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Not just for John Travolta: More golfers find private jets an option

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - The private jets zoom right over golfers' heads, an endless parade of big money, power and influence. At least that's what it seems like to hackers swinging on the ground at the TPC Scottsdale Desert Course, a reasonable Phoenix Valley golf course that plays in Lear Jet fumes.

Private jets over TPC Scottsdale desert
Arriving by private jet is all the rage in Scottsdale.
Private jets over TPC Scottsdale desertPrivate jet interior

Scottsdale Airport, one of the busiest - and most prestigious - single-runway airports in the world, has landing and takeoff patterns over the nearby TPC Desert.

"Just think of all that money that's coming in," Carl Emerick said, stepping off the tee as another Gulfstream rumbled overhead. "I wouldn't mind living that life for a week."

Emerick and golfers like him might be surprised by the bank accounts and tax brackets of some of those who do. Private-jet travel is still not the stuff of the masses, but it's not exclusive to the John Travolta/Tom Cruise crowd either. Upper-middle-class golfers are taking private jets to their golf vacations.

It's still a luxury, mind you - just not a pie-in-the-sky unattainable one anymore.

"More and more executives are chartering to get to their golf destinations," said Philip Babbitt, director of sales and marketing at NovaJet, a private-aircraft company based in Toronto. "Especially if they're going to somewhere that's a little remote, someplace that would require a number of connections by commercial air.

"This way they can fly right into the resort area."

One of NovaJet's most popular golf trips is to Pinehurst. Suddenly, the wonders of No. 2's old-school greens and the resorts' new-age spas seem much closer.

No mandatory early check-in, endless wait for luggage or, in the case of a place like Pinehurst, long drive in from the nearest major airport. You can show up 15 minutes before your flight, jump on the plane and land at that much closer small airfield.

When I took a private plane from Vancouver to the Kootenays - a rather remote spot in the mountains of British Columbia - I was amazed at the change in atmosphere from commercial air travel.

No one was tensed out. The pilot helped load our luggage and talked to us the whole flight. You never got the idea that someone would call in the National Guard if you gave a funny look.

Golfers are going to pay for that convenience and relaxation - but the costs aren't always as sky-high as you might think.

"It's a misconception that private jets are just an expensive, exclusive means of traveling," Babbitt said. "If you have four passengers going down to New York [from Toronto], that's $4,500."

That's $1,125 per person - not so far from flying first-class on a commercial airliner. The key to keeping private air travel semi-affordable is keeping the flight distance within a few hours.

"Anywhere in a 600- to 700-nautical-mile radius can be very competitive with commercial airfares," Babbitt said. "And sometimes less expensive."

Of course, those seeking a real luxury splurge can blow out the budget - or at least give shareholders something to talk about at the next meeting - with no problem. An extended long weekend jaunt to Scottsdale for eight people runs about $25,000 on NovaJet.

"Instead of having to go through Phoenix [Sky Harbor Airport], it gets you right into Scottsdale," Babbitt said.

What's 25 large when you're on Troon North 15 minutes after disembarking? For some people, not that much.

The real big-money golf escapes are the weeklong trips to Ireland that NovaJet sometimes puts together.

Sometimes living the golfing high life is part of a job well done. Some companies put together rewards packages for their top performers that include a getaway to a golf hot spot by private jet.

Nothing may say you're special quite like getting to avoid the hassles of commercial air travel.

It's not always to play golf either. Sometimes it's all about watching Tiger Woods and Co. in style. Masters week is one of NovaJet's busiest and it is hardly the only private jet company beating a path to the azaleas and green jacket land.

"We'll have more than one plane on the ground at Augusta," Babbitt said.

Private air travel isn't always about the flash. Sometimes it's a short hop on a tiny prop plane, like NovaJet's popular run from Toronto to Muskoka, a rugged land of high-end resorts where Goldie Hawn and Martin Short have lakeside homes.

It takes about two and a half hours to get from Toronto to Muskoka by car. The small plane gets golfers there in less than half an hour. And some pretty regular folks take advantage of this.

"It makes the idea of going to Muskoka just for the day to golf a lot more realistic," Babbitt said.

Such is life as a private jetsetter. It's your plane - at least for the day. You fly when you want.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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