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Deadhead: Jam Band Junkie or Aviation Bargain?

Pop culture defines a Deadhead as a fan of The Grateful Dead who followed the jam band from city to city attending live performances at each stop. In aviation parlance the term has a different meaning altogether, and if you know what it is and how to get one, it can sometimes save you money when chartering a private jet.

In aviation terms, a deadhead is a flight segment an aircraft must fly in order to get into position with no passengers on board. Let’s say someone charters a plane to go one way from New York to Los Angeles. Since the plane has to get back to its base in New York, it would fly empty and the charterer would be billed for the flight charges. That empty flight segment is called a deadhead. Also consider a plane based in Portland, Oregon that’s picking up a group of executives in San Francisco for a week-long nationwide road show. The plane has to fly empty from Portland to San Francisco to make the pick-up at the start of the trip, and it will have to fly empty from San Francisco back to Portland at the trips conclusion. Those positioning legs are also called deadheads.

How can a deadhead save you money? If you are flying one way from Los Angeles to New York or Portland to San Francisco when either of these aircraft are ferrying, you can buy these flight segment at a discount to what they would normally cost. The reason is because you don’t have to pay positioning costs to get the planes where they need to be. They’re heading that way already.

Consider this. Are you planning to fly one way from Las Vegas to Philadelphia? The Los Angeles to New York deadhead is your ticket. The plane could make two stops en-route from Los Angeles to New York, one in Las Vegas to pick you up and a second in Philadelphia to drop you off, and it would still be much cheaper than having a plane deadhead empty from Philadelphia back to Las Vegas. The reason is because the ferry time from Los Angeles to Las Vegas plus the ferry time from Philadelphia to New York combined are shorter that the time the plane would have to spend ferrying from Philadelphia back to Las Vegas. A deadhead from LA to New York would be just as useful if you were flying from Aspen to New York for the same reason.

I know what you’re thinking. Since the planes have to fly empty anyways,

deadheads should be free. That would be nice but unfortunately that’s not the case. There’s no set formula people use to calculate price on deadheads, but the way costs are usually calculated is that you get charged the normal hourly rate the aircraft bills at times the number of hours the plane has to fly from point to point to provide you with service, plus some expenses. What does that mean? Let’s look at our example of flying from Las Vegas to Philadelphia on a plane deadheading from Los Angeles to New York.

Let’s say that the plane in question is a mid-size jet that bills out at a rate of $3,200 per flight hour. The flight time from Los Angeles to Las Vegas is approximately 48 minutes or 0.8 hours. The flight time from Las Vegas to Philadelphia is approximately 5 hours, and the flight time from Philadelphia to New York is approximately 42 minutes or 0.7 hours. For this deadhead, you would be billed $3,200 times 6.5 hours or $20,800 plus a few hundred dollars for expenses such as landing fees, etc. Priced as a standard charter, the cost for this trip would be around $33,000. Buying the deadhead in this instance will save you approximately $12,000 or close to 40%.

There are a couple of important things to remember when considering private jet travel by deadhead. The first is that they don’t always save you money. If you’re trying to get from Little Rock, Arkansas to Dallas, Texas using a plane that’s deadheading from Atlanta to Phoenix, it’s probably not going to work unless you get a special rate. The ferry from Atlanta to Little Rock plus the ferry from Dallas to Phoenix are going to be longer than the ferry from Dallas back to Little Rock. Another thing to keep in mind is that you can’t always buy a deadhead on a mid-size jet from Los Angeles to New York. Deadheads are subject to availability. You also can’t pick the aircraft size that’s deadheading. If you normally charter a light jet and there is a heavy jet deadheading, it may cost more for the deadhead than to pay for the ferry on the light jet because of the rate differential. Deadheads aren’t always paid for by another party either. Sometimes planes end up out of position unintentionally and when you show up looking to buy a deadhead, someone might try look to you as their revenue savior and try to overcharge you for what you’re looking to do so beware. Calling the right aviation company for assistance in finding a deadhead is more important than calling the right company for a charter because the skill of finding them and making them work is more specialized.

I may be prejudiced, but the best way to find a deadhead is by calling my company, Chief Executive Air. First off, we will let you know if a deadhead will save you money or if your costs will be lower doing a regular charter. If a deadhead works best, we will find one out for you. We use a variety of tools to constantly track the whereabouts of hundreds or aircraft to find deadheads and we communicate with practically every flight department in the country on a daily basis to find these segments for our clients. We may not be able to fill every request we get but if there’s a deadhead out there that will save you money, we will find it.

Jeffrey Menaged is the President and CEO of Chief Executive Air, a private aviation company specializing in aircraft charters, jet card programs, fractional ownership programs, aircraft sales and acquisitions and aircraft management. Please visit them on the web at or email Jeffrey at