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How Billionaires Evacuate When Hurricanes Hit

NetJets, the fractional jet company and Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary, whisked well-heeled Floridians out of harm’s way when Irma struck.

  • Amanda Cantrell

As hordes of ordinary Floridians piled into their cars and endured hours-long traffic jams — or crowded onto overbooked and overpriced commercial flights — to escape the wrath of Hurricane Irma last month, some of their well-heeled neighbors took advantage of their NetJets subscriptions.

Between September 5 and 11, NetJets, which leases private jets to wealthy individuals and businesses, had 478 flights in and out of Florida, a 250 percent increase from the average for that period over the past six years. On Tuesday, September 5, the company took 170 bookings for September 7, setting a single-day record. And that was soon after the historic solar eclipse on August 21, when the company launched 504 flights to assist travel to the path of totality. “It’s been a good test of our ability to accommodate all of our owners at the last minute,” says Kristyn Wilson, a spokeswoman for NetJets.

Of course, accommodating those owners at the last minute is NetJets’ raison d’être. The company began in 1964 as Executive Jet Aviation, a private jet and charter management provider, but changed its business model in 1986 to what it calls a “fractional ownership model.” In practice, a NetJets subscription works just like a time share: Each aircraft has multiple owners — 11 on average — who share use of the plane. It’s an appealing concept for people who are rich enough to forgo commercial air travel but still thrifty enough to keep from splurging on a private plane.

Take Warren Buffett, who bought his first ownership share in 1995. (Evidently, he was pleased with the service: Today, NetJets is a fully owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway.) Since then many others have followed Buffett’s lead; NetJets now operates more than 700 aircraft, including 430 in the U.S., making it the fifth-largest airline in the world, according to Wilson.

She notes that although the week of Irma was chaotic, NetJets was prepared, thanks to its in-house meteorology department and a “war room” where employees responsible for different segments of the business could huddle up and work out issues as a team. The company is accustomed to peak-demand times, such as holidays and vacation periods, so a sudden uptick in activity wasn’t entirely out of the realm of normal. But the hurricane added an extra dimension of drama.

“Of course, there is a heightened sense of urgency when dealing with natural disasters,” says Wilson. “It’s a matter of staying calm, looking at options, and placing safety over service.”

She says NetJets’ clients were happy to help, with several who were not affected by the hurricane voluntarily moving around their schedules so that planes could be freed up for people who needed to evacuate. “We saw some remarkable activity where our owners did everything they could to make sure our flights were fully occupied,” notes Wilson. “In a time of crisis, in the NetJets community, everyone came together.”

That community doesn’t come cheap, however. With top-shelf perks like menus curated by Michelin Star–wielding Spanish chef José Andrés and an annual Super Bowl party where clients can mingle with fooball legends, NetJets “charges a premium worthy of the investment,” according to the company’s press materials.

Though Wilson won’t say how much that premium is, the press materials gently suggest that “NetJets isn’t a solution for all travelers.” (In other words, if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.) For a lucky few last month, however, it was a premium solution to a common problem: getting out of the way of Mother Nature.