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The NICHOLAS AIR Formula: Efficiency, Continuity and Good Ol’ Southern Hospitality

The private aviation company has garnered celebrity glitz by delivering genuine hospitality and care to its flyers, staff and beyond.

Photo courtesy of Nicholas Air

Asked by this writer why he preferred private jet travel, the founder and CEO of a highly successful West Coast firm said this:

“One day, I might have to be in New York for a lunch. I can take off at 2:00 a.m., sleep comfortably for a few hours, get to the New York lunch at noon, be back in the air at 3:00 p.m. and be home in time for my daughter’s recital.”

A father unable to miss a business obligation and yet able to attend something precious and important to his child, and clearly, to him, too. You’d be hard pressed to find a better benefit of charter jet travel. 

Of course, the popular “jet set” image of private jets persists, even today. That is, dashing world travelers or celebrities or rock stars all of whom zoom around in a jet they own and that they outfit to their “taste” (one of Elton John’s jets reportedly had a fireplace). But this image belies the reality of private jet travel today. 

Only 7 percent of private aviation flyers own their jets. A full 81 percent prefer jet cards, and 35 percent arrange charters on a trip-by-trip basis. So even movie stars and other celebrities who could easily purchase a jet are opting out of ownership. 

The proof?

One of the most respected and successful actresses in the history of cinema, Nicole Kidman, fulfills her private jet needs with a company some call the best kept secret in the jet charter space: NICHOLAS AIR. In fact, Kidman, who is a “brand ambassador” for the company says, “They feel like family.” What does that mean to flyers who have never won an academy award?

When flyers choose NICHOLAS AIR, they become what the company calls members of a private country club of the air. Meaning, what members of a country club enjoy, such as everything top notch, staff that accommodates specific member needs, not to mention the friendships one makes with other members, that’s the “NICHOLAS AIR Club” experience.

Ms. Kidman has been a member of that club since 2017 and shares NICHOLAS AIR Club ambassadorships with the likes of Tom Brokaw, Eli and Archie Manning, not to mention the now reigning U.S. Ryder Cup championship U.S. team captain, Steve Stricker. It is important to note that not only are ambassadorships pro bono, but just like every other NICHOLAS AIR Club member, they pay for their membership. Why is that unusual?

It is common practice for aviation companies to pay fees to celebrities to promote their brands. NICHOLAS AIR’s arrangement with Kidman and others is different since they basically agree to be ambassadors because they want to. And for evidence that those NICHOLAS AIR friendships do occur, Brokaw says, “Hey, I’m finally in a winning game plan with Archie and Eli Manning.”

But the real secret sauce of NICHOLAS AIR has less to do with celebrity glitz and everything to do with continuity, efficiency and being headquartered in Oxford, Mississippi. Which means that, as NICHOLAS AIR founder, CEO and president, Nicholas John (NJ) Correnti puts it, “Members of the NICHOLAS AIR Club get generous helpings of good ol’ southern hospitality.”

NJ has been CEO of the company since he founded it almost 25 years ago That means, according to Peder von Harten, the company’s VP of sales and marketing, “Our CEO is the longest-tenured at any single company in this industry.” NJ and his company also have a really good origin story.  

Airplanes have been a lifelong passion for NJ. As a preschooler, he loved watching planes takeoff at an airport near his home, and he hitched rides with his dad who traveled by private jet for work. He took his first flying lesson at age 12, and within four years, he had flown 1,000+ hours. On his 16th birthday, he soloed four separate aircraft, which was a world record.

As might be expected, people encouraged NJ to become a pilot. But he had bigger plans. He wanted to start an aviation company. And today, NICHOLAS AIR is in the top five of private aviation companies with over 100 employees, access to over 9,000 airports across the U.S. alone, and it flies some 27 jets, nearly all of which are five years old or younger.

But it wasn’t always that way. Not even close. In 1997, NJ launched his aviation “company.” As he says, “I was the pilot, the customer service agent and accountant.” His “fleet” consisted of one piston-powered, dual-engine, propeller-driven Twin Cessna 340 that seated exactly four passengers.

But even with that one airplane, NJ set two priorities for his fledgling company that are still core to how the company operates: The top priority, customer safety, closely followed by providing exceptionally high levels of service that should continuously improve. That is, the NICHOLAS AIR private country club in the air.

In terms of those levels of service, it is not overstatement to say that the “attention to detail” at NICHOLAS AIR is truly impressive. For example, how clean the planes are—an NJ imperative since day one and plane one. How about the fact the company has crews driving to airports to clean—correction, actually to “detail”—NICHOLAS AIR planes that land. Or, something as small, but important as all crew, pilots included, knowing the name of a client that boards. As NJ puts it, “They just keep those names in their heads.”

And if everyone you deal with at Nicholas Air seems charming and friendly and welcoming, there are a couple of reasons for that. For one, it has to do with how those employees are treated. In its entire 25-year history, NICHOLAS AIR has never furloughed even one employee, nor ever had a pay cut. That’s through two recessions, including the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

NJ feels that creating jobs and creating opportunities for people in the community where his company resides and providing them job security is one important way for his company “to take care of people.” The company also matches its success with its heart.

NICHOLAS AIR has agreements with local hospitals, including St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Oxford. “We will fly a sick child and family so they get the best care,” NJ says. They will also fulfill various children’s requests. For example, a child who wants to meet a pilot, or sit in a cockpit. The company also sponsors various runs and local charitable events, and NJ says, “Our own employees do a 6K run for charity.”

In terms of affable staff at Nicholas Air, it’s easier for a happy employee to be pleasant, certainly. But there is something else at work. According to von Harten, “We send them to charm school.” And he means that literally. As he says, “Certainly we provide our people extensive training in aviation, but we also partner with some of the nation’s top hospitality organizations sharing best practices and employing them to hit new levels of customer service.” 

Today, that attention to hospitality detail, that consistent concern for client safety (remember those “young” jets) and exceptional levels of service produce what one has to admit are two rather remarkable statistics: 83 percent of new sales at NICHOLAS AIR come from member referrals, and 99 percent of members repurchase hours. 

Today, NICHOLAS AIR offers three jet card options depending on a customer’s needs. Its Blue Card is aircraft specific, but one can interchange between other types as needed. Its Rise Card is deposit based with set hourly rates depending on aircraft type requested for a trip. And its Smart Card is pay as you go for the less frequent flyer. 

And finally, coming back to that CEO who used private aviation to be a good dad, NJ says: 

“Every flyer is different and travels for different reasons and has different needs. Like one of our business travelers who wants complete quiet onboard, or a family whose kids like to interact with the pilots, or knowing someone is a nervous flyer, or a couple who likes the plane cooler than normal.  Not to mention, our members choose for every trip what type of aircraft they want to fly on. In other words, every mission needs to be tailored to the specific person.”

And that kind of defines what one might call…“Southern Hospitality.”