Masked up to protect against the coronavirus, a couple dozen employees of regional airline JSX waited inside a private jet terminal on the east side of Dallas Love Field last Friday. The swank passenger lounge was outfitted with leather armchairs, long modern couches, a complimentary coffee bar, and a rack of plastic-wrapped luxury magazines including Elite Traveler, Wine Spectator, and the duPont Registry.
“If you have your own $45 million Gulfstream jet, this is the place you’ll be using,” said Alex Wilcox, chief executive officer of Dallas-based JSX, as he glanced out the terminal window. He was among those anticipating the arrival of a flight from Houston that marked the launch of the carrier’s daily round-trip service between Love and William P. Hobby Airport. The jet had taken off for Hobby from Dallas at 7:30 a.m. with about eighteen people on board, and the return leg was expected back at Love at around 10 a.m.
Four-year-old JSX—the X stands for “experience,” its marketers will tell you—specializes in short-haul flights out of small, private terminals. The airline owns a fleet of 23 Embraer ERJ 135 and 145 jets, each with thirty first-class-caliber seats. Customers can book scheduled flights just as they might on any commercial carrier, but JSX officially operates as a charter service. Under federal regulations, this limits its flights to thirty passengers, but also allows JSX to operate out of terminals without Transportation Security Administration checkpoints. Passengers are still checked against a TSA watch list and screened for explosives and weapons, but there are no pat-downs and there’s no need to remove shoes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, temperatures are also taken, and face masks are required.
The new flights between Dallas and Houston, with fares starting at $99 each way, represent the carrier’s first regular service within Texas. While JSX has offered weekly flights between Dallas and Las Vegas since June, most of its routes since its founding have been between cities in California, Arizona, and Nevada. But Wilcox—a tall, lanky fifty-year-old wearing a pale blue disposable mask—said the Dallas–Houston route has been in the company’s sights for a while.
“We think it’s a market that’s ripe for new service,” the CEO said, popping open a can of Deja Blue water, which, like cocktails and in-flight snacks, comes free on JSX flights. “When Southwest Airlines started, it was very oriented toward business travelers getting on and off the airplane quickly, and not having too many people on the airplane. But as they’ve grown, they’ve become more like major network air carriers. So we think there’s pent-up demand for a more convenient service.”
Southwest, for its part, offers eighteen daily flights between Love Field and Hobby, with one-way prices for December ranging from $59 to $139. “We welcome the competition” from JSX, a Southwest spokesman told Texas Monthly. Other carriers fly direct between Dallas and Houston out of Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport.
The new JSX flights in Texas are on an Embraer 145 jet that has been reconfigured into a so-called “1×1” layout, consisting of a single seat with business-class legroom on each side of the aisle. Half of the seats adjoin a leather-covered cocktail table for more comfort and room. (Those cost an extra $30, for a total fare of $129 one-way.) There aren’t any overhead bins, but passengers are allowed two complimentary checked bags, which are stored in the rear. Wilcox remarked that this means no one will be “breathing and grunting over you” trying to shove their bag in a bin.
As have all the major airlines during the pandemic, JSX is sanitizing the interiors of its planes more often, with higher-grade disinfectants. Its jets also boast the same sort of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtering system as the big carriers—one that frequently replaces the air inside the cabin from outside the plane. Of course, many travelers remain reluctant to fly, for fear of the COVID-19 virus, despite recent research finding that the risks of airborne infection onboard a typical flight are small. Wilcox believes JSX’s reduced passenger counts make it even safer than other airlines.
“The chances of catching COVID on a commercial jet are less than your chances of getting struck by lightning, according to a Harvard study,” he said. “I don’t have anything that says fewer people with more air flow is safer, but it certainly stands to reason.”
Formerly called JetSuiteX, JSX moved its headquarters from Southern California to Dallas in 2018, along with its affiliate JetSuite, an on-demand charter jet service flying four-passenger Embraer Phenom 100 jets. Wilcox is also CEO of JetSuite, which suspended service in April, blaming its troubles on the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders. The company later entered and emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Wilcox said, and has begun operating gradually again under the name Superior Air Charter.
JSX was likewise negatively affected by the pandemic, scheduling many fewer flights than it anticipated this year. In October, the company put one-third of its five hundred employees on “unpaid time off” status. (Wilcox says they’ll be brought back as business improves.) Ten percent of JSX is owned by JetBlue Airways—Wilcox once was an executive there—with the remainder held by Qatar Airways and four wealthy families. Break-even on each of its thirty-passenger flights comes with just twenty customers, Wilcox said, and “beyond that, it’s profit.”
The same day the Dallas–Houston flight launched, JSX announced that in January it would begin direct flights from both Love and Hobby to the Lajitas Golf Resort’s airport, near Big Bend National Park. In addition, Wilcox said, “there’s a great likelihood” the carrier will announce more Texas markets—he mentioned Austin and Midland—sometime in the first quarter of 2021.
With the clock ticking toward 10 a.m. Friday, Wilcox and the other JSX employees drifted out of the terminal toward the tarmac just outside, where passengers board and deplane. Two of the airport’s pale-yellow fire trucks were maneuvering into place, set to give the arriving plane a “water cannon salute” as a ceremonial welcome.
After the jet came into sight, taxied beneath the two plumes of water, and rolled to a stop just outside the JSX lounge, the airline’s employees formed two lines flanking the plane door and applauded as the passengers emerged. “We did not choreograph that,” Wilcox said, smiling.
Among the twenty or so Houston passengers was Gladys Elizabeth Arriola, a resident of Guatemala who travels to the U.S. every three months to visit her three sons and two daughters in Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta. “The trip was wonderful, excellent,” Arriola said. “I’m very excited to be part of this first flight. With the pandemic, it’s safer.” Another passenger on the inaugural flight was a young boy who was taking his first trip on an airplane. “His parents said, ‘It’s not always going to be like this,’” Wilcox said. “I told him, ‘On JSX it is.’”