Recession or no recession, there are some things that people simply won’t scrimp on. According to Wall Street stockbroker-turned-private-jet-broker Ricky Sitomer, luxury travel is one of them. “What’s happened in the downturn in the economy is that people have been selling their jets, getting rid of their fractional ownership and reducing fixed costs and overhead,” he says. “That’s a boon for us at Blue Star Jets because we offer flexibility and the ability to fly different aircraft for whatever someone’s specific needs are. Business is up.”
Opportunist: What is your background?
Ricky: I became a stockbroker right out of Emory University. At the age of 24 my colleague, Todd Rome, and I started our own brokerage firm in Manhattan, called Millennium Securities. It was very successful and we employed about 150 brokers.
Opportunist: How did you go from Wall Street to brokering private jets?
Ricky: During my time at Millennium I was helicoptering back and forth to the Hamptons. I’d fly out on Thursdays after work and fly back into the city on Monday mornings. I started to become somewhat familiar with private aviation. Soon, we were doing private jets to see clients in Vegas and I became aware of the inefficiencies and inadequacies of the private jet market.
When the stock market collapsed in 2001, we were NASDAQ-heavy. Spreads were shrinking and stock brokerage became a very litigious industry. As an owner of the company, it just wasn’t opportunistic to me anymore. I had enough and decided to sell my accounts in Millennium. We knew we were going into private aviation. We closed Millennium one day and opened Blue Star Jets the next day.
Shortly after 9/11 happened our company was propelled into the spotlight when CNN called us about private security in aviation. We were on TV literally days after the disaster. People were scared to fly commercial airlines. Our phone started lighting up.
Opportunist: Did you name the company after the fictional Blue Star Airlines in the 1987 move “Wall Street?”
Ricky: We came up with Blue Star Jets and nobody owned it, so we took the name. The name gave us a lot of brand recognition right off the bat. People recognized the name and it made it easier to get on the telephone and speak to people. Oliver Stone came to us while making the second movie [“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”] and asked if we would like to be in the movie in exchange for some jets. Obviously, we agreed and Charlie Sheen did a little cameo about us. We provided some private jets for the stars when they did their dog and pony show promoting the movie.
Opportunist: Tell us about the company.
Ricky: Blue Star Jets is the largest charter jet brokerage in the United States. Whether a client wants a helicopter to the Hamptons, a turbo prop to Martha’s Vineyard, a 747 to China, a Boeing for a business trip to Brazil or a G-V to Paris—we can provide it.
Opportunist: How many different aircraft do you work with?
Ricky: We broker about 4,000 aircraft that meet our safety and security specifications. The pilots come with the aircrafts. We can check the pilot’s records, the hours they have, when they went to flight safety school and maintenance records on the aircrafts.
Opportunist: Can you give us a who’s who of who flies Blue Star Jets?
Ricky: It’s hard for me to reveal who my clients are but you can imagine. We are flying presidents, dignitaries, entertainers, rock stars. The bulk of our business is leisure travel, hedge fund people and Wall Street people.
Opportunist: “Any Jet, Any Time, Any Place” is the company motto. Have you had any unusual destination requests?
Ricky: Six months ago I got a call directly from someone who wanted to fly non-stop on a G-V from Washington, D.C., to Athens, Greece. I got him a price and then he tells me that he wants to leave from Edwards Air Force Base. I explained that I didn’t have clearance and couldn’t get him in. He tells me not to worry, that somebody is going to call me in five minutes and get me clearance. About 6 p.m., I got clearance. Then I said I would need to get a wire first. He told me not to worry, that I was going to get a wire in five minutes. Sure enough, the wire came through. When I got the passenger list, it happened to be the president of Iraq. We get calls like that all the time.
We get thrown into some interesting situations where we can help individuals and companies. Whenever there’s political unrest or a natural disaster, we get a lot of calls. When the volcano erupted in Iceland a couple of years ago and commercial aviation was grounded, we got requests to fly into southern Europe and take passengers back to the United States. During the uprising in Egypt, we were able to get jumbo jets in there and do an evacuation. We did evacuations after the tsunami in Japan as well.
Opportunist: What is the average cost of a trip using Blue Star Jets?
Ricky: Our average ticket is in the range of $20,000 to $25,000.
Opportunist: Do you get any over-the-top demands?
Ricky: We get every unusual request you can imagine, and we really do accommodate any request. We’ve had families come onboard and say they wanted 1,000-count Egyptian sheets and plasma TVs. Whether a client wants food from Nobu or White Castle, lobster tails and caviar, flowers for the wife, reservations to a restaurant, Broadway tickets or a Rolls Royce—or any other car service—to pick them up, we handle it for them.
Opportunist: You are known for your expertise in building a successful sales force. What is your model for doing so?
Ricky: Staying on top of your people, training them and teaching them how to deal with and listen to what the customer’s needs, wants and desires are. Being very specific and not wasting anybody’s time by giving them options they’re not interested in is very important. If a client wants a 2012 G-550, we get them a 2012 G-550. This requires lots of hands-on training and we’ve been doing it for a long time now and we know how to do it and we’re pretty good at it.
Our marketing programs include face-to-face, event marketing like polo in the Hamptons and charity events. We have sales reps all over the country and internationally as well. We prefer that face-to-face interaction with the customer and local representation. We also do a lot of magazine marketing and Internet marketing. It’s really a full-scale marketing approach.
Opportunist: Tell us about your Share-A-Jet Exchange Program.
Ricky: We came up with Share-A-Jet because our clients were asking for it when the economy became difficult. We figured why not give them what they want? The program matches up two parties traveling to the same place. For example, on Fridays in the winter people might fly from New York City to Palm Beach and return on Sundays or Mondays. Instead of spending $10,000 to $12,000, they can share a private jet and split the fare for a certain price each. In the summer, we might combine parties that are going to Saint-Tropez for vacation.
Opportunist: How do you pair up travelers?
Ricky: Operators, brokers and travel agents go to shareajetexchange.com, which is along the lines of a social-networking platform, and post upcoming trips. Flyers can join for free and search for flights.
Opportunist: Do you book flight arrangements?
Ricky: We act as their agent and help them arrange a qualified jet charter, but we don’t schedule or operate any flights.
Opportunist: Who is your competition?
Ricky: The industry is very fragmented right now and there is no competition directly. We believe there is an opportunity for us to move into the leadership position.
There are fractional jet ownership programs, such as NetJets, Flight Options, Flexjet and CitationAir, but their business is down 70% over the last two years. NetJets lost $700 million [in 2009]. It was a great formula and business model 10-15 years ago, but every industry goes through changes and evolution. It’s antiquated and it’s not going to come back. There are jet card programs, such as Marquis, but we are literally half the price of those card programs and half the price of fractional ownership—without the five-year commitment. Other local charter companies, which only have a few planes on the tarmac at any given time, have limited availability. When people fly on a private plane they are typically flying with friends or family or business associates and it is very important to them to feel safe and secure on an aircraft.
Opportunist: Please tell us about your latest venture, Private Jet MD.
Ricky: It’s an international medical assistance membership program that we launched in January. Let’s say you travel to Europe and forget a prescription. We make a call to your pharmacy and get your prescription and have it delivered to your hotel room. If you’re skiing in the Alps and you have an accident, we will take you to the closest western medical hospital and line you up with the doctor so you’re not sitting in the ER all day. Even if you’re on safari in Africa and you have a heart attack, you can call into one of our facilities around the world and we will charter a private jet back to the states at no additional charge. There is nothing hidden. For peace of mind, it’s a product that everybody should have.
Opportunist: How did you become involved?
Ricky: My partner and I had been discussing doing something in that industry. It’s a great product to sell not only to our clients but to people who fly internationally. It’s good for anywhere more than 150 miles from your home. It’s great for students abroad, families who travel, cruise ship passengers or really anytime where people are away. People always think about it after the fact. I had a friend who went to Moscow and fell on ice and broke his hip. When he got back he said he wished he had Private Jet MD. It’s undoubtedly the best product in the United States. It’s backed by Lloyds of London up to $1 million per incident, which is the highest coverage in the United States.
Opportunist: How much does membership cost?
Ricky: It costs $495 per individual or $695 for a family of five and is available to anyone under the age of 75. It’s the premier program in the United States, and we are looking to get one million members. It really protects you. If your wallet is stolen or you lose it or your passport, we can get you a passport to the nearest U.S Embassy. There are lots of ancillary things it does to protect you when you’re traveling overseas.
Opportunist: What is the most satisfying aspect of your work?
Ricky: I enjoy making strides and improvements and helping people. To me, work is fun—it’s almost like a hobby at this point. I enjoy all the people calling in every day. You never know who’s going to call in. It’s different from being a stockbroker, where you’re either a hero or a villain. We are providing a service that we know is fantastic.
Opportunist: What’s a typical day for you?
Ricky: Very busy. [Laughs] As you can see, we have a lot on our plate. This is a worldwide operation. Our clients fly all over the globe. It’s not like the stock market where you work from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s 24/7. But we enjoy rolling up our sleeves and working hard every day. I have clients calling me from all over the world at any given point. I might have a client based in London (five hours head) and an airplane at LAX (three hours behind) and so I’m up at 4 o’clock in the morning trying to put together a flight. But as long as I’m up and working, I’m happy. The ordinary person might want a 9-to-5 but I don’t like to work that way.
The phone is usually ringing before I even get up in the morning. People call and text for flights all day and night. I rotate those incoming calls to my sales staff. When I come into the office we have marketing meetings and sales meetings about potential ideas and opportunities to get clients. I also have my own retail customers that I work on all day—lining up trips with my traffic department and trying to get the best pricing in the industry. It’s a pretty full day.
Opportunist: Do you have a pilot’s license?
Ricky: No. I do not fly, but I like to sit in the cockpit. [Laughs] I am a businessman.
Opportunist: Where do you see Blue Star Jets in five years?
Ricky: We will be doing in excess of a billion dollars in revenue and we will be the leader in the industry. We are a private company right now, but I believe that within the next three years we will probably be a public company. Our headquarters is in New York City, and we also have offices in Florida, Chicago, Princeton, N.J, Los Angeles, London, and South Africa—and we are looking to expand into more international locations as well. We expect that our Private Jet MD is going to be extremely successful as well.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.