AirSprint founder Judson Macor met Phil Dewsnap when they were law students at the University of Alberta in the late 1990s, both seasoned pilots and united in their desire to launch an aviation company of their own.
Dewsnap was a year behind Macor in school, and when he graduated he called his friend to see if he was still interested. He was, and they worked together to carve out a new niche in the Canadian market, launching AirSprint as the country’s first fractional ownership company in 2000.
At the time, conventional wisdom held that fractional ownership couldn’t work in Canada to the extent it had in the United States. Canada had a different regulatory environment and the country’s sparse population, with only a handful of major centres spread out over a vast landscape, simply didn’t lend itself well to the fractional model.
Canadians tended to fly north-south or stay close to home during the punishing winters, rather than city-hop or take ambitious trips from east to west. It simply couldn’t work, the naysayers said. But AirSprint proved them wrong.
What began as a two-person startup with a single Pilatus PC-12 aircraft is now one of the most successful fractional ownership companies in North America, discretely carrying high-profile and high-net-worth clients in a fleet of 12 Embraer Legacy 450 and Cessna Citation CJ2+ and CJ3+ business jets.
“At the beginning, it was a hard sell,” said James Elian, the company’s president and chief operating officer.
“It took a couple of months to get going with our first few clients. But once they experienced our service and understood our unique offering, word spread quickly, and a rapid expansion followed. Word of mouth was powerful and important in the early days.”
In the mid-2000s, AirSprint was listed among Canada’s fastest-growing companies, and the fleet added as many as five aircraft per year at its peak.
Aviation data provider ARGUS International listed AirSprint as the
No. 6 fractional ownership company on the continent for 2017, thanks in part to a 23.5 per cent jump in its total flight hours over the previous year.
In a sector where some believed no Canadian company could survive, AirSprint has been a runaway success. A pair of ambitious entrepreneurs who bonded over their love of aviation found the industry foothold they were looking for.
All it took was a bit of contrarian thinking, rare business savvy, and the ability to see opportunity where others saw folly.
Renewing the fleet
About six years ago, AirSprint began replacing its 13 Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprops with six Cessna Citation CJ2+ and two CJ3+ business jets.
A need to renew the fleet was a major consideration–some of the PC-12s were nearly 10 years old. But light jet technology had also come a long way, and the cost of operation had decreased significantly, said Elian.
“We found that the cost per trip was only seven per cent higher, yet the time savings was closer to 35 per cent,” he said.
“In the end, the cost of the aircraft worked out to be about 20 per cent more than the PC-12, but our fractional owners were willing to pay that, due to the benefit of significantly reduced trip times, twin-engine jet reliability, and increased comfort due to the higher flying altitudes.”
In 2016, the company also began replacing its eight Cessna Citation Excel and XLS aircraft with top-of-the-line Embraer Legacy 450s. At press time, AirSprint had five Legacy 450s in its fleet, with one more scheduled to arrive in late summer.
“It was really about offering our fractional owners an increased level of service,” said Elian. “With the Legacy 450 we can now offer non-stop travel anywhere in Canada and the U.S., and we have also introduced new regions such as Hawaii and Europe.”
The Legacy 450 flies 10 per cent faster than the XLS, and its fly-by-wire flight controls result in a “level of comfort and safety that is unmatched for the segment,” he added.
“From a cost perspective, many trips are actually less expensive for our fractional owners than the Citation XLS due to the increased speed and the ability to eliminate fuel stops.”
Choosing the right aircraft went a long way to ensuring 2017 was one of the company’s most successful years to date, attracting more than 30 new clients to the ownership group.
“Existing fractional owners and new fractional owners really appreciated the speed, the range, and the comfort of the Legacy,” said Elian.
Model for success
AirSprint is devoted to putting the benefits of private jet ownership within reach of exponentially more people, using the fractional ownership model.
Clients buy a share of an aircraft with a one-time capital cost of at least $190,000 for a one-32nd share of a Citation CJ aircraft.
“That’s the price of an expensive luxury car,” said Elian. “But it is within reach of many Canadians. You really don’t have to be that big a business to be a customer of AirSprint. Private aviation is a powerful business tool and at this price the return on investment is much easier to see.”
Based on the size of the share they own, clients receive a correlating number of hours to fly each year, paying an additional hourly fee only when they are on board the aircraft. Access is guaranteed with as little as eight hours’ notice, anywhere in North America.
An additional annual fee covers maintenance, pilot wages, insurance and a support structure that helps ensure the aircraft remain in the best possible condition.
If a customer sought to buy an entire Legacy 450 aircraft from the OEM, it would cost about $18 million; with AirSprint, shares start at about $550,000 for access to 25 hours of occupied flying per year.
Clients can list their share of the aircraft for sale at any time, recouping the initial capital cost, minus depreciation.
AirSprint keeps its client list confidential, but Elian noted it includes a “fairly even split” between high-net-worth individuals and corporations. Clients are also located right across the country, from Vancouver Island to the Maritimes.
“Many of Canada’s most successful individuals and corporations are clients of AirSprint, including some who are very well known to Canadians,” said Elian.
Among the company’s celebrity clients is Calgary entrepreneur and philanthropist Brett Wilson, formerly of the CBC television series Dragons’ Den and part owner of the NHL’s Nashville Predators.
Wilson and a friend jointly have a one-quarter share in a Legacy 450, and Wilson used the aircraft to attend Predators playoff games in Nashville last season.
“To me, the economics can be compelling. You have to value your time,” said Wilson in an interview with Skies last year.
“The problems that I’ve had with AirSprint have been tiny and the solutions have been instant,” he added. “They’ve saved my bacon a few times. The fractional concept works well for me.”
AirSprint has an aircraft availability rate of 93.25 per cent so far in 2018, an enviable mark that exceeds the company target of 91 per cent.
This figure includes both scheduled maintenance and aircraft-on-ground (AOG) events, and it is significantly better than the company’s previous fleet.
“But we’re comparing a 10-year-old fleet to a fleet that consists of airplanes no older than five years,” said Chris Foley, director of maintenance for AirSprint.
AirSprint attains a high availability rate by following the manufacturer’s maintenance program, along with a Transport Canada-approved maintenance regimen that was developed in-house.
“With all that, we take additional steps, like doing daily inspections,” said Foley. “We do monthly condition inspections … we start identifying problem areas, and then we’ll try to resolve these issues on a regular interval before it’s something that either puts an aircraft down or impacts the customer’s experience.”
AirSprint has extremely high standards for all aspects of its business, and maintenance is no exception.
“We set the bar extremely high,” said Foley. “Our goal in the maintenance department is to ensure the aircraft are always maintained to the highest level, ensuring safety and reliability, and ensuring a great customer experience.”
AirSprint has 18 employees in its maintenance department, stationed at a primary maintenance base in Calgary, Alta., and a secondary base at Toronto Pearson International Airport.
“We do things right,” said Foley. “It doesn’t matter what it takes or how much it costs.”
AirSprint goes to significant lengths to create an exceptional experience for clients and for its employees.
Its hiring process for pilots is extremely selective, focused as much on customer service skills as on flying ability. And once employees join the AirSprint family, the hope is they’ll stay.
“My goal overall has been to really make AirSprint a true alternative to an airline for aviation professionals,” said Elian, who joined the company in 2001 as a first officer on the PC-12. “AirSprint has been very successful over the years due to the quality and dedication of our talented staff. I really couldn’t ask for a better team.”
He said many non-airline jobs in Canada necessitate a compromise between job security, safety and quality of life.
“And so I set out, a number of years ago, to truly make this a career alternative to the airlines for people. It’s really kind of formed the approach that we take every day with the team.”
With that goal in mind, AirSprint offers its pilots time off through an online preferential bidding system focused on equity rather than seniority.
“It takes a look at all the time off requests and optimizes to maximize the overall happiness for the entire group,” he said.
“If someone doesn’t get what they want one month, it kind of gives them bonus points … so that they’ll probably get what they want the following month.”
Pilots interact directly with fractional owners, and the job offers the opportunity to fly to a different place virtually every day.
“And there’s job security,” said Elian. “AirSprint is a profitable company, and [it has] significantly better job security compared to a lot of corporate operators, where a new CEO can come in and the airplane could be gone a couple of months later.”
AirSprint has 115 total employees, with a head office in Calgary and secondary bases in Toronto and Montreal. The company also plans to set up additional pilot bases in Ottawa, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., among others.
“That way, people can live where they want to live and still work with us,” said Elian.
It’s a formula that works for Essam Hassan, a Montreal-based Legacy 450 pilot who joined AirSprint about eight years ago.
“They listen to their own pilots,” said Hassan. “They listen to their own people, and they’re always striving to improve things.
“Every month, every week, every year, there’s always new developments in making our life easier and making our work better and safer.
“And because of that, there’s no reason for me to look somewhere else.”
As AirSprint moves forward, it remains focused on six core values that have guided its success so far: Safety, service, people, integrity, humility and community.
Ultimately, the company sees fractional ownership as a way of helping successful Canadians optimize their time, do business more effectively, and capture as many can’t-miss life moments as possible.
“We really believe in the fractional ownership model,” said Elian.
“We’re proud to be Canada’s first and largest fractional provider, and we plan to continue growing fractional ownership in Canada.”