Eric Schwartz, CEO of private charter Atavis Jet in Manhattan, is the kind of entrepreneur who will do anything for his clients. He has played the last-minute role of flight attendant, plating food and refreshing beverages for a group of travelers flying from Istanbul to Albuquerque. He once picked up a dozen pies from one of New York’s most celebrated pizzerias to make sure they made it onboard for clients en route from Dubai to Atlanta. He uses layovers in Anchorage, a refueling stop on the way to Beijing, as an opportunity to load up on freshly smoked salmon for his passengers.
Photo: Erik Simonsen
Schwartz is only 27, which seems young for the big-shot business of private jet charters. He grew up near Washington, D.C., moved to New York City to attend Sarah Lawrence and worked for a brief stint in the VIP department at Cirque de Soleil. “When the King of Sweden was in Chicago and decided he wanted to fly in that night to see the show, I would get that phone call,” he says. “I thought it was fun.”
He eventually settled on a marriage of his love of hospitality and child-like appreciation for flying. Schwartz started Atavis Jet almost two years ago and he’s rapidly expanding his network. Most of his client base is currently American, though he has the capacity to fly between any two destinations. But he’s courting European and Asian clients as he works his way around the world.
Unlike NetJets, which offers a fractional ownership model, Schwartz doesn’t own or operate any of the aircraft he uses. His business plan depends on layering an elite experience over the pragmatic aspects of private jet travel. “At the end of the day, a Gulfstream is a Gulfstream is a Gulfstream,” says Schwartz. “We assume the role of concierge. You have to get to and from where you’re going, but there’s also that middle portion.”
Atavis offers door-to-door service and advance ground crew —“ambassadors” — to escort clients through the process to ensure everything is running smoothly. It even offers hotel recommendations from pre-inspected partners. Pricing is all-inclusive, with no fuel surcharges, additional traveler supplements or landing fees.
Schwartz takes particular pride in his food and beverage program. “Traditionally, in private aviation, ‘standard catering’ refers to whatever happens to be in the snack drawer on the airplane,” he says. Atavis offers a range of custom food choices. For example, a family chartering a jet in New York City for a daytrip to Washington, D.C., leaving in the early morning and returning late afternoon, can expect a breakfast of bagels and lox with fresh-squeezed orange juice on the way there, and full high tea or a charcuterie spread with wine on the way home. (The cost for that particular jaunt is about $10,000.) For longer flights, multi-course meals have white-linen service.
It all sounds good, but how does the pricing structure compare with flying commercial? Schwartz acknowledges that the cost of private charter doesn’t always make sense. If you’re sending just one executive to Los Angeles from New York, commercial business class is the better way to go price-wise. But he also offers another example: “A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine had to fly with six colleagues to Saskatchewan for a two-hour meeting. It took them three days. They had to fly in the night before and then out the day after. We could have accomplished the same thing in eight hours.”
The focus on efficiency — that time is your most valuable asset — is a big part of the Atavis model. Schwartz wants to offer corporate clients access to an “office in the sky,” where all hours remain billable thanks to privacy, comfort, Internet access and a tailor-made itinerary. Schwartz says his client base boils down to three categories: the corporate traveler; the high-net-worth leisure traveler; and the sports/media/entertainment personality in need of a ride to events like press junkets.
Schwartz doesn’t do conventional advertising. “I’m not interested in democratizing private jet travel,” he says. He would rather whisper in the ears of a few of the right people.
Atavis won’t reveal financials, but Schwartz says business is up from last year and he is expecting another boost in 2013. Atavis is not the only private jet service to declare growth. XOJets, another on-demand charter, said business was up by more than 50% in the first half of 2012 over the same period in 2011. Both NetJets and its major competitor, Flight Options, say they are taking possession of more jets.
Nevertheless, Atavis is run as a lean operation. Schwartz has only one other full-time employee on his payroll. For all other staffing needs, he relies on almost 100 independent contractors. And, by not owning any particular aircraft (a “rapidly depreciating asset”), he can pick the right fit for his clients’ needs.
Neither Schwartz’s growing business, nor his daily brushes with jetsetters, appear to have gone to his head. While trying to get his private jet business off the ground, he still flies commercial – though it’s getting tougher and tougher. “Once you’ve flown on a Gulfstream, it’s very hard to go back,” he says. “But I still love flying so much, even if I’m in a middle seat in coach.”