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March 29, 2024

Jim Segrave on Being Part of a Larger Cause

flyExclusive's founder, chairman and CEO discusses the company’s private journey to become a public company.

By Doug Gollan

While jets from its nearly 100-jet fleet frequently visit New York, Palm Beach, Aspen, Scottsdale, Los Angeles and other profile destinations, the place flyExclusive calls home is in the rural eastern region of North Carolina. The area is dotted by farmlands, woods and lakes. Once upon a time, the region was known for manufacturing furniture and clothing. Of course, that was before many of those jobs moved overseas. It made it difficult to stay in the area and, in fact, the population of Lenoir County is about the same as 60 years ago.

Few of flyExclusive’s customers visit Kinston Regional Jetport, where the company is based. However, its feature as one of the longest runways east of the Mississippi at 11,500 ft and positioning about halfway between New York and South Florida, one of private aviation’s busiest flight paths, provides an ideal location. In fact, it is the second time that the former military base has served as headquarters for a private jet operator.

It’s where Jim Segrave started Segrave Aviation in the mid 1990s before selling it to Delta Air Lines in 2010. After the airlines merged it with Delta AirElite to form Delta Private Jets, Segrave eventually left, but so did the buyer. Delta consolidated operations in Cincinnati, once again leaving Kinston feeling the pain as jobs moved away. But this time would be different. Segrave, whose family has called the area home for more than 150 years, saw the empty office spaces and hangars as well as former employees who were anxious for something new. In 2015, he launched flyExclusive.

[See also: Chris Leach on a Greener Future for Aviation]

flyExclusive campus base
flyExclusive’s campus based in Kinston, NC / ©flyExclusive

Since then, the company has grown to be the fifth-largest private jet operator in North America as measured by charter and fractional flight hours. While NetJets, Flexjet and Vista Global are still much bigger entities, what flyExclusive has accomplished so far has been meaningful to the local community. It currently employs over 800 people at a growing complex of hangars and support facilities that provide maintenance and aviation services to other operators and private jet owners. Its state-of-the-art paint and refurbishment facilities enable it to continually maintain its hardworking fleet. A $30m grant from the state will enable it to bring pilot training to Kinston as well, something that will create even more jobs.

Tommy Sowers, who joined flyExclusive as president in 2021, says he could immediately feel the impact. Walking in downtown Kinston and wearing logo hats or shirts, he says people he didn’t know would come up to him to ask about job opportunities, tell him how grateful they were for the company’s bet on the region, and sometimes ask if they could just come out to the airport and get an up-close look at those multimillion-dollar machines.

Segrave describes the company’s mission as “part of a larger cause.” For customers, Segrave’s second dance has brought a number of innovations to the programs flyExclusive sells. While it didn’t launch its first jet membership program until 2020 — it previously focused on serving the wholesale market — its Jet Club was quickly winning awards for its innovative approach. Unlike most jet cards, which simply charge a fixed hourly rate, flyExclusive charges a daily access fee, and then an hourly rate that is less than half the price of the industry average. That means flyers who take longer flights or make multiple stops on a single day — efficient flying for the company — also get the best deals. More recently, it launched Deal Days, which offer more savings to fly on low-demand days and flexible departure discounts. For customers who just need to leave on a specific day and not a specific time, they can save money if they let flyExclusive set the departure time. That helps the operator build more efficient schedules.

[See also: The Ultimate Guide to Private Jet Ownership]

Jim Segreve and his colleagues cutting ribbon
Jim Segrave and his colleagues / ©flyExclusive

The original model was to buy and lease pre-owned aircraft, then refurbish them via the firm’s own facilities — a vertical integration — but in 2022, flyExclusive announced it was entering into the space dominated by NetJets and Flexjet: fractional ownership. It currently has orders and options for nearly 50 airplanes; the first five Cessna Citation CJ3+s arrived at the end of 2023. Like its jet card program, flyExclusive is taking a different route. Its program eschews monthly management fees you pay whether you fly or not. It also entered into an agreement with Jetquity that enables owners to guarantee the residual value of their shares.

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In traditional models, when the term of your contract is up — generally five years — you sell back your share based on current market rates. That can put owners in a difficult position. For example, while the residual values, as they are called, are currently near historic highs, many owners are choosing to extend their ownership in that aircraft instead of waiting for delayed deliveries of a new jet. On the other hand, after the financial crisis of 2008, when owners were selling, they found what they were getting was far below what they expected.

cessna citation sovereign
Cessna Citation Sovereign / ©flyExclusive

Perhaps the most important flyExclusive news occurred between Christmas and New Year’s. After a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) merger, it is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Segrave says his goal in being publicly traded is that it ensures flyExclusive will remain independent and continue its growth in Kinston. “We have children whose parents started with me 25 years ago, and my goal is that this is a place where their children can come if they choose.”

Once flyExclusive’s new headquarters and pilot training facilities open — likely in 2025 — Segrave says he would also like Kinston to be a place customers actually visit. He envisions being able to provide simulator experiences and also showcase what CNBC has tabbed as ‘America’s Top State For Business’ in both 2022 and 2023. (It was second in 2021 and third the year before.) In the meantime, you can get a taste of the company’s hometown roots via partnerships with local spirits and snack companies.

[See also: Ben Goldsmith on Philanthropy, Rewilding and Tackling his Critics]

This article appears in the 04 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring 2024

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