COMMENTARY | Soon after Cristine Kirk joined Malone AirCharter as a staff accountant, she told the owners of the family-owned private jet charter company that she was going to buy the Jacksonville business one day.
That was 11 years ago. In 2017 she was promoted to chief financial officer. Then last year in the midst of a global pandemic, at age 39, Kirk did just that. She purchased the private air transportation company at Jacksonville International Airport.
“At first they were like, “Sure. Sure… but years later when [previous owners] Scott and Mindy [Malone] decided they were ready to retire, periodically they started asking me, “You ready?” she said. “In late 2020 I was finally ready. My family helped me to raise capital.”
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Despite the pandemic that severely impacted the travel industry — one of the hardest-hit sectors — Malone AirCharter is part of a niche in the luxury sector of travel that is thriving at unprecedented levels. While commercial airlines are still recouping lost revenue, private aviation has seen an uptick in activity.
Malone AirCharter celebrates 20 years in business in October and is positioned well in the luxury market with about half of its business coming from the Jacksonville area and the other half from relationships nationwide.
Luxury travel niche
I reached out to Malone AirCharter for two reasons. I started my career covering tourism in Las Vegas. That’s when I learned that every industry has ups and downs when the economy suddenly shifts, but various sectors are affected differently. For instance, high rollers have different experiences than the vast majority of tourists. It doesn’t mean that even thriving industries don’t have similar challenges as other sectors of the market — such as finding resources — but it’s just a different type of challenge.
Also, I’ve always enjoyed talking with intrapreneurs — people who take on innovative projects while working for another company. It’s not surprising that people like Kirk at some point decide to become entrepreneurs. And it’s a reminder that many entrepreneurs start their next chapters after working for other companies, whether it’s a small or large business.
The luxury niche in the industry is totally opposite of the commercial market. While the travel industry was one of the hardest-hit sectors, that wasn’t the case for the luxury travel market. It’s a totally opposite experience to the commercial market.
When airports were desolate for months due to planes flying well below their capacity, Malone AirCharter only suffered for a couple of months. Like most businesses in America, company officials had no idea what was next when suddenly every scheduled flight was suddenly canceled.
Shutdowns and lockdowns impacted all facets of aviation in the early days of the pandemic. Data from industry sources showed that flight schedules were slashed by up to 90% in some cases. But as travel restrictions slowly lifted in the first half of 2021, more and more people decided to get back to traveling and a new group of travelers began choosing private jet flights. They were lured by lifestyle-oriented marketing.
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Kirk said that suddenly people who had never considered booking a private air charter looked into the industry. They’re people — mostly executives — who tended to book first-class plane tickets but never considered booking a private plane until the pandemic hit.
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As countries closed their borders and movements by commercial airlines became restricted, interest in private jet travel grew as a means to safely access places that had become cut off or harder to reach.
Business travel was down initially as more people worked from home, but leisure flights began to fill the gap as people increasingly wanted to find an escape from being locked down — whether it was an in-person meeting or a golf trip. On the whole, the private air travel market didn’t suffer economic losses like commercial airlines.
Competition like never before
Kirk said the company decided to put an extra emphasis on customer service. It’s always been important to the company, but when Malone was suddenly put into a pool of air charter companies grappling for resources that came from a shortage of pilots, planes and even mechanical parts, it was forced to look at ways to best compete.
Gray Mabry, CEO of IVenture Solutions, a technology consulting company, said he’s worked with Malone AirCharter and Kirk, for about a decade and he gets why the company is successful.
He said it’s shortsighted to think it’s because they’re part of a thriving industry. Mabry said it has more to do with the company’s mission of being available to customers 24/7, which includes technology accommodating a customer who decides to take a 3 a.m. flight.
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“They are a very reliant and straightforward business,” Mabry said. “When we got the tech contract with them a decade ago, they made it clear that taking care of customers is the first priority and technology has to be a big part of their business. I think they experienced COVID like anybody else, but they were quick to make changes. … We have some clients who took more than a year to figure out what to do next after the pandemic hit.”
Issues with resources are the biggest challenges faced by private air charter companies. For the first time pilots are in demand like never before, meaning they can command high-priced salaries that small companies like Malone just can’t compete with.
Another challenge is securing aircraft. The business model involves leasing out four planes owned by individuals. The company wants more planes due to the heavy demand, but that’s a huge challenge. In some cases, jets are selling at double the price that they were selling two years ago.
Erik Jones, chief business officer at Malone, said he’s worked at the company for 11 years and has never experienced anything like the last two years.
“There’s a lot of people vying for the same group of pilots, and that hasn’t happened in a very long time,” he said. “Getting resources, from parts to pilots, is our biggest challenge right now. We’re pushing through, but those are our struggles.”
Jones, who has a meteorology degree and a pilot’s license, said he started washing planes at a flight school that was acquired by Malone several years ago, just to meet people working in the industry. He loves it and says there’s never been a better time to be in private air charter business.
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Kirk agrees. Her goal is to continue to build up the company. Aside from dealing with resource challenges, she wants to play a role in freeing people from historical misconceptions that private jet travel is only for the ultra-wealthy. More and more people now view private air travel as a choice among many spending decisions.
“What we try to do is focus on the personal side of the business,” she said. “Attention to detail and customer service is everything in this business.”
Marcia Pledger is the opinion and engagement editor for The Florida Times-Union. She can be reached at [email protected]