In 1997, James Butler was practicing contract law at his own Washington, D.C.–area firm when a sports agency asked him to investigate “a newfangled investment called fractional air travel, because a couple of the clients were looking into it.” Butler subsequently represented those clients in negotiating their fractional-ownership contracts with NetJets.
That experience led Butler to found Shaircraft Solutions. “I came to believe,” he says, “that there was a business opportunity in pulling together legal and aviation expertise to represent fliers in this new private-aviation area, which I call the shared-use space. By that, I mean fractional ownership and leasing, jets cards, and anything else short of whole-aircraft ownership.”
A graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, Butler clerked for a federal judge in the Windy City for a year before accepting a position with Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in transactional law. He started his own firm in 1992 and still maintains it, though he says that “most of my efforts now are directed toward the Shaircraft business.”
Based in Bethesda, Maryland, Butler has a wide smile and speaks in a calm, deliberate voice that clients likely find reassuring. His staff includes administrative assistants and a marketing coordinator. “It’s a small operation,” says Butler, who wrote about the fractional field for BJT from 2005 to 2009. “I answer my own phone. I work one-on-one with every client.”
Who should seek legal advice when buying a jet card, fractional share, or other private-aviation access product?
There’s almost no part of this business that wouldn’t benefit from having a legal-eye view. Even if it’s simple charter and you want a deadhead leg, you need to understand the cancellation policies and commitments. The providers have been shrinking contracts to make them look like boilerplate, but they’re fairly complex legal documents. As you go up the chain through fractional and leasing, there’s been an evolution in the contract documents as the providers allocate more of the variable-cost risk of operating from the operator to the customer.
So the contracts are fairly one-sided, and having a legal eye in negotiating certain issues can add value for the customer. Even a $25,000 one-off charter involves a lot of money, and it’s worth making sure of what the pilot experience is, the vintage of aircraft you’re getting, what the avionics are, and that it’s a safe trip that meets your expectations.
What common mistakes do business aviation consumers make?
One of the biggest is buying too many hours. The salespeople are incentivized to sell you as much flight time as they can, and when you get to the end of your fractional investment—say, after five years—if you have 25 hours remaining, they will disappear, and that really changes the per-hour cost.
James Butler’s Résumé
Born: Sept. 28, 1958 (age 60) in Washington, D.C.
Position: Founder/principal, Shaircraft Solutions
Education: B.A., Colorado College, 1980; M.A., political science, London School of Economics, 1982; J.D., University of Chicago, 1985
Personal: Lives in Bethesda, Maryland. Married, two children. Enjoys golf.
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