passenger, your plans are predicated on the charter passenger after you.

Let’s say you booked an empty leg flight from Van Nuys (KVNY) to Las Vegas (KLAS), and the next charter passenger after you booked a flight from Las Vegas (KLAS) to Orange County (KSNA). If the charter passenger changes their origin airport from Las Vegas (KLAS) to Henderson (KHND), you’ll need to be willing to fly into Henderson or risk getting your empty leg flight canceled.

4. Set Expectations for Yourself and Know the Landscape

Even if you book an empty leg flight, the price you’ll pay will rarely be cheaper than flying commercial. Full stop. It’s important to set expectations to avoid any nasty surprises.

For example, if you want to book a transcontinental empty leg flight from Los Angeles to Teterboro, you’ll still need to pay around $25,000 to $30,000 for a flight on a heavy jet like the Gulfstream G-V. With a capacity of around 16 seats, that comes out to around $2,000 per seat, which is still more expensive than a business class flight. Normally, a charter like this would be in the ballpark of $50,000 to $60,000, so you’d expect to save 50% off of the charter cost by booking an empty leg.

As another example, if you were to book an empty leg from Los Angeles to Los Cabos on a Gulfstream G-IV with 14 seats, that price would start at $20,000. That comes out to around $1,400 per seat, which is still significantly more expensive than a business class ticket.

Although these prices are often negotiable, the likelihood that you’ll save more than 50% off of the charter cost for regional flights is very slim, especially in an environment with high fuel prices.

By knowing popular routings and operations, you can equip yourself with more knowledge to be successful.

Many of the U.S.’s private jets are based in Van Nuys (KVNY), which makes it much easier to find empty legs there as opposed to other airports like San Antonio (KSAT) or Fort Collins (KFNL). So if you strategically focus on looking for empty leg flights in private jet hubs, you can often find better availability and better deals.

Lastly, knowing the specifics of a jet’s onward plans can be extremely valuable. For example, if you found an empty leg flight, you may have greater negotiation power if you know whether this flight is a “must-move” or “transient” flight.

A must-move empty leg is one in which there’s a near certainty that the charter operator will need to pick up a charter passenger. For example, if you’re flying on an empty leg from Los Angeles to Oahu and the operator is picking up a passenger in Oahu right after that to return to Los Angeles, your empty leg flight is a “must-move.” In this instance, you have greater negotiation power to get better deals since the jet must pick up the charter passenger.

A transient empty leg refers to one in which the aircraft is returning to its home base due to being temporarily repositioned from another flight or for maintenance. In this case, you have less negotiation power because the operator is not picking up a charter passenger en route to the destination.

The private jet industry is incredibly complex, and any additional information you can glean from the broker or operator will end up benefiting you in the long run.

5. Cautiously Build Relationships

Handshake at airport
Image Credit: bongkarn via Adobe Stock

Despite many companies offering private jet flights through mobile apps or online websites like Wheels Up, XO, VistaJet, and Jettly, the private aviation business is still predominantly built on relationships. Unfortunately, this industry dramatically favors the broker and operator due to the information asymmetry present.

Most newcomers to private aviation are unaware of the inner workings of the industry and end up paying massive commissions to brokers and operators without knowing it. This industry has a reputation for being extremely sleazy, but there are also a lot of honest businesspeople who focus on win-win situations.

One of the best pieces of advice we can offer is to locate operators and brokers in your local airport and build relationships. For example, if you are based in the Miami area, a quick Google search of “Opa Locka jet charter broker” will yield results including Craft Charter, Executive Air Services, My Jet Saver, Noble Air Charter, and STAjets Miami.

From there, you can reach out to them for a list of empty legs (or request that they add you to their email list for empty leg flights). After that’s done, you can contact them directly whenever you are looking for an empty-leg flight. Negotiations are done directly between yourself and the charter broker or operator.

Remember, though, that the relationship is bi-directional. If you waste a broker’s time or are a flaky individual that’s difficult to work with, they will remember … and they might bake in higher commissions for you the next time you ask for a quote.

6. Membership Programs for Discounted Empty Legs and Charters

Several companies offer annual memberships whereby you can book heavily discounted empty legs and charters; some examples include Wheels Up, XO, and FlyEasy.

For example, if you join Wheels Up Connect, which comes with a one-time initiation fee and an annual fee, you can join Shared Flights (semi-private), book charters via the mobile app, and access up to 4 empty leg flights every year at the fraction of the cost for the entire aircraft.

These flights, though also subject to frequent cancellations, are priced as low as $320 per flight.

Currently, The Platinum Card® from American Express is partnered with Wheels Up as part of its American Express Premium Private Jet Program to offer discounts and flight credits (based on your selected membership), which could be extremely useful if you’re looking to join a private jet membership anyway!

Hot Tip: Exercise caution when looking for empty legs online. If the price is already displayed, these empty leg flights may already have huge commissions baked into the price.

7. Consider Flying Semi-Private Instead of Private

Semi-private flights are growing tremendously in today’s day and age.

On specific short-haul flights, companies like JSX, Aero, BLADE, and Boutique Air all offer you the ability to experience private jet logistics on scheduled flights (not charters or empty legs) at a tiny fraction of the cost.

In fact, JSX flights can run as low as $149 one-way. But to be clear, the JSX experience is essentially the same as flying commercial except without TSA security lines or crowded airport terminals.

So if you dread long security lines and being forced to show up to your flight an hour before departure, semi-private flights could be a great compromise for you.

When you fly semi-private, you can usually show up 15 minutes before departure to catch your flight, which offers great time savings.

You’ll still share your flight with other travelers and passengers, but you’ll also save a ton of money by choosing to fly semi-private.

Bottom Line: Flying semi-private could make way more sense for your situation than paying a small fortune to fly on a truly private experience. Here are our best ways to fly private or semi-private!

Final Thoughts

All in all, flying private using empty legs is a lot harder than it was before. With the increased appeal of private aviation and growth in the number of wealthy individuals in the U.S., it’s much harder, nowadays, to get great deals on empty legs. This is also compounded by the fact that we’re in a high fuel price environment.

Still, there are many ways you can tip the scales in your favor, and many of them are actually in equipping yourself with the education necessary to succeed at finding empty legs. The private aviation industry is still run on relationships, and starting to build those relationships earlier can only benefit you in the long run.

Hopefully, you found this guide useful in learning how to use empty legs to fly private for cheaper!

For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, click here.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much are empty leg private jets?

Empty leg flights can be as much as 90% discounted off of the charter price. Empty legs from Los Angeles to Las Vegas usually cost around $5,000 to $6,000, while empty legs from New York to Miami usually cost around $15,000 to $20,000.

How do empty leg flights work?

An empty leg flight is a flight that is scheduled to fly with no passengers, usually to reposition for a charter or for maintenance.

How much is a 1-hour private jet?

It depends on the aircraft type. If you book a basic aircraft with only 4 seats, it can be around $1,000 to $2,000 per hour. If you book a heavy jet or business jet, it could be as much as $15,000 per hour.

How do you buy an empty flight?

You can buy an empty leg flight through a mobile app, online website, or over the phone. It just depends on which company you use.

How do empty leg flights work?

Empty leg flights are scheduled to pick up a charter passenger from another destination. By repositioning the jet, operators can earn incremental revenue by selling empty leg flights to passengers who are looking to travel on the same route anyway.

These flights are usually anywhere from 50% to 90% cheaper than charter flights.

Do you get the same experience on an empty leg as a charter?

In general, no. The service is generally limited to basic soft drinks and snacks, which is not as impressive as a private jet charter.

Stephen Au's image

About Stephen Au

Stephen is an established voice in the credit card space, with over 70 to his name. His work has been in publications like The Washington Post, and his Au Points and Awards Consulting Services is used by hundreds of clients.

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