Photo contributed This is one of 14 planes in the JetsPlus fleet, with another on the way for the Fresno-based charter service.
Written by Frank Lopez
The Central Valley’s strategic location in the middle of the Golden State has advantages for many industries, and even across the skies.
JetsPlus is a Federal Aviation Administration-approved air charter service that can fly customers worldwide in high-performance jet aircraft.
Started in Fresno in 1992, the company can offer worldwide trips in one of its many premium private jets.
Gene Sullivan, president and founder of JetsPlus, has been flying since his late teens. He followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a U.S. Air Force pilot for nearly 30 years.
After contracting for several local charter companies, by 1986 Sullivan began selling aircraft and ended up working at a charter company where he held the chief pilot position at just 23 years old.
After six years, he went to work for a major airline, but found he missed the private industry, and formed his first company in 1992, which primarily focused on air charter and aircraft management, but aircraft brokerage and flight training were also a part of the business. In 1997 the company changed its name to Pacific Aviation.
Sullivan started the company with just one jet, and has been building the fleet over the years. JetsPlus now has 14 planes on deck, with plans to purchase another in the near future.
In 2015, the company changed its name to JetsPlus.
After 27 years, Pacific Aviation is still in operation, but it is separate from JetsPlus, and serves as a jet maintenance and management company.
A majority of JetsPlus clients work in Hollywood or are “dotcom” people out of the Bay Area, with very few coming out of the Central Valley. Local clients tend to be in the ag industry and business owners.
Sullivan says he has flown many big names in Hollywood, including comedian Dane Cook, actor Brad Pitt, and many famous musical acts such as former Journey front-man Steve Perry and heavy metal band Metallica.
Even though most of JetsPlus clients are out of Southern California or the Bay Area, there is a strategic advantage in being based in the center of the state.
“The nice thing about being in Fresno is that you can take an airplane that’s based here and go to the Bay Area in 22 minutes, or down to Los Angeles in 30 minutes, so we get the best of both worlds,” Sullivan said.
Luckily for JetsPlus, there are few jet charter companies in or near the Central Valley to compete against. There’s Sky Trek in Modesto and Sacramento Aviation.
According to Sullivan, charter use has gone up about 35% since 2007, showing a steady climb and rise in popularity of charter jets.
In the 1980s and early ‘90s, there were more charter jet companies in the Central Valley, and many farmers had airplanes. However, when the IRS cut some tax breaks, many farmers couldn’t write off their planes and sold them.
The company is also in tune with the economic development in Fresno and works as an avenue for outside business people and entrepreneurs to look for opportunities in the Central Valley.
“There is a lot of opportunity here in Fresno,” said Steve Giuffrida, who handles business development for JetsPlus. “One of the things that helps us is that we have the charter service and therefore they don’t have to worry about airlines. They can come in, see a property, develop — they can do whatever they need to do and then get them back to have dinner with their families by 5 p.m.”
Though it might be news to some that Fresno has private charter jet service, Sullivan expects that as Fresno keeps growing, more people will become aware of private charters and utilize them more, especially the smaller jets.
The Gulfstream G500 jet is JetsPlus’ biggest plane, with a price tag around $52 million. An Embraer Legacy 600 jet costing $6.2 million has been ordered.
A jet can charter out for $7,500 per flight hour, and there are minimums — meaning customers can’t rent a jet for two hours of flight time and have it landed for a week, as there will be a minimum charge of two hours every day. There are also costs for the flight crew, sitting, overnight fees and taxes.
Sullivan said he has circumnavigated the globe, starting in Fresno and flying to China and then continuing west and returning from the east. Such a trip costs between $650,000 to $700,000.
The oldest plane in JetsPlus’ fleet is 15 years old, which is relatively young, as a jet is typically flown for 30-35 years before it is sent to the scrap yard.
Sullivan said that because of the costs to become a pilot these days, less and less people are working towards a license.
“The problem with the flight schools is insurance costs. It kind of got out of hand for people that don’t have a license,” Sullivan said. “They kind of push you out because then you have to charge so much for an airplane, and these kids can’t afford to ever finish their pilot’s license. By the time you pay for an airplane, an instructor, and so forth — its pretty expensive these days. You figure $10,000 dollars for a private pilot [license] now. When I got mine it was about $500 or $600 dollars.”
Besides all the work that must go into flights and plane maintenance, there is a lot of busy work on the ground — dispatchers that keep familiar with rules and regulations for other countries, obtaining fly-over and landing permits and meeting time slots for landing.
JetsPlus employs about 20 pilots, five maintenance people and six management personnel.
Using its capabilities of quick air travel, JetsPlus gives back to the community and provides transportation of organs for organ donors. The quick travel time is ideal and makes sure that organs are delivered sooner, which can make a big difference for a patient.
There are hopes for expansion in building a bigger facility, in either the current location by Fresno Yosemite International Airport or Madera that would include a larger hangar for maintenance and storage.
Sullivan says he’d like to keep JetsPlus a 15-plane company to keep it more manageable and avoid the headaches of having to manage a larger infrastructure.
“We are going to keep the growth going a little bit and replace old aircraft with new aircraft and just do our best and be a leader in the industry around here,” said Sullivan.