James Butler of Shaircraft Solutions: The Future of Air Travel in The Post Covid World
The emphasis on cleanliness that obviously grew during the Pandemic will continue as part of the overall safety rubric of private aviation and so will become an essential selling point for jet providers.
As part of our series about “The Future Of Air Travel”, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Butler, CEO of Shaircraft Solutions.
James D. Butler is an attorney and CEO of Shaircraft Solutions (www.shaircraft.com) — a Maryland based consulting firm advising individuals and businesses on investments in private air travel for over twenty years. A foremost private aviation authority, Mr. Butler has in-depth knowledge of the full spectrum of today’s private aviation options, including fractional ownership, jet card programs, and charter, and also specializes in fractional share valuation disputes. Mr. Butler can be reached directly at email@example.com or (301) 652–9885.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After law school, I clerked for a U.S. District Court judge in Chicago. Upon the conclusion of my clerkship, I moved back to the D.C. area and began work at the international law firm, Arnold & Porter, focusing on business and real estate transactions, and bankruptcy.
I enjoyed working with the folks at Arnold & Porter — excellent lawyers and great training. However, as my wife and I started our family, I began seriously considering whether the lifestyle that lay ahead of me at Arnold & Porter was what I wanted. My wife and kids are my first priority, and I’m convinced the idea that “quality time” substitutes for “quantity time” is a myth. Either you’re there, or you’re not. And I wanted to be there, to raise my kids, and to be a full partner with my wife. So, in the depths of the 1992 recession, with a two-year-old and one on the way, but with the full support of my family, I decided to start a solo law practice.
My first experience with private air travel came in 1997, when I represented professional golfer Scott Hoch in connection with his purchase of a fractional jet interest. After that, I represented other professional golfers, including Scott Verplank, John Daly, and Bob Tway, and I came to believe that the private air travel business was primed for rapid growth, that there was a great opportunity to add value for clients beyond strictly providing legal advice, and that no one really was serving that need. I also came to see that I could provide these services within the then current “low overhead” scale of my business. From a personal point of view, I knew that this work would continue to enable me to work one-on-one with clients — not only a big selling point with clients accustomed to 24/7 personal service but also an aspect of my work that I find most fulfilling. So, after almost a year of investigation and research, I launched Shaircraft Solutions to combine legal and aviation expertise in serving private flyers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
No one can deny the quality of life benefits of private jet travel. But these benefits come at a cost of hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. Mistakes are costly and often irreversible. In one case, our client came to us in distress after being notified by his fractional operator (a company endorsed by no less than a Hall of Fame quarterback) that it had ceased operations and filed for bankruptcy. The aircraft in which he owned a fractional share no longer was airworthy because it had been scavenged for parts to keep other aircraft in the program flying. He was given a list of other fractional owners of his aircraft, none of whom he’d ever heard of, but with whom he would now have to deal in order to salvage anything from his investment. We spent months unwinding that disaster and ultimately ended up with a fair resolution.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I write a fair amount for the private aviation press and have been interviewed by many media outlets. As a result, many clients find us through internet searches. On one occasion, I received a somewhat garbled phone message from a person who asked to speak with me about a very expensive private aviation deal he was considering. For some reason, I think it was a serious inquiry and didn’t follow up. Fortunately, he called back, and I took the call. It turned out that he was the owner of an NBA team! From that experience, I learned that opportunity knocks in different ways and in different voices. Since then, I answer my own phone. If you call our office, you get the CEO, an aspect of our approach that clients very much appreciate.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?
The only constant in this industry is change. Change can be destabilizing, but it can also be invigorating. Know yourself, hold true to your principles, and establish your reputation as a reliable, trustworthy, and knowledgeable resource — and work like hell for your clients. If you do that, you’ll thrive.
I enjoy what I do, so burnout is not a problem. In addition, our clients are uniformly grateful for our expertise. Most are enormously successful in their own businesses, and part of that success is based on bringing the best possible resources to bear to deal with any challenge. As more than one client has said to me with respect to the private aviation business, “I know what I don’t know, and that’s why I need you.” The gratitude of our clients, as reflected in so many “success stories” reflected on our website, makes it all worthwhile.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I stand on so many people’s shoulders, it’s hard to name just one. My father certainly comes to mind. An entrepreneur himself, he set an example that I have followed. My wife certainly has been an essential support, sounding board, and confidant. Most of all, her faith and confidence have been invaluable. Finally, without a doubt, so many teachers and mentors I’ve met along the way who demanded rigorous analysis, pushed me to do my best, and taught me how to succeed in business, all share in any success I’ve had.
Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
General aviation has a long history of aiding people and communities in need. With access to thousands more airports than commercial planes and more flexible schedules, private aircraft can be a tremendous resource in humanitarian crises. Through our ShairGive program, we work pro-bono with donors and charities to facilitate charitable contributions of flight time on private aircraft. Such gifts are used to transport cancer patients to treatment centers, reunite wounded veterans with their families, aid victims of natural disasters, and more.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the Aviation and Air Travel industries?
Before launching Shaircraft Solutions, there was no one in this niche space offering both aviation and legal expertise to what I call “shared-use” flyers; that is, flyers investing in fractional and jet card programs (anything short of buying a whole aircraft). There were former salespeople for these programs who looked to leverage their Rolodexes to attract clients, but didn’t bring legal expertise to the table, and aviation attorneys who specialized in FAA regulation and other big-ticket legal work, but for whom this niche was too small potatoes. Shaircraft’s innovation was combining aviation and legal expertise for this niche constituency, bringing value to clients in deals that looked deceptively simple (providers often make it look as simple as using a credit card to call an Uber) but that, in fact, involve high cost and high risk investments. By doing so within the classic attorney/client model, Shaircraft acts as a fiduciary for our clients, putting an expert who knows the business and the contracts, and knows where there’s room to negotiate, on our client’s side of the table.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing these innovations?
Dazzled by fancy marketing brochures and celebrity endorsements, people often sign so-called “boilerplate” contracts that are rife with unfavorable terms and conditions. These complex legal documents often shift the majority of legal and financial risk onto private flyers and leave them with no practical recourse if their provider doesn’t live up to its end of the bargain. As such, private fliers, particularly fractional owners, can wind up in deals costing them hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, more than necessary.
The more risk — financial, legal, safety, etc. — you’re asked to assume (and there is always risk, contrary to what a jet company may tell you), the more important it is that you have experienced legal counsel review and negotiate these contracts. Even in the case of some jet card programs, the contracts reflect complicated legal structures and can run to more than 90 pages!
When you are putting hundreds of thousands, even millions, at risk, you also want to make sure that the provider’s promises are ironclad and that you have real and workable recourse if it doesn’t live up to its end of the bargain. Again, as you’d expect, jet companies draft their contracts in a way that gives them a great deal of latitude with respect to these performance standards.
In the end, it seems to me that anytime you contract for a private jet flight — putting your dollars and, more importantly, your safety and that of your family and business associates at risk — you should have an experienced attorney/aviation expert, who specializes in these kinds of transactions, review and negotiate the contracts. The recipe for success is contracting for the right amount of flight time, on the most appropriate and safe aircraft, at the best possible price.
How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
It’s funny you ask that. Recently, I had a client call us just that, a “disrupter.” We’re certainly respectful of the jet providers, but often, in pursuit of our client’s interests, we can be a bit of a thorn in their side. And rightfully so. For example, in more than one jet provider’s contract, we found a provision that essentially entitles the provider to change the fundamental terms of the contract without any recourse for our client. Furthermore, many of these contracts don’t provide the customer with meaningful remedies if the provider doesn’t perform its promises. We make it our business to ferret out these often well-camouflaged provisions and negotiate more balanced and fair terms. If that’s disrupting the status quo, I plead guilty!
Are there exciting new technologies that are coming out in the next few years that will improve the Air Travel experience? We’d love to learn about what you have heard.
Innovation is a hallmark of the private aviation industry. We’re already welcoming super light jets that reduce the price point for private flying as well as greatly simplify the piloting experience. Further, as climate concerns rise to the fore, we’ll see research and development into electric aircraft and new fuels that will reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.
As you know, the Pandemic changed the world as we know it. For the benefit of our readers, can you help spell out a few examples of how the Pandemic has specifically impacted Air Travel?
The COVID-19 pandemic is easily the biggest crisis the aviation industry has ever faced. A year later, commercial air travel is still down. It’s no surprise; being stuck in a crowded airport terminal and sharing an airplane cabin with hundreds of strangers is not appealing during the best of times, much less during a pandemic. Nevertheless, after an initial dip in the early months of 2020, our business has grown exponentially. People who previously may have flown first or business class have been turning to private jet travel to lower their risk of contracting COVID-19. Whether these folks will continue to fly privately when we return to “normal” is yet to be determined. However, as I’ve said many times over the years, once you’ve flown on a private jet, it’s really hard to go back to the Delta counter. That’s because the experience of private jet travel is nothing less than intoxicating. It offers independence, luxury, and, undeniably, a sense of power. You fly on your schedule, take off when you want, land at over 5,000 airports in the country (rather than the 500 available to commercial airlines), and avoid the soul-crushing experience of commercial air travel. An enormously powerful productivity tool, private flying literally serves as a time machine — turning a five-day vacation into a seven-day vacation, and a three-day business trip into one that gets you home for supper. It’s no wonder, then, that for many, this experience is nearly irresistible.
Can you share five examples of how the Air Travel experience might change over the next few years to address the new realities brought by the Pandemic? If you can, please give an example for each.
Predicting the future in this industry is a fraught endeavor, but here goes:
1. Innovations like super light jets, that preceded the Pandemic will continue to lower the price point, and thus continue the democratization of private air travel.
2. For good and ill, the internet will continue to be a driver of transactions in this business. Unfortunately, because apps and such make it seem that booking a private flight is akin to booking an Uber (I dare say no Uber flies at 40,000 feet!), many unsuspecting would-be private flyers will make poor decisions based on insufficient information.
3. Business travel may be reduced for an extended period as businesses have become more comfortable with Zoom and other meeting software. Still, many business opportunities will continue to require face-to-face meetings.
4. Leisure travel will boom with pent up demand from the travel restrictions required by the Pandemic.
5. The emphasis on cleanliness that obviously grew during the Pandemic will continue as part of the overall safety rubric of private aviation and so will become an essential selling point for jet providers.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
It’s by now a cliché’ that the world is getting smaller every day. The Pandemic has shown this in ways we wouldn’t prefer, but now, more than ever, it’s essential that the peoples of the world travel the globe so as to better understand and appreciate each other. I don’t flatter myself as being a person of influence, but for what it’s worth, I’d encourage all who can, especially young people, to travel.